Automation is clearly the present and future of professional woodworking. These days, virtually all of
the shops I visit, already have a CNC
machine or are actively figuring out
how to add one. Even if they don’t have
CNC, they’ve got laptops, tablets, and
smartphones to do their design, marketing and social media promotions.
In the hobby and amateur “maker”
world, CNC is the thing, too. I just
saw a 4x8 CNC router kit that sells for
under $500. And then there are the big
league machines we are used to seeing
in pro shops and factories.
So, for someone like me who was
brought up on hand tools, should I be
sending all my old hand planes and
chisels to the antique shop?
Production vs. craftsmanship
Professional woodworkers I know who
still make a case for hand tools tend to
be in high-end custom furniture, art
furniture, or lutherie. CNC advocates
tend to panel processing, cabinetry,
and quantity production operations.
Arguments for hand tools include
less noise, less dust, less setup, no
requirements for electricity. When
I taught woodworking in an adult
education program, I used to demon-
strate how I could hand-cut dovetails
faster than setting up a router jig. Of
course, if the setup were already done,
there was no race. I would typically tell
students that I would cut one drawer
by hand but use the router if I had a
whole bank of drawers to do.
Skills vs. technology
Today, the hand skills are simply going
away. Most shops can’t find anybody to
work and show up on time, let alone
properly sharpen and set up a bench
plane. Private schools that teach hand
tool skills seem to be doing all right,
but their students are mostly hobbyists.
It’s easier to invest in technology
rather than training. Somebody recently told me the difference between
an amateur and professional is that the
amateur practices until he gets it right.
The professional practices until he
can’t get it wrong. Technology allows
for fewer wrong outcomes with fewer
hand skills involved.
Of course, there’s still some ro-
mance connected to hand tools. That’s
probably why so many woodworkers
feature hand planes in their logos
and business cards even if you’d be
hard-pressed to find one in their shop.
I’m the rare old dog who does like to
learn new tricks, so there is definitely a
CNC machine in my future, but I’m not
ready to give up my hand planes and
chisels just yet. ;
by Will Sampson
email@example.com IN THE SHOP
Do hand tools have a place in modern pro shops?
In the age of robots and CNC machines, does anyone care about hand planes?
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William Sampson is a lifelong
woodworker and the editor of FDMC
Are hand tools an anachronism in a 21st century woodworking shop?