Full Chisel Blog

October 4, 2011

Woodworking Unplugged – 2000

I wrote this back in 2000 and thought it might be worth putting out to the web.  I do have to say that I no longer use power tools, as I don’t own any.

This is a collection of works describing an original way of working wood. Away from the scream of modern power tools, the whine of the Industrial Revolution, removed from the fast pace of mass production is wood working, pure and simple. You can go to the store and buy a maple table that is just like tens of thousands of other maple tables or you can take a few boards of hard rock maple and fashion by hand an antique of the future, an heirloom and a unique piece of furniture. If you use power tools you are further removed from the work. They isolate you from the work. When you rip the boards with a saw, join the edges and plane the surface by hand you are much closer to the process. You pay attention to what is going on, you are involved. And after all that is what is important here isn’t it? I love wood working, I am in no real hurry to get it over. It is exactly like fly fishing, it’s not about fish. I enjoy the process. Sure it is nice to have a finished piece, but those are ephemeral, the memory of fine craftsmanship lasts a lifetime.

Recently I was called upon to carve rope molding in knotty red alder. The moldings were for a rather nice kitchen and were matched pairs of opposite twists, 1 ½” wide, 30″ tall and ¾” thick. There were 68 of this length with another 36 longer matched pieces. Instead of thinking I had nearly 300 feet of molding to carve, I devised ways to make the process easier. I first hand planed the stock to a half round, then made a gauge that gave the correct taper, it was reversible so it worked for left and right hand twists. I next cut the kerfs then rough carved the rope, first in one direction then in the other. Then the final finish carving again in one direction then the other and the molding was completed. Then again and again, then I thought about how many times I had to push the carving chisel to cut a single molding, how many saw strokes to do one molding then how many to do 104 moldings.

While it only took 2596 strokes with the dovetail saw to do the lay out kerfs, it took 103,784 strokes with a chisel to finish the moldings. Sometimes math is fun, sometimes it is several barrels of wood chips. I also carved 6 large full round drawer and door handles with matched rope twists. Alder, the chisel and me, we are one. I can deal with that wood in any way it comes to me, I have looked closely at its very nature, I know its grain, I am aware of its working characteristics, I can make that wood do anything. Why would I do this, you can’t find 1 ½” match rope moldings and carved handles in knotty alder but you can spend some time, with a few simple hand tools and make them. Besides, there is nothing else in the world like it. And the only sound was the saw cutting the kerf and the steady low hiss of the wood slipping past an extremely sharp chisel. It was a quiet moment, no it was a quiet several days.

It is not that I have anything against power tools, I use them when it is difficult to do something by hand, but those are rare occasions. I use power tools for production work, but that is not what we are talking about here. This is about doing woodworking by hand. Using hand tools to produce unique hand crafted creations in wood. The closer you are to your work the more you appreciate that work. The more you know about the wood you are working, the easier your labor. Having a relationship with the cutting edge of a tool, always knowing where that edge is and what it is doing, not only eliminates cutting oneself, but gives you control over the work and how it is progressing.

If you are using a wood new to you, get to know the species, read up on where and how it grows, its working characteristics and how it is best finished. Then take pieces of the wood that you are using and note where the board was cut from the tree, which end was up, how the grain is in the board and which side is best for show, the money side. Look closely at the end grain, see if you can find the medullary rays, sight down the board and check for twist, imagine where it will go in your finished piece. How will the nature of the woods movement effect your final project, what is the best way to join the pieces together, how will the wood age. Slow down and smell the wood. You don’t need to hurry through this.

Select your boards with care for your projects, then sharpen and tune your tools and you are ready for one of the more pleasant experiences in life, making something unique from wood by hand that will last for generations. Your only connection to this project may just be in its creation, it may be a gift or built for hire. You may only own it for a while and someone else will be able to appreciate it in the future, but you will have this pleasant memory for the rest of your life. You have created something of greater value.

I do not get that attached to anything I build because the act of designing and especially building are reward enough. While it is nice to be surrounded with the fruits of my labors, I would rather others could have that enjoyment as well and the physical possession is secondary. For me the real joy is building, the physical act of working wood with hand tools, of starting with rough sawn boards and ending up with a fine piece of furniture. Who ever ends up with the piece will enjoy having it, but I will always enjoy having built it.

Your tools are extensions of your hand, your whole body and they should be extensions of your mind as well. The more experience you have with hand tools the closer you become to the work you are doing. Your tools need to be clean, sharp and well tuned. They should feel good in your hands and your hands need to feel how the tool is working. You need to watch how your tool is working, how the shavings look as they come off the blade. You need to listen to your tool to hear how it sounds as it cuts. This sensory inputs give you clues as to how the work is going. You can always afford to pay attention. Subtle changes in any of these warn you of changes in the wood or the tool or how you are using the tool. Be aware and you will be a better craftsman.

