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Why Hand Tools (Still) Matter

Sometimes the fastest method is the oldest

On most jobsites today, the sight of a hand tool brings stares, questions, and, more frequently than not, a shaking of heads that some poor fool couldn’t afford a tool with a cord or a lithium-ion battery attached to it. Yes, many times a battery-powered tool is exactly the right tool for the job. But not always.

(Note: Click any image to enlarge. Hit "back" button to return to article.)

There are times when a power saw is just too big to get into a tight spot. And there are times when the power saw is in the basement and you’re working on the third floor. Besides, a power saw will also leave marks on the edge of a board, which need to be removed, and that can just pose a whole new problem.

I think it is a shame—actually, a detriment to the craft, and to craftsmen—that the occasional use of hand tools is not more common on jobsites. Unfortunately, all of us tend to use the tools and techniques we have been exposed to, and, over the last several decades, exposure to hand tools has been reduced to the point where they are all but on the endangered species list. But they shouldn’t be. In the situation I’m about to tackle, I’ll demonstrate how hand tools can sometimes be the most efficient solution to the problem.

 

In a recent post on the JLC Finish Carpentry forum, a contributor asked how to cut back a tread that was already installed and couldn’t be removed or cut on a miter saw. The tread material was Jatoba, commonly known as Brazilian Cherry. The carpenter tried a Multimaster on a scrap of material but the blade dulled quickly and overheated, burning rather than cutting the wood. Besides, even if the tool could have cut the Jatoba, it is tough to cut a perfectly straight line with a blade that’s vibrating at a few thousand rpm.

Another contributor suggested using a circular saw, but the saw table would hit the riser before the saw could make much headway.

And another contributor suggested using a reciprocating saw, but I suspect that was a tongue-in-cheek response—at least I hope so!

Identify the problem

Solving the problem required a different approach, a new way of thinking, at least for many contemporary carpenters. And yet, the solution would have been obvious to our grandfathers: hand tools. In fact, the solution to the problem is nearly identical to the procedure used years ago to produce housed stringers—a perfectly straight groove needed to be cut, one that terminated before the edge of the board. In this case, the job was going to be somewhat easier because a constant depth of cut would not be required, plus the cut would be a simple right angle and not on a pitch.

Hand tools do what power tools can’t

I started this cut by placing a framing square against the riser so I could strike a line with a marking knife at the point where the cut needed to be made. I struck the line several times to establish the top of the cut, which is the most visible part.
Next, I struck a second line a few inches long on the waste side. To locate this line, I measured back 1/2 the diameter of the drill bit. I was using a 1/2-in. bit, so I measured back 1/4 in. from the first line.

But before cutting with the saw, I first drilled holes so that the saw dust would have somewhere to go, rather than building up at the end of the cut. Some of you may not know it, but that’s one reason a saw might jump out of a kerf; and besides, if the sawdust builds up at the end of the cut, the saw won’t cut clean all the way to the edge of the board.

I couldn’t drill those holes with a power drill. I needed more reach to clear the riser. But an old brace and bit worked perfectly.

Precise control

By striking the center line with a knife, I define the precise location to place the leading point of my drill bit, which means I can “feel” that spot as well as see it. This technique ensures that the edge of the hole will land right on the line of the cut.

I use a chisel to clean the cut—it’s easy to remove the small pieces between the holes with a sharp chisel.

Ensuring a perfect cut

Now this is the most important part! Before taking a saw to the tread and cutting along the first line, I cut a shallow groove on the waste side of the line using a skewed carving knife. I held the knife at about a 20 degree angle, 1/16″ away from the cutline on the waste side. The small wedged sliver of wood I removed along the cut line provided a positive location to begin cutting below the surface of the wood, while the chamfered edge forced the face of the saw tightly against the cutline. This is a trusted technique used by craftsmen for centuries. As long as the saw does not jump out of the track, a straight cut is all but assured. Trust me, that’s a technique lost to a lot of contemporary carpenters.

While making the cut, I tilted the saw blade just a bit, too. It is helpful to undercut a slight amount. Otherwise, a shoulder plane can be used to square the edge of the cut, and a chisel or joinery float can be used for the very corner where the shoulder plane can’t reach.

From start to finish, I spent fifteen minutes making that perfectly straight cut. And most of that time was spent taking the photos!

——–

AUTHOR BIO

Keith Mathewson started working in the construction industry in the late 1970s as a summer job during college. He stayed in construction for another five years, then took a different career path for ten years.

In the early 1990s, Keith got back into construction in a much bigger way. He opened a shop, and taught furniture-making after-hours. In 2004, he transitioned out of furniture-making and teaching back to finish carpentry, where he specialized in high-end custom homes. Since 2007, he has focused on stair-building.

