Many woodworkers have already made the switch to hand tools and gone “uplugged.” If you’re already a skilled woodworker or even just a beginner, you’re probably curious about the art of woodworking with hand tools. What are the benefits? Is it cheaper? Is it safer? Can I use them in an apartment? Wonder no more, I’ve whittled (excuse the pun) it down to 15 reasons to woodwork with hand tools.
Hone Your Craft
Before you reach for the power tools or for your wallet to buy some, consider the value of working with hand tools. Hand tools allow you to really get to know wood as a material. It is important for a woodworker to understand how tools interact with their material on a visceral level. Observe how wood reacts to the edge of a blade, to metal, to stone — at a controllable, learnable pace. Hand tools allow you to take your time, and work at a speed that suits you. Stop every so often and see how the wood looks and feels as it approaches the result that you want. When and if you do use a power tool, you’ll have a thorough understanding of your material and its reactions to tools.
That is not to imply that hand tools are a stepping stone to power tools. They are simply different, and each has their merits. Hand tools achieve certain effects and create unique marks, which is why they are so treasured by enthusiasts. Using hand tools like chisels, for example, allows you to connect as a maker with your actions. Adjusting and perfecting your grip and becoming comfortable with executing different repetitive motions are important exercises for a woodworker. Working with hand tools, even without a clear project goal, is like figure drawing to a painter or scales to a musician. They are the foundations of honing and maintaining woodworking as a creative endeavor. Understanding your tools on an almost emotional level and learning to trust in your own hands is essential to advancing your skill set, or simply to fully enjoying the experience of your craft.
Connect To History
Working wood with hand tools is one of the most ancient human practices that spans across almost every continent, and even predates the evolution of the Homo sapien. Neanderthals and early humans were working wood using hand tools over one hundred thousand years ago. Evidence of frequent woodworking is apparent in microwear analysis of Mousterian tools, which are flint tools used in the Middle Paleolithic period also known as the Old Stone Age (between 300,000-30,000 years ago).
The ancient Egyptians were highly skilled and advanced woodworkers. They made unique furniture, art, instruments, religious items, and boats out of wood, despite their lack of forests and a large reliance on the export of cedar and pine from Lebanon. The ancient Romans took great pride in their woodworking, and it is recorded that woodworkers were organized into guilds even in Rome’s earliest centuries. Wood and woodworking were essential to the fabric of the Roman Empire, affecting trade, politics, and war. Roman woodworkers were known to be very proud of their hand tools, and occasionally used images of prized tools in their signatures, but were never buried with them (a common Roman custom) as they were passed down through generations.
As a woodworker using hand tools today, you are participating in the human story and engaging in largely unchanged ancient practices. If you were to suddenly find yourself in a shop in ancient Rome, you’d probably get along just fine.
There is nothing better than sitting down to a project on a Sunday afternoon before a long week. Having a designated time and space set aside to pursue woodworking is good for the soul. Stress has been linked to countless medical conditions, and it’s the bane of the overworked and over-connected modern human. Whatever skill level you’re at, putting aside time to improve, complete a piece, or just work on a personal project without a deadline reduces stress and increases self-esteem.
Hand tools, in particular, are a good choice for this personal art therapy. I suffer from anxiety, and when I first learned to work wood I couldn’t bear the shrill of the power tools, so my professor taught me how I could complete projects with mostly hand tools instead. Although she still didn’t totally let me off the hook, and I eventually got over my fear of power tools with her help.
Maintaining your hand tools takes effort. Caring for them, adjusting them or making custom fittings for them is a satisfying exercise in self-discipline. There is a meditative quality to maintaining a workspace and making it your own. However small your shop may be, it has the potential to become a calm and productive place. Humans have been making things with hand tools for as long as we’ve existed, and stress as we now know it is a relatively recent phenomenon. I’m not a doctor, and I don’t play one on TV, but I will say this: working with your hands, creating things from raw materials—there’s nothing more natural.
