Don’t be afraid of using hand tools

I grew up watching my dad building projects and doing a lot of remodeling on our home. He’s a master at using power tools and has built some fantastic-looking pieces. But I never recall seeing him use a hand plane all that much. He learned how to tweak joinery and thickness a workpiece using sanders, jointers, and planers. And if he needed to nibble the end of a workpiece for a tight fit, he’d do it at the table saw.

I remember dad having an old hand plane in his basement workshop. One day after school, I picked it up and tried to use it. After a few swipes and not getting any results, I gave up.

Fast-forward about 15 years. He showed up one Christmas with a paper bag. “Here. I found these in my shop. You can have them.” Inside was a No. 4½ Stanley smoother and a No. 78 duplex rabbeting plane.

I did a lot of research on the internet to figure out how to restore, tune, and sharpen these old planes. I remember the day like it was yesterday. I took those first few swipes on a piece of scrap wood and discovered the magic. I was able to get thin, whispy shavings.

That day changed my woodworking forever.

I learned how to use a hand plane to remove machining marks left by a jointer or planer. I learned how to tweak the fit of a joint using a hand plane. I was bitten by the bug. Next thing you know, I was shopping on eBay for old planes.

Have I given up on power tools? No way. I use the right tool for the job. And sometimes, a hand plane is the right tool.

Rob Porcaro wrote a blog post over on Fine Woodworking’s web site about his philosophy of using hand tools. I agree with everything he says.

It’s nice to drive to the mountains and even drive through the mountains, but it’s not as nice as hiking them. Power tools drive you there, but hand tools walk you through.    –Rob Porcaro

Should I be horsewhipped for using finish nails?

I just finished putting together an antique cabinet that’s similar to the one you see here. It was literally in pieces when I picked it up from the customer. Apparently, at some point in its life, it had fallen off the wall onto the floor. And by the looks of it, this wasn’t the first time this had happened. Someone somewhere in the past had made a pretty poor attempt at repair using dowels. They had even drilled through the sides of the cabinet in a couple spots to insert the dowels into the shelves!

Miraculously, the heavy, beveled glass door survived and is still a beautiful piece of craftsmanship.

I had been contemplating for a couple of weeks how to go about a decent repair for the cabinet. The dowels and dowel holes had dried glue all over them. And obviously, the wood was old and cracked in some spots. I had to patch a spot that had broken out from the side near a dowel.

So how do I put this back together? I ruled out glue because most of the joinery was butt joints and glue doesn’t hold well on end grain. And the joints weren’t tight enough to be “glue worthy” anyway.

So I resorted to using 1½” finish nails. Yep. Modern nails. I figured with their small heads and a little dab of wood putty, they would all but disappear. So I got out my Warrington-style hammer and tapped in three nails through the sides into each end of the shelves. I countersunk the heads with a nail set and applied a little wood putty with a cotton swab to minimize spreading it around.

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Oh, I have one other confession to make. I used modern screws to hold the top of the cabinet to the sides. They even have a Torx head. But I figured this was where the point of failure was originally when it fell from the wall, and they’re on the back, so it really didn’t matter. If someone throws a fit, they can replace them with traditional, slotted wood screws.

So there you have it. Modern finish nails and screws used in the restoration of an antique cabinet. You can call the antique police now and turn me in.

GRK R4™ Multipurpose Star/Torx Screw
In addition to a Torx-head design that eliminates cam-out slippage, these innovative self-countersinking bits feature six cutting pockets beneath the head and sharp, saw-like lower threads to drive through a variety of materials smoothly, without tearing. Available in several lengths and sizes. Torx/Star-head driver bits also available.
GRK R4™ Multipurpose Star/Torx Screw
GRK R4™ Multipurpose Star/Torx Screw

Definition of Craftsmanship

I received a phone call the other day from a gentleman in his 70’s. He went into a lengthy discussion about how technology has replaced craftsmanship. He was referring to a lot of magazine articles and TV shows that use digital calipers, digital angle gauges, and other high-tech devices for measuring and machine setup. To paraphrase his comments, “When I was working in the shop, we cut to fit. We didn’t need a measuring tape.”

He has a point. One of the mistakes a lot of beginning woodworkers make is cutting all their parts to the exact dimensions shown on the plans. Then as they assemble the project, they wonder why their joints have gaps or the parts don’t fit.

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