Comments/Discussion

36 Responses to “Why Hand Tools (Still) Matter”

  1. Kent Brobeck

    Keith, nice job! I have high respect for your skill with hand tools.

    Reply
    • Keith Mathewson

      Thanks Kent,

      That’s very kind of you to say so.

      Reply
  2. Dean

    Keith, thanks for the informative article. I was hoping however that you could have taken pictures based on the description after the sentence “Now this is the most important part!”. I realize this would have required a second pair of hands taking pictures while you worked. Maybe next time, or perhaps you could get someone to take some pictures of you doing this part of the procedure on a scrap piece of wood. Again, thanks for the great article.

    Reply
  3. Keith Mathewson

    Dean,

    I’ll take a couple of pics in the next few days and perhaps send them to Gary?

    Reply
  4. Mike Kennedy

    Man after my own heart! I often use hand tools. Some have been around a long time….there is a reason for that.

    Reply
    • Keith Mathewson

      Is this the same Mike Kennedy from North Road Stairbuilders? If so your articles on this site have been a real inspiration to me. In the next couple of weeks I’ll be making a rising volute based on your vids.

      Reply
  5. Kreg mcmahon

    Nice article enjoyed reading it and thanks for the information!

    Reply
    • Keith Mathewson

      Thanks Kreg,
      Sorry there wasn’t any beadboard!

      Reply
  6. alec milstein

    Wonderful article, and I so enjoyed reading it. Absolutely true- hand tools are the tried and true community from which many power tools grew – yet so many “carpenters” these days do not realize or appreciate that. I find few satisfactions equal to the whisper of a well tuned hand plane, or any one of a number of hand tools that are essentials in my finish bag.To command these tools is to practice precision, control and skill. It’s the pride and tradition of our craft……

    Reply
  7. Matt Follett

    Great article Keith. Like the technique of skewing a shallow groove to ensure a straight cut. Will have to add that to my arsenal. I definately agree, power tools have their place but there are some things they literally CANNOT do.

    Reply
  8. Thom Fleming

    Thanks, before I even got to the article my eye was drawn to your brace, a largely forgotten tool . Sometimes “slower” is faster. Your article was case in point and will be used and shared. Thanks for sharing your knowledge, craftsmanship , and obvious love of the trade.
    Thom Fleming

    Reply
  9. Bill Smith

    Great article thanks for the tips as someone who loves handtools for their portability and flexability, the things one can make with a razor knife, chisel and block plane. I believe that carpenters of the past created amazing work with an economy of equipment, not encumbered with always having the perfect tool for the job. No truck towing a enclosed trailer to the jobsite.

    bill

    Reply
  10. Lamar Horton

    Thanks Kieth on a great article. I too have a few hand tools in my homemade wooden Gary Katz tool tote. Just the other day, I was installing some Cherry crown molding and one particular joint was giving me a fit, I got my block plane out and few swipes along the back edge of the joint and perfect.

    Reply
  11. Joe Novack

    Keith,
    Strong work…I teach HS Carpentry and will definitely be using your article as a resource in my class where, needless to say, students feel power tools are the answer to every problem…

    Reply
  12. Don Stump

    Very nice article. I sometimes feel that I focus too much on “production”. I catch myself smiling when I take a few extra minutes to take out my hand tools to accomplish a task. This stuff should be fun. Thanks for the reminder.

    Reply
    • Keith Mathewson

      Thanks,

      I recently got my hands on some floats as well as some French rasps. These beauties are a pure joy to work with. Very fast and very accurate.

      Reply
  13. James

    Another great article by This is carpentry I look forward to your articles each week I think they far more interesting than fine home building/woodworking ect.
    I believe a good carpenter can only achieve great mastery over his tools when he can use them with expertise and honesty.
    It seems these days with such high performing tools such as festool, that so many guys are passing as craftsman simply because they own the right labelled tools, but can barely cut a straight line with a hand saw.
    Traditional carpentry tools and techniques should be practiced & passed on to the next generation.
    Well done This is Carpentry keep up the good work.
    James Trew
    Sydney, Australia

    Reply
  14. Dixon Peer

    The carpenters I know in the trade today don’t ever seem to carry even a hand saw in their trucks, and their chisels are all what they call “beater chisels”. Oh well. (There are a few exceptions)

    Reply
  15. Stanley D. Jubas

    My interest is building 18th century furniture. I wanted to learn the techniques they used before power tools so I took courses on building fine furniture with hand tools as well as carving for about three years. I then said, okay, I am proficient with hand tools so it is now time to learn how we build in the 21st century. I enrolled in a fine college that teaches cabinet making and learned how to use the big machinery. I graduated a few years ago and gained a healthy respect for the big machines. I now have a good balance between hand tools and machines. I use machines whenever I can to save time. I use hand tools whenever they can do a better job than machines. Some of my hand tool teachers get too hung up on building furniture with hand tools only and say do you not get satisfaction knowing you built a piece of furniture by hand? I say, my satisfaction comes when I see that I have build a quality piece of furniture, no matter how you got there. Why waste a day thickness planing a board using hand planes when you can do it in five minutes on a thickness planer?

