think working with hand tools can be a great place and a terrible place to start.
To walk this fine line and land on the happy side of it, one needs to be VERY specific about what they are building and have a clear plan in mind before you pick up a tool or cut any wood.
The Bad Side of Hand Tools
Let’s look at the bad first. Hand tools are ambiguous at best. They require a lot more sense memory to use and precision is a very relative term and sometimes an unnecessary element to consider.
Hand tools beget hand tools. While at face value one may think a smaller tool kit is needed you can very quickly amass a collection of “gotta have” tools just to complete a simple project. Yet without some time in the trenches planing and sawing the new woodworker can quickly get frustrated when his or her tools don’t function like the ones that guy on the Internet uses. (another reason to turn it off for now)
The frustration starts an ugly spiral that can lead to buyers remorse at best and total abandonment of the craft at worst. I firmly believe that hand tool work doesn’t have to be hard and it is shocking how quickly a new skill can be learned.
But there is always a learning curve and the anxious beginner can sometimes forget this and become disillusioned when their first or second attempt is a failure. On the converse, the power tool user can and should expect perfectly straight and square cuts from their machines on a first try and 300th try.
The human machine variable is often overlooked and we expect our shiny new (and expensive) tools will compensate for this variable. Not true. A finely tuned back saw will make things easier but fundamental sawing skills are still needed.
To succeed, the beginner must be realistic about their limitations but also should be quick to step away from practice and into applied work. Practice cuts are too abstract and the woodworker isn’t as invested in the outcome.
The Good Side of Hand Tools
The Good Side of Hand Tools
Here is the flip side of this equation.
A hand saw can cut any compound angle you can think of and a plane has an infinitely variable feed rate and limitless board capacity. Gaining comfort with the basics of plane, saw, and chisel use means that you can build anything without the need for additional tools.
Don’t get me wrong, additional tools will help you speed things up but everything boils down to these basic 3 tools. This means that you need a much smaller space to work and therefore much less start up time and money to get started. More will come and don’t believe anyone who tells you that a smaller tool kit can be had going the hand tool route.
Eventually you will add more stuff and inevitably you will spend a lot of money regardless of whether you go the new tool or vintage tool route. But this should happen over time as the project demands it. This organic growth of the tool kit means you will have a stronger appreciation for the tool and why you would use it over one of the fundamental tools. You will also not experience the frustration that comes from buyers remorse.
Finally what I feel is most important is that learning these fundamental skills will without question make you a better woodworker. You can ALWAYS fall back on the fundamental skills when another hand tool or a machine lets you down. You will never have to say, “if only I had [insert tool here] I could build”.
Basic hand tools are infinitely adjustable and can replace ANY tool’s function
But they require skill to use them. This skill is the product of experience but I think you will be surprised how quickly that can be gained in the process of a single project build.