Full Chisel Blog

February 16, 2008


Filed under: — Stephen Shepherd @ 1:14 pm

Improving upon the Past 

There is an interesting trend today in woodworking to make things ‘better’, ‘quicker’, ‘easier’, etc., etc., etc.  And while some of the advice may be good much of it I believe is resulting in traditional methods being abandoned.  I also think that some of the advice is bad, misleading and fosters bad habits.  I think some of the ‘authorities’ are extolling these platitudes for their own personal aggrandizement.  They are committing the sin of hubris for their own gain or perhaps they are just carried away in their own world thinking that they are making perfect sense. 


Being a preservationist of historic woodworking methods I would not like to see these old techniques lost.  I can not believe that the previous generations would have done things to their tools to diminish their life and usefulness.  I know that they would not have followed procedures that didn’t work, just because of tradition, they did things they way they did them because those things worked.


Considering the volume and quality of the work, they were able to get things done is quite an accomplishment and should not be diminished in any way..  They had no other choices, they had the tools of the time (many the latest state of the trade), the materials (including first growth timbers) and the tradition of techniques learned in the time honored trade.


After several hundred years they got it right and that came to an apex in the early nineteenth century just prior to the Industrial Revolution and its influences on woodworking.  Up to that time all work was done by hand and hand or animal or water powered tools.




  1. I am happy to see that many tool companies are offering hand tools for woodworkers, what I am unhappy about is what they choose to make. Instead of making the tool look like the original traditional tool they suffer from ‘White Man’s Syndrome’, as a friend of mine calles it, and make it better.

    Why did they take it upon themselves to do this, arrogance or ignorance? I don’t know. If you are going to make a plow plane make it look like an old one! If you are going to make a set of spoon bits, copy the originals for hell sakes. If you are going to make a split nut driver for a hand saw don’t make it fit in a hex drive (I appologize for using a modern term, I usually don’t allow that here).

    There is a market out there for Traditional hand tools, people that work in museums, historic reenactors and interpreters, traditional woodworkers would all buy these tools if they were historically correct. Then there is the market for those people who just like interesting looking traditional tools and would buy them if they were available.

    These companies need to be encouraged to change their designs and to make proper reproduction tools in the future. The cost differences between making the pieces historically correct and the modern ‘crap’ versions would be negligible and I am sure I would pay extra for the right look as would many, many others.


    Comment by admin — February 17, 2008 @ 8:06 am

  2. I’m not really aware of many companies that are in the business of producing reproductions of old tools – even Clark & Williamson try to get better. Why would a company bet its existence on reproductions? There are plenty of original old tools available.

    Why should hand tool innovation have stopped on some arbitrary date of your choosing? I love my Veritas LA smoother. It’s in my toolbox right next to my modern ECE wooden jack and my 70-year-old #65 block plane. I can’t afford to buy “the right look”; all I can afford to buy is good performance – old or new. I buy tools to use, not to admire their fidelity to a possibly outdated design.

    The Bailey adjuster was an improvement over earlier designs. Should Bailey and Stanley have been pilloried for “taking it on themselves” to introduce it? So I would ask your question right back. Why do you want to see hand-tool woodworkers chained to century-old engineering? Why don’t you want to see tools improved? Is it ignorance or arrogance? 🙂

    Comment by Steve — November 5, 2009 @ 9:05 am

  3. Steve,

    Welcome and I appreciate your comments. I myself do traditional woodwork with traditional tools. I specialize in nineteenth century woodworking, its history and practice, so I have taken upon myself these ‘limitations’.

    However I am not sure all improvements are for the best, nothing beats a laid steel blade, you can’t get the same thing using modern materials.

    I am not here to discourage anyone from using modern tools, my purpose is traditional nineteenth century American woodworking, tools materials and techniques.

    (Given the choice: arrogance).


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — November 5, 2009 @ 9:31 am

  4. This being on the order of a rambling comment/question,I am not sure where to post, so I have settled here,even though it is 2&1/2 years since the last post.To begin, concerning modern vs. historic materials,about 10 or more years ago,I read an account of a modern auto rally reproducing,as best they could,a race from London, England, to Beijing, China,with vintage autos. As I recall, a 1911 Bentley was entered,and as part of its preparation,all threaded fasteners that could be removed were replaced with modern grade 8 fasteners.At the end of the race,all of these new fasteners had broken and been replaced, some more than once.None of the original fasteners failed.
    On another note,I am interested in using hide glue.I live in Cuenca, Ecuador, and imported stuff is expensive and hard to find. I was wondering where I could obtain rawhide to make my own glue,when I realized that chew toys for dogs are readily available, so that looks like a likely source.Also, the hooves of cattle are available in the markets.Might these be of use in the manufacture of adhesive? I will welcome any advise I might receive.

    Comment by David Herbert — June 16, 2012 @ 11:26 am

  5. David,
    Welcome and thanks for that information about old v new fasteners. As for hide glue the doggy chew toys are a great source of both rawhide for repairs but also to make your own hide glue. Avoid hooves as you have to strip out the oil [neatsfoot oil] before you can render the collagen from the hooves. It also has more of an odor than raw hide. Good Luck.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — June 16, 2012 @ 11:39 am

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