Pompous Ramblings, You Can’t Buy Skill

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.

About millcrek

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12 Responses to Pompous Ramblings, You Can’t Buy Skill

  1. wyattsa says:

    I wouldn’t say it was pompous, it’s a good point. The best tool in the world won’t substitute for the experience of actually using it. However, I would say that the quality of the tool can have an effect on the experience of using it.

    I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere and have used a combination of hand and power tools my whole life. The hand tools have always been the cheapest version, from a big box or farm supply store. It’s only been recently that I’ve gotten heavily into hand tool work and really started to consider the quality of the tools I buy. Trying to work with squares that aren’t square, planes that aren’t flat, and chisels that won’t hold an edge can be incredibly frustrating. The point of buying a good quality tool isn’t to substitute for skill, it’s to make sure the tool is square, flat, etc, so that you can work with the tool rather than fighting it. As long as the tool meets those requirements, it doesn’t much matter who made it.

    • millcrek says:

      wyattsa, My point is not that any one should buy poor tools, you should always buy the best tools you can afford. But maybe learning to square a square, flatten a plane and re-temper a chisel is just another part of the journey. I actually dropped a square in the shop yesterday and had to re-square it.

  2. paul6000000 says:

    I agree. I own a mixture of Veritas and old Stanley and Marples tools. They’re all good users and the more projects I finish, the more affection I feel for them. I started out using an inherited set of crappy power tools and never felt like I was making any real progress with them. The act of choosing hand tools mean that you’re on the path to learning proper, time tested construction techniques. It’s a shame not to develop the basic skills as well, or to think you can buy your way past the sharpening hurdle. The again, if it cuts down on frustration, who am I to tell somebody they can’t buy a Tormek. I love the way all the skills are so interlocked.

  3. I am reminded of something I heard on the golf course once “that guy over there has a 400$ driver with a 2$ swing” you can have all the tools in the world but if you don’t know how to use them they don’t mean much. Good point…

  4. Preach on Tom! It’s not pompous when it’s the truth.

    • millcrek says:

      Bob, I take this woodworking stuff seriously, when I fill out forms and they ask for religion, I enter woodworking, or druid, they worshiped trees or so I’ve been told.

  5. Rick Lasita says:

    Excellent post. The replica oak ice box I made 25 years ago was made using a bench top table saw, a jig saw, a router, and a disc sander. It’s still standing in our dining room and one of my favorite pieces, Today I have a whole shop full of tools, pretty sure if I built that again, I may build it quicker, but it will look the same. (Hope that makes some sense)

  6. Freddy Roman says:

    Finally a post that expresses what I have been thinking for the last 5 years. Great post!!!!

  7. Jack Plane says:

    A certain degree of pomp (with or without ceremony) is all right by me!

  8. Alan Smiley says:

    On the other hand, having the right tools for the job is essential.

  9. The beauty of running your own site is that it is never pompous to express your opinion. If you can’t do it in your own backyard where can you? Of course maybe I would feel differently if I disagreed with your opinions above. Testify Tom!

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