Monday, June 28, 2010

Tools - Hand Vs Power

The tendonitis in my shoulder is not going away just yet. 5 minutes in the garage clamping up a drawer frame caused it to start aching again. A longing for my naproxen (an anti-inflammatory) reminded me that I forgot to take it after dinner. Having only finished dinner 30 minutes earlier, I turned off the lights in my shop and walked dejected back into the house. I'm not sure what brought on this malady. I didn't do much over the last week and a half with my mum and sister visiting. I guess it just happens sometimes. Enough with feeling sorry for myself though.

Over the past few days, I've been pondering my tool usage. I've been using my hand tools more of late. Not because of a conscious decision to suddenly turn into a galoot or neanderthal (terms of which I've learned that wood workers who are primarily hand tool users affectionately call themselves) but rather because my power tools just don't seem to be up to the task in some cases.
I have a 10" Ryobi compound miter saw. The problem is that it is a non-sliding model that will only cut 5 7/8" boards despite having a 10" blade. Additionally, I have problems with getting perfectly cut angles even though I've gone through the tune up process a couple of times (maybe it's not really reliable after all?). Also, it's heavy. Because it's a garage, I normally have it along the back wall which is no good for trying to cut lengths longer than 6 feet really. In order to use it I have to haul it out to my makeshift workbench, make all my anticipated cuts and then haul it back so that I can then break out the planer to begin surfacing. As a result, for the longer lengths, I've switched over to using my hand miter saw (a cheapie from a big orange box store bought a couple of years ago) and a Japanese pull saw that I picked up on sale at Lee Valley. There's also the shooting board I previously mentioned that gets my edges to that perfect 90 degrees. So the power tool in this case has been all but shelved.

Don't get me wrong, I consider myself the amongst the ultimate of Gemini's of wood working. I have no problem what-so-ever in enslaving electrons to do my bidding (some refer it to smashing them, but as a science geek, that would be very hazardous to ones health in the long run). Picture Tim the Toolman with his head thrown back grunting and calling out "More Power!". On the other hand, the quiet 'Shish' of a freshly sharpened hand plan across a piece of walnut or cherry is intoxicating and very zen. Just ask Shannon (The Renaissance Woodworker).

It's simply that I've learned early on that buying 'budget' tools will cost you more in the long run. Tools aren't cheap, and power tools are more expensive. At least the quality ones are. I'm sure there's someone out there that will argue the point and I welcome the education if you should happen to dare. I'm talking about the cost of the tools, not the labour that goes into using them. I don't care about that as I'm in this for the pleasure and not the money.

So, where does one start out when it comes to tools? I can't say that I'm fully qualified to give advice on the matter, but I would ask if you're interested in hand or power tools? If you don't know, check out your local wood working guild. Ask a buddy if you could watch her/him while they work. Even if you decide to go the power route, you will need some hand tools. A block plane, some chisels, a flush trim saw.

I recommend that you buy the best you can afford when it comes to the block plane and chisels. Lee Valley sells their Veritas brand of hand planes and they come ready to use right out of the box. I had a crap cheap smoothing plane (equivalent to a #4) from a Canadian general merchandise retailer that did not work very well at all. I was scared to use it because of the issues that it caused. The fact that I had never been instructed how to use a plane contributed, but the quality was a major factor as well. My first time using a Veritas plane was like the sun coming up after a night of Thunderstorms in a dark forest. Or am I being too melodramatic?

On another note regarding tool selection, I observed and participated earlier today in a conversation on Twitter with Brian (of Extremely Average noted to the right in my blog roll) on the merits between a Festool Track Saw and a SawStop table saw with the initial discussion on which to get. I was observing at this point, silently cheering on the table saw as in my opinion while Festool makes good products, a circular saw with a clamping guide or even a drywall square can do the job just as effectively as long as you have a decent blade in the saw). I think the Saw Stop won, but the winner was never really announced before changing over to a discussion on the merits between getting a band saw or a table saw first. Brian was being mercilessly herded to go the band saw route by Shannon and another fellow Canadian (Larry AKA @woodnbits).

I believe Brian is going to blog about his discussion, but for what it's worth, I would love to have both. I have a table saw which I enjoy, but I have a lot of 6/4 and 8/4 lumber waiting to be used and I don't want to waste it by trying to resaw to have both. I have a table saw which I enjoy, but I have a lot of 6/4 and 8/4 lumber waiting to be used and I don't want to waste it by trying to resaw it by hand (exhausting) or trying to resaw it on my table saw (losing 1/8" before surfacing).

While I was disappointed to not be able to be in the shop longer, I am satisfied that this was a good day as I got to really put my thoughts down on the subject and now I need to wrap this up as my daughter is in need of her 10 PM snack before bed. Brian, I look forward to your blog on the discussion as well.

-Authors note 6/29/2010-
Because it was late and in my eagerness to get this article published, I didn't take the time to proof my post. I seem to have used the term 'mercilessly herded' without realizing its context and how it may be interpreted. It was meant to be taken in fun as a gentle ribbing that occurs between galoots and electron worshipers. Lesson learned.


  1. I think I was being herded, but their comments did seem to have merit. Tonight I read a bunch about bandsaws. It is a hard decision. I think I will probably spend a few more weeks pondering my choices. The money will spend just as well in late July or August.

    It has been this way with many of my tool purchases, months of reading, discussing, and pondering before I pull the trigger. It is slow, but I haven't regretted a tool purchase yet.

    It is also, a little bit fun, just the process of shopping.

    Good post.

  2. In defense of those who "herd" others, neither Shannon or I attempted to convince anyone to use only handsaws. In fact, it was Shannon and I who brought up bandsaws. I defended the table saw, though admittedly I don't worship at it.

    And, both Shannon and I used our names when we provided "insight." Nothing more annoying than an anonymous critic.

    But, as the target of our comments believes he was "herded," it's likely he'll see fewer of them.

    Cheers --- Larry

  3. Ha! Herding woodworkers is worse than herding cats! Sorry to hear about the shoulder Mike. Every now and then my fingers act up from tendinitis of a misspent youth climbing sheer cliffs in Colorado.

    I truly enjoyed that discussion on Twitter and I think Brian has a lot to think about. This age old question of which tool to buy first is so hard because the answer is really, "more than one tool". I can't imagine relying entirely on my table saw or band saw to do everything I need in the shop. As much as I am a galoot, you won't see me giving away my power jointer and planer any time soon either. But like Brian says above, it sure if fun to shop. Just don't get paralyzed by the analysis.

  4. Larry,

    I think you misread my comment. I said that your comments DID have merit.


  5. I think I should also add that I didn't think being herded was bad at all. I liked being helped along the path.


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