Saturday, September 10, 2011

Handtool design

Certain designs are better made with powertools.  Seemingly odd first statement for a handtool guy I guess, but I happen to think it’s true.  There are three things that can make a design better suited for power in my mind, not fun to make by hand, ridiculously hard to make by hand, and will look better if made by powertools.  That third one will probably make me lose any handtool street cred I have, but I think it’s the most important. 
I currently have Roubo laminated bench top made from 2”x10” stock in clamps.  Making it consisted of ten 8’ rips, planing those twenty 8 foot long boards flat and parallel to be glued up.  To me, this falls squarely in the not fun to make by hand camp.  I ripped with a bandsaw and planed with a powered jointer and planner to get those twenty pieces in five 4”x5”x8’ pieces.   Once they were in that configuration, I could gladly be done with the screaming machines.  My jointer plane worked better at that point anyway, even if I had fell in love with the dust spitting, ear piercing monsters.  Now some of you may think that doing that all by hand would have been fun, great, go do it.  If I didn’t have access to those machines, I would have to choose one of three options. Suck it up and do it by hand, could have worked but bluh. Option two, find some monster beams so I wouldn’t have to glue up from small stuff, which would have been great, I wish that is what I did. I also could have changed the design, which could have worked, and I did consider it. 
Some things just are very difficult to do with hand tools.  Specifically I’m thinking end grain cutting boards with designs in them and the like.  You need all four reference faces, and the all need to be the exact same, otherwise they won’t line up.  You need some serious saw and handplane skills to pull that off.  And even if you’re good enough, it probably will still fall under the not fun to make group. 
The third group I said that is better made with powertools is designs that look better made by power, I guess the power isn’t the important part, the fence is.  Some Modern furniture looks better with dead flat, consistent thickness boards. The industrial designs if you will, the design begs to look mass produced.   The designs that benefit from that look are rare, and most of the time not the stuff most of us want in our houses, but I think they should be mentioned.
For pretty much everything else I prefer handtools, from the process to the look of the final piece.  Nearly every wood furniture design looks better when a machine wasn’t the last thing to touch the board.  The slight irregularities make the light do amazing things across a surface.  I’m not really going to get into that handtools are simply the safer, better choice in some circumstances.  I think that’s pretty well known and not really worth spending the time on.  I will say though if you are working completely by hand, take the design into consideration.  Do all the pieces need to be ¾” thick?  Does it matter if the box is 2” or 2 3/8” high?  Don’t think that I am simply placing restrictions on the design, they are also a lot of freeing aspects to working with handtools.  It doesn’t matter the size of the pieces or how different they are.  I don’t have to worry about how I’m going to flatten a 20” wide board, I can cut dovetails at any angle I want, not just to the type of router bit I have. I’ve rambled on a bit about design, and am still not done, pretty much just an intro to design and haven’t even considered lumber selection yet. I have a feeling this will be more than three posts.
-Have fun replacing your machines.

1 comment:

  1. Those operations requiring a tremendous amount of brute force and little skill are good candidates for machine work.

    Pit saws, for example, just aren't making a big comeback for just that reason. Except as a way to preserve history, there just isn't a lot of reason to do it. Anyone doing much commercial volume at all and trying to eat will likely put most rip sawing, jointing, and initial board planing into the same category.

    For hobby shops with limited space and/or budget, I think 100% hand tools are still a reasonable choice for many.

    Like you, I like my finished surfaces to reflect hand tool goodness.

    Luke Townsley
    UnpluggedShop.com

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