The Feel of Woodworking

This will be a difficult thing to communicate in words because it goes beyond semantics, syntax and usage and gets to a deep understanding of the trade. This is the Zen of woodworking where you go beyond the tools, materials and techniques and transcend the mechanics and comprehend the philosophy, the very foundation of making things from dead trees. This is where you Gestalt what you are doing, where you have a deep fundamental basis for the art and science that you are practicing. What an interesting choice of word we have to describe what we do. So many things that we do are classified in categories, we go by definitions, conventions, rules, guidelines, regulations and parameters that we forget that we are suppose to enjoy what we are doing.

Too many things have either black or white explanations as to what to do, when we fail to look at the gray areas, we do not read between the lines, we miss the subtle nuances, we miss an opportunity, we fear the unknown. Sometimes an uninformed observer, a naive apprentice or an independent point of view can add new dimensions to a point of consideration. A fresh viewpoint can come from some one who isn’t hobbled by all of the knowledge in the world. We can be so set in our ways that we fail to see all points of view. When we take a position we might be willing to defend it to the death, when in fact if we consider all opinion we might be willing to capitulate just to save our skins. If we are unwilling to consider other options then we have become stagnate in our outlook.

But there is nothing wrong with being right. There are certain constants with woodworking, wood and finishes behave in a predictable way, tools work well when sharp and well tuned. Just as soon as you are confident in your methods, a project, a piece of wood, a method of working will present a fresh new problem for you to consider. I had read that elm is difficult to split because of there interlocking grain, and that is generally the case. In a discussion with a seasoned woodworker I made the comment that elm couldn’t be split into shingles. The next day he brought in an armful of split elm shingles and I reconsidered my position.

You are held to a higher level as a woodworker that other endeavors. If you are a Doctor and you do not heal your patient, you still get paid. If you are a Lawyer and you loose a case, you still get paid, if you are a Weather Reporter and it snows when you say it will be clear, you still get paid. If you are a woodworker and your work is not 100% you do not get paid.

This is an honorable profession, remember Jesus was a cabinetmaker. A carpenter, I don’t think so, Joseph made furniture. Ludwig Wittgenstein gave up his study of Philosophy for working with wood.

Why would I choose to join the edge of a board with a wooden jackplane instead of running it across a power joiner, because anybody can use a power tool. When you take a sharp well-tuned hand plane and produce a perfectly square and smooth edge on a piece of wood, there is something about that. The scream of the power joiner cannot compare to the sweet song of the thin curl of wood, as it is gently coaxed from the edge of the board.

I am not certain that I can prove that wood is affected by the tools that are used to render it into furniture but the more gentle you are with the work the better it turns out. If the boards are cut by hand, planed with hand planes and worked only with hand tools the work somehow turns out with a gentler appearance. You are not subjecting the wood the extreme forces and high speed of power tools. The sound that is generated from power tools is not good for the person using them and probably is not good for the wood. I believe that it sets up vibrations in the wood and alters its characteristics, this can be important if you are making a violin or other musical instrument. The power tools are harsh and attack the wood at high speed, while hand tools are a gentle touch and if the wood has spirit it will remember its treatment.

When I carve wood, I think of Grindling Gibbons, Samuel McIntire and Ralph Ramsey. When I build a fine piece of furniture, Thomas Chippendale, George Hepplewhite, Thomas Sheraton, Duncan Phyfe and William Bell are foremost in my thoughts. When building a traditional piece of woodwork, I try to imagine what the original craftsman had on their minds as I use the same tools, materials and techniques as our ancestors.

When repairing a piece of antique furniture, I want to know what the originating craftsmen was thinking when they created this particular example of their work. Is all of this necessary? Well, no but I am in a better place for doing so. I try and think what they would have said about my work, how accurately have I done my job? Have I kept the spirit of what they did alive by doing what I am doing? Would what I do be acceptable to them? Have I preserved their tradition, have I accurately reproduced their work, would they be proud? These things might not be important to others but it is to me. I need to sleep at night, I need to know that I have not destroyed or distorted history by my work.



  1. Nicely written. I think you put nicely why it difficult to explain why some of us love to work wood.

    Comment by Alviti — October 4, 2011 @ 3:16 pm

  2. “It is exactly like fly fishing, it’s not about fish.”


    Comment by Joe Cottonwood — October 4, 2011 @ 9:19 pm

  3. Thanks for this Stephen, I like reading about the reasons we work with hand tools. It makes me feel less crazy when I try to explain it to someone outside “the club”. Or to non woodworkers, there is just a total disconnect about the principal’s we stick to.

    Comment by Trevor Walsh — October 6, 2011 @ 4:58 pm

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