Pass It Down
One of the joys of an art form or craft is passing it along to the young people in your life. My mom is a painter and as soon as I could hold a paintbrush she had me working alongside her in her studio. At an age that you as a parent or guardian decide is appropriate, begin teaching what each tool does and where it “lives.” Make sure they are wearing or at least aware of protective gear such as protective eye goggles, hearing protection, dust masks and work gloves, which all come in kid-sizes these days. It’s a good idea even when you’re only first exploring the shop with them.
Make sure to put in the time to assess your shop and deciding what you need to do to make it as safe as you can. Tools should be properly stored and secured. With all of the proper safety measures in place, the likelihood of an injury is reduced.
Woodworking with hand tools will give them a chance to think creatively and problem solve. Hand tools are safer and quieter for kids. Supervised children can be taught to safely use hand tools such as hammers, handsaws, screwdrivers, planes, sandpaper, and files. In addition to fostering creativity and strategic thinking, woodworking helps build hand-eye coordination. Even if they’re not ready to complete a whole project on their own yet, completing little tasks such as sanding or just sawing a piece of wood in half will increase their self-esteem. Not to mention woodworking is something you never grow too old to enjoy; I still paint with my mom in her studio!
Woodworking does not necessarily have to take place in the shop, and they should have fun coming up with ideas for projects and deciding what tools they will need to complete them. So even if they can’t always be in the shop, they can always work on their projects. As long as they understand that they have to be supervised when it comes to the tools and the shop.
The experience of working supervised in the shop should still be fun and give them a sense of independence. Even if a project takes a long time when they feel themselves improving they will always leave your shop with a sense of accomplishment.
There are a number of reasons why someone may want to consider going “unplugged,” and noise level is a big one. Repeated exposure to loud noises causes hearing loss and worsens stress and anxiety. If you’re looking to woodworking to reduce tension, power tools may not be the right choice for you. The sounds of a table saw or drill may disturb young children, family members or close neighbors.
Exposure to loud noise kills nerve endings in the inner ear, which can result in permanent hearing loss. According to OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) noises above 85 decibels is unsafe and requires hearing protection. To give an idea of what this means in terms of everyday noise exposure: normal speaking level rests at around 60 decibels and a jet engine taking off is around 140 decibels. Now let’s compare those to some power tools: a hand drill has a noise level of 98 decibels, a chainsaw is 110 decibels, a nail gun is 97 decibels, and a pneumatic precision drill reaches up to about 119.
So most common power tools you’d find in a shop require some sort of hearing protection such as earplugs and earmuffs to avoid damage. These must be worn properly and at all times to work, but there is still the hearing of those close by to consider.
Manual tools such as a handsaw stay around the safe 85-decibel range, but a hammer hitting a nail can reach the same levels as a chainsaw, so hearing protection should still be used for certain tasks. To reduce the sound of mallets some woodworkers recommend adhering a piece of leather to its face to absorb noise.
Wood dust can be dangerous, and inhaling it can lead to some serious health problems such as asthma and other respiratory illnesses. It’s important to keep even the most unplugged shops free from it. Hand tools do create less sawdust than power tools, and they won’t throw it up into the air as a power tool might. If you’re worried about dust, choose hand tools. However, you should still wear a mask and take every available measure to keep your shop and living spaces free of dust.
Different types of wood produce different amounts and thicknesses of dust. While hand tools generally create chips and shavings that are heavy enough to fall to the floor, you should still be aware of dust created while sanding or sawing. A strong shop vac equipped with a good filter will usually be sufficient for taking care of the finer dust. Sweep up and throw away bigger pieces. If you’d like to take an extra step beyond that, you could invest in a dust collector. In smaller spaces, many woodworkers use stationary dust collectors instead of installing central dust collecting systems. If you share your shop with family members or if it’s attached to your house, staying on top of the dust situation and using hand tools will keep everyone happy, and keep your shop running smoothly.
