In End Grain

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Just keep saying ‘micron.’

Woodworkers who use hand tools to lay the quality touch on their work know what can be accomplished with these wonderful inventions. Along with skill, supplied of course by you, a good hand tool is an exquisite blend of simplicity and sophistication that is capable of sweetening your work well beyond what machines alone can produce.

Despite this, I don’t think hand-tool woodworking gets enough respect in today’s world. For the record, sure, I use machinery in my woodworking. Yes, the machines are high quality, well-tuned, take plenty of skill to use and I wouldn’t be without them. Yet when I discuss the joys of our craft with folks not therein immersed, I am invariably asked which major power tools inhabit my shop. This is especially true of techies, but the same question comes from many woodworking beginners. I don’t seem to earn credibility as a serious woodworker until I’ve cataloged my cabinet saw, 16″ band saw, jointer and so forth. Otherwise, I sense I’m regarded as a dilettante who toys with the sort of quaint tools people used before there was indoor plumbing. Who could produce serious work with those things?

Perhaps this is just a matter of nomenclature and description. If we could tell, in modern tech-speak, of the remarkable qualities of our hand tools, I think respect and even awe would ensue.

Here we go. My No. 4 is actually a cordless micro-adjustable incremental wood-removal tool that leaves a micron-smooth finish. (Wow.) My Japanese chisels: High-impact multi-alloy cleavers capable of putting at least 10,000 psi to the wood surface with extreme contact accuracy. (That must be one bad boy in the shop.) A handsaw is a linear bidirectional multi-point wood separator with a biologically integrated, light-based guidance system. (Really? They have that kind of stuff now?)

Similarly, our workbenches, layout tools, specialty planes, sharpening stones and so forth would perhaps inspire deserved esteem if described with weighty words, which still would be, technically speaking, accurate. Our hand tools, so common to us, represent the evolved synthesis of materials science, clever engineering, a profound understanding of human capacity and intimacy with that glorious product of nature, wood.

Now the conversation gets upgraded to something like this: “Cool, your shop must be huge. What were you saying about that micro-adjustable …”

“Well, it toasted my wallet but this thing can create great furniture, and faster than you can imagine. It’s powered by a rechargeable battery system that never needs replacement and carries a lifetime warranty. The power unit is so quiet that you can listen to music while you work.”

“Dude, something that high-tech must have a laser guidance system, right?”

“Ah, I don’t understand all the intricacies, but somehow it works by means of light rays that guide you to intuitively move the tool; it just responds to your wishes. It’s a weird feeling to use at first but after a while you’d be amazed at how natural and efficient the work becomes. I dial in the incremental removal adjustment to within about 10 or 20 microns of where I want it and then have at it.” (The micron thing sounds so much better than inches.)

“Sweet. You know, I’ve seen antique furniture in museums and wondered how people made that stuff. I mean, they didn’t even have machines then!”

“Imagine that.”

“It’s beautiful woodworking though. I suppose that with some strange know-how it’s amazing what could be done with, I guess, hand tools.”

“Yeah, amazing.” 

Rob is a woodworker in Medfield, Mass.

Blog: Read Rob Porcaro’s blog, Heartwood.

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