The hand versus the tool

When a woodworker says with no uncertain degree of pride, that the immaculate dovetails on their piece were “hand-cut”, what do they mean? Do they mean that they somehow punched out the shapes of all the tails and all the pins with their fingers alone? Not exactly. They mean that they cut the joint with non-powered hand tools – something that is worthy of note in the modern day and age. This is because since around the 1940’s nearly all mass-produced dovetails in furniture have been machine cut for speed and accuracy. That is not to say that you cannot achieve speed and accuracy in handwork, but it takes longer to foster the skills necessary to do so. (Perhaps it was this that sounded the death knell for the last true “artisans” in wood; the dovetail joint, after all, holds a special place in the hearts of all true woodworkers and its mastery is the hallmark of a truly skilled worker.)

Machine cut dovetails

Machine cut dovetails

I believe there is a balance to be had in the way we work with wood. There are two extremes that all woodworkers, and indeed all craftspeople in general, place themselves between depending on their stance. At one end there is the concept of pure handwork, rejecting all powered machinery and tools in favour of the “traditional” ways of manufacture. On the other, there is machine work, and in its extreme, mass-production. It is worth bearing in mind that “skill” is just as necessary and prevalent in both, and it would be wrong to assume a machinist is in some way less skilled than a hand tool purist, or vice versa – their skill set may be different but their skill level is the same. I think that it is vital to have as broad an understanding of your chosen discipline as possible. I would find a trip to a sprawling furniture factory in Taiwan equally as enthralling as a visit to the Edward Barnsley Workshop in Hampshire. 

The humble bench plane is far from obsolete

The humble bench plane is far from obsolete

What is important is having the knowledge to be able to pick up any tool and use it effectively, whether powered or not. At each stage of manufacture, the question should be asked, “What is the most effective way of achieving this that is within my means?” This may mean picking up a router to run a housing. Likewise, the solution may lie with a non-powered method. Understanding how to best and accurately achieve the outcome rather than over-focusing on the method is the approach that I think works best, and the one which ultimately leads to the best quality pieces.

George Mead