After rereading this post I’ve decided I sound like a pompous ass, maybe I am.
On the woodworking forums, there are endless debates over which grinder, plane, chisel, saw, hammer or any other tool or machine is the best and only one to buy. Frankly these threads get old and I tend to not read many of them, unless I am to tired to work and to awake to sleep. I realize that there is a constant stream of new people entering the woodworking world, so I guess, in some way there is a need for the rehashing of theses topics. Recently while reading the latest best tool debate, I had a thought. What they are really debating is “can you buy your way out of acquiring a skill”? Can you buy a grinder that works so well that you don’t have to learn to how to grind your blades without burning them, or more generally can you buy your way out of acquiring the skill necessary to use a tool? I have been as guilty of trying this as any body I have lots of tools that were supposed to make tasks in the shop easier, most make no difference at all or minimal at best, I have a wet grinder that hasn’t been used in years, lots of sharpening stones, hundreds of planes and chisels. After many years of buying and using tools I have come to the following conclusions.
Good tools are a pleasure to use, but even the very best tool eventually goes out of adjustment, gets dull, has wear. You must develop the skill to use and maintain your tools. If you can’t make an old plane do what you want it to do, and you don’t know why, buying a new plane won’t help, and if it does it will be temporary. There is no way around developing the skill needed to use, set up and maintain a tool, you can’t buy it.
Developed skill is cumulative. Each new skill you learn adds to you previous skills and transfers to others. The building of skills leads to mastery. The mastery of one tool adds to the mastery of the next.
I’ll probably get grief for this but I believe you develop skill faster with hand tools than with power tools. Are power tools faster than hand tools? In some cases they certainly are, but in some cases hand tools are actually faster. If I need to surface 500 feet of rough lumber I hope I have my power planer, at the same time I know if I only need 18 inches of molding I can strike it faster with hand planes than I could set up the router table or shaper.
There is something that happens after you have used hand tools for a long, long time. I’m not sure I can convey it in words, it’s about skill and knowing your tools. At a certain point you no longer are conscious of the tool you are using, all you think about is what you want to do and it happens. The tool becomes an extension of you body, you can feel the wood through the tool, you just make stuff. In the 60’s we used to call it being in the zone, it may have something to do with zen. Some people experience it with a musical instrument, some on a bicycle. If you have experienced it you know what I am talking about, if not you will think I am nuts. Once you have this experience, it becomes addicting and you find you use the hand tools more and more. After a while you can see other people doing it and you can recognize it in the work. For some people and I’m one, this is why the process of wood working becomes more important than the final product. It doesn’t matter what you make or even if you ever finish it, it’s not about the stuff it’s about the process, it’s a journey as long as your moving it’s good.
At this point the tool marks take on a new meaning and you no longer want to totally get rid of them, they become part of the story, just as brush strokes become an important part of a painting, the tool mark can be an important part of wood working. They are the record of the journey.