    Reply
    • Keith Mathewson

      “I use machines whenever I can to save time. I use hand tools whenever they can do a better job than machines”

      That pretty well sums up a solid approach to any form of woodworking.

      Reply
  16. Teeg Merchant

    Brethen,
    Let’s not forget the less dust and no noise aspects of hand tools. Those things always help me find my happy place.
    TGM

    Reply
  17. William Cazeault

    Great article, NOT AN ADD FOR FESTOOL;but they do have an offset chuck if you like power drills.Trade schools are out dated as well as apprenticeships.Some other problems are there are not many hand saw sharpeners left. Bill

    Reply
    • Keith Mathewson

      William,

      Thanks I’m glad you like the article.
      While I have a Festool drill it would still not be my first choice in an application where if a mistake was made the cost of replace was high. I guess that I couldn’t disagree more about the need for an apprenticeship program. In my personal opinion the loss of the apprenticeship program has lead to the steep decline in the quality of finish work. In my state, and perhaps in most states, I could take the next person walking down the street and make them a fully licensed contractor in a week. As for sharpening hand saws I sharpen my own, as well as chisels, floats, etc.

      Reply
      • Hartley Edmonds

        I learned carpentry in a place and time when a 10 point Sandvik and an 8 point Diston(handsaws) were basic toolbox items. Cabinet scrapers, well lapped chisels, and Japanese handsaws still hold pride of place in my tool bag, but I’ve never heard of a float. Teach me, brother.

        Hartley Edmonds

        Reply
        • Keith Mathewson

          Floats are something like a cross between a rasp and a saw. They can remove stock very quickly or leave a very smooth finish. Floats work well in tight spaces where other tools might not fit. The only ones I know of were designed by Clark & Williams and produced by Lie-Nielsen. Here is a link describing them http://www.planemaker.com/planemakers_floats.html

          Reply
  18. John R Graybill

    I use hand tools all the time and the other ‘carpenters’ look at me like I have bugs. My favorite is a Kershaw pocket knife with a slightly curved blade. I use it to scribe, trim back mitres, score and snap material and with a brass face hammer as a chisel.

    Reply
  19. David Pugh

    Keith: Thank you for sharing your skills with us. We’re the better for it. I especially loved the tip about creating a sloped channel for the saw so that it would hug the wall it was cutting. Ingenious!

    Reply
  20. Ronald Suave

    I am with Don Stump on the smile with the use of handtools. In the same vien, my wife was reading a cookbook about how to finish a recipe more quickly, when she stopped and said to herself: “Why do I want to get it over with so quickly? I love cooking!” I always remember that when we think of how we can finish the job as fast as possible. Why do we want to get such an enjoyable task over with? The flip side is that the quality of the work often suffers. I have often used the skewed groove alongside the knife cut. I learned it so long ago I don’t even remember where I learned the technique. But there are so many tricks like this that add to the enjoyment of the craft. Let’s not forget to love the process. From, Ronald Sauve

    Reply
  21. Jim McCorison

    One more voice here saying that properly used hand tools seems to be a dying art. Sad. The gotta-have-it addict will look for any excuse to use or buy a new power tool.

    As a marine electrician by profession, I frequently need to make small panels to reconfigure mountings. I bevel the edges with a few quick passes of a sharp block plane held on angle. It gets the job done quick, right, and looking fine. It takes me less time to do that than it would take Mr. Gotta-have-it to find the right router bit, never mind bevel the piece.

    Reply
  22. Ben

    Though not used on the job site that much any longer, a shooting board and a razor sharp block plane go a LONG way! The old man still swears by his!

    Reply
  23. jack wilson

    I now work as a carpenter on very high-end projects in NYC. Most of the “carpenters” i encounter are good but they are not -as Gary has advocated – at least in part driven by “craft”. So, i am the tool “freak”. Lots of Japanese stuff, lots of tricks. Why? Most of them never had competent teachers nor are they autodidacts. There are still lots of highly skilled carpenters but the skill of the average carpenter continues to drop. They do not read all of the mags, books and blogs to help keep up and close the gap created by the lack of mentors. Granted, like Gary I have multiple degrees and learn well on my own but this is creating a two tier system: those who know very basic carpentry skills and can solve many problems and those who are elite carpenters who have many more solutions to execute high quality work demanded by high end clients and their architects.

    Reply

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