As any artist or craftsperson will attest, creating and crafting is deeply satisfying. Even if what you make never leaves your own home. Setting out to make something and actually doing it feels great, even if it doesn’t always turn out exactly as you planned. In fact, there’s a particular satisfaction that comes from creative problem solving along the way. This often happens in woodworking, and having the patience and flexibility to work through these roadblocks is part of being a maker. Having a personal practice will teach you how to develop and organize your own projects. Setting goals, deadlines, and instructions that take into consideration your own understanding of your skill level, time constraints, and space is a gratifying task in itself.
For experienced woodworkers, making the switch to hand tools can open up a whole new side of woodworking and teach you to have a different relationship with your tools. You probably don’t think of your great-grandchildren inheriting your miter saw, but a good quality hand plane can be used for generations. Knowing that the extra time and effort you’re putting into your hand tools may be a gift to others one day adds another fulfilling dimension to going unplugged.
A Universal Language
As I mentioned earlier, humans have been using hand tools to woodwork for over one hundred thousand years. Cultures all over the world have unique hand tools, woodworking histories, and techniques to learn from. In many ways, woodworking was responsible for most cultural and technological advancement (think farming tools, art, dwellings, and weaponry). From 100,000-year-old worked wooden digging sticks in Kalambo Falls in Africa to Bronze Age woodcarvings in coffins in Northern Europe, hand tools have a rich history.
This reason isn’t only about using hand tools, it’s also about encouraging the study of hand tools. Even in modern-day woodworking practices across the world, techniques and hand tools differ from place to place. Take the time to learn about how people around the world use hand tools. Many western woodworkers are familiar with Japanese hand planes, but take it further and research their history or connect online with a traditional user. The beauty of becoming interested in hand tools in this particular portion of human history is access to the Internet! Hand tools work wherever you are. Learn and share with people who choose to work traditionally and go unplugged around the world.
If you’ve looked into building a hand tool collection to save money, then you likely noticed that perhaps that wouldn’t be as easy as you’d hoped. It’s true; a good hand tool doesn’t come cheap. Hand tools are real tools, and in some cases beautifully constructed objects themselves.
Sometimes, they’re even more expensive than power tools. However, there are some ways that hand tools can end up being cheaper than power tools in the long run. For one, if you own a good hand tool, you can own it for your whole life. Many of these tools don’t often change in design (in some cases only every few centuries). A good quality tool can be passed down through generations. Hand tools are also easier to store, and require a less hi-tech shop to use, as there’s no need for outlets (so that means lower electricity bills too!) For those willing to put in the time, it’s possible to find cheaper, used hand tools online, at auctions, or at flea markets.
The Simple Joy of Working With Your Hands
This may be an obvious one, but it’s more than worth mentioning. Make things out of wood—be happy. It’s that simple. When you take on woodworking and dedicate time to learning and participating in a craft, it just makes you happy. People say that woodworking has helped them through their depression as it connects them to their families or pasts, and gives them a creative outlet. A moment away from the responsibilities of life is good for your mental health, particularly if there’s a goal at the end of it. Woodworking isn’t exactly a time waster. Having something you’ve made to show for the time you’ve given is another source of joy.
The hazards of hand tools mostly arise from misuse and improper maintenance. Tools should always be used for their intended purposes and maintained as they show signs of wear. Hand tools are often safer than power tools if they are used correctly and properly maintained.
Using hand tools incorrectly or strenuously over a long period of time can cause tendonitis and carpal tunnel to develop. According to the CPWR (the Center for Construction Research and Training) the best way to protect your hands from hand tool injuries is to: wear gloves, keep your wrists straight, choose the right tool for each job, make sure that it fits your hand size comfortably, has a handle that extends beyond your palm, and provides balance. Always wear safety goggles and gloves in the shop. Always wear a mask if you’re sanding or working with a wood that creates a lot of fine dust.
A Simple Practice, A Simple Space
Some woodworkers have gone minimalist and prefer to work with a concise set of tools that they know they need. Customizing and adjusting tools or committing to a minimal kit can cut costs when buying hand tools. This is a good way to work if you only have access to a small space to work. Even if you live in an apartment, if you go unplugged and buy your hand tools intentionally, you should be able to set up a functioning shop where you can create and relax in your own home (and keep the neighbors happy!).
Hand tools are quieter, take up less space, are easier to store, and create less sawdust. Woodworking isn’t all about having the highest-tech equipment and the biggest shop. I think any craftsperson will agree that the true nature lies in the act of making. Designing and setting up a shop in a small space is a good creative design challenge. It sounds daunting, but there are countless urban and small-space woodworkers who have risen to the challenge. A simple space will inspire a simpler practice, and after all the point is to make things and enjoy yourself.
Build A Timeless Collection
A quick YouTube search will show you just how proud people are of their hand tool collections. I’ve just finished watching a range of videos where people show off their personal collections. Some videos are of trusty favorites that they use every day in their shop and some include treasured family heirlooms. Some people like to collect tools along brand lines, particularly Stanley Tools, which is almost 100 years old.
My personal favorites are the videos of antique hand tool collections. If you’re a history buff or a collector, using hand tools is an opportunity to get nerdy. If you’re someone who enjoys hunting for rare items, hand tools are particularly interesting and unique to collect. They wouldn’t collect dust either. A great part of collecting hand tools is getting to actually use them yourself! Except for fragile pieces, collecting hand tools has the added satisfaction of using them in your own shop!
There is a large community of woodworkers online who specialize in restoring antique hand tools back to working use. So even if your treasured find is a little worse for wear, it can simply become another project of yours. Restoring an old tool to working order can last a while, and that’s a good thing. It’s another meditative stress-reliever, conversation starter, and opportunity to learn something new.
Choosing to use hand tools is a great choice for the environment! Power tools require electricity, some of them quite a bit of it. This level of electricity use isn’t kind on the environment or the wallet. Going unplugged eliminates it entirely, (well except for perhaps a shop vac or a light bulb or two). Switch to hand tools for lower utility bills and a happier earth.
Most electricity comes from energy produced by fossil fuels, which are a finite resource that occurs naturally in the earth. Extracting it comes with a whole host of environmental dangers, so conserving this energy is important. An amp is a unit of electricity and some power tools need more than others. Amperage for a typical, smaller power tool like a sander uses about 2-8 amps. A heavier-duty power tool like a table saw can use up to 16 amps. Hand tools, of course, use 0 amps. Power tools can eat up a lot of electricity. If you use power tools and your home is older or has many appliances, you risk blowing fuses.
There are other steps woodworkers can take to help make their practice a little greener. Use recycled wood, obtain materials from sustainable resources, buy used or vintage tools, share your space with others, etc. Every maker should try to do what they can. Of course these options aren’t available to everyone depending on their situation. It’s still worth it to have a look into what brands you buy from and what wood you’re buying. I’m sure every woodworker loves the environment and enjoys working with natural materials, so go unplugged and save some electricity!
Hand tool woodworkers can be quite the enthusiasts. Getting into the world of hand tools is your ticket into a whole range of communities. From websites (like this one of course) to meet-ups, classes, and conventions— hand tool woodworkers like to connect. There are quite a few spaces both online and off built by hand tool users to share with one another.
Have a look for groups, classes or fairs in your area so you can participate in person. There are also countless online forums to discuss and share on. In my experience, hand tool users are more than happy to answer questions and help each other out. Hand tools are a more traditional route. They require a little more adjusting and fiddling with before they’re ready to use. So it’s natural communities would form around helping one another and sharing personal and family insights. It’s a lifestyle. From enthusiasts to beginners—using, collecting, restoring, and learning about hand tools provides a unique satisfaction and a sense of community.