Good Tools Work for You, Not Against You

Nearly every tool is designed with compromises. In some cases, the compromise is made to increase the ease of production (and therefore lower cost). Other times, the compromise is made to make the tool more appealing to a broader audience.

After using a tool for a while, these compromises become very clear. You’ll think, “I wish this power cord was longer”, “this handle hurts my hand”, “it’s hard to read these scales”, or “why can’t I cut a straight line?” Okay, maybe that last one is user error, but you get the point.

Once you understand the compromises you can identify the root cause(s) of the problem and begin to theorize possible solutions. I never shy away from modifying my tools to make them work better for me, as my philosophy reminds me that tools are meant to be utilized, and anything that makes them work better for me, or easier for me to use, is a worthwhile modification. Of course, this customization may or may not benefit others, since I am making these changes thinking about only myself.
The Intuitive Handsaw
This momentous video (13:03) highlights some compromises, specific issues, root causes, possible solutions, and technique modifications that can improve tool performance.

Power Tools vs. Hand Tools, and When Can You Modify the Design?

I am continuing to work my way forwards through back issues of the since discontinued magazine Woodwork.

If you are proficient with the tools at your disposal, the decision to use either hand tools or power tools can be based on pleasure or efficiency. I use a combination of hand and power tools, and my choice is usually based on which will produce a satisfactory result quicker with less effort.

The machinery is important for sizing and rough shaping, but much of the work in the shop is done with hand planes, chisels and carving gouges. It is not a production shop; handwork is often faster than setting up jigs and machinery for an operation that will only be done once or twice.

Kristian Eshelman in Master Craftsman Robert Whitley, in Woodwork issue #41, page 34, paragraph 4

In another article, the author writes about building a piece inspired by one that he saw, but made changes to suit his needs, aesthetics, and the materials he had available.

In you can appreciate what it is about the original that is so proportionally appealing, by all means change things according to your circumstances and rely on your own eye to preserve the spirit of the original.

Graham Blackburn in A Pepysian Bookcase: A handmade case-on-stand in Woodwork issue #42, page 46, paragraph 3

Read more on my page, Quotes from Woodwork.


Overflow XXII

Up for grabs is a Stanley #194, which was designed to cut chamfers on the edges of fibreboard.


A razor blade is clamped to the bed with clamping plate and two slotted screws. Meanwhile, two thumbscrews secure the adjustable fence.


The plane features a corrugated sole.

DSC_9316 DSC_9313

According to the hand tool reference site Blood and Gore, the Stanley #194 was manufactured between 1936 and 1958.

If you would like this plane, please leave a comment below with a description of its would-be new home (e.g. on a dusty shelf between my palm sander and tape measure). I’ll give you a bonus entry if you tell me your thoughts on wooden spokeshaves (I’m scheduled to teach a class making a wooden spokeshave at Lee Valley Tools Coquitlam on the 14th). You may enter until the end of Tuesday, February 10. I will then draw a winner at random. Even if you don’t get this tool, remember that there is still much more I want to give away.

And if you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to my blog so you can be notified as soon as I post something new! Please tell your friends about my Overflow program.

Review the details of the Overflow program.


Earlier this month, my friend, Neil Cronk, started an online woodworking event called #HandJoinery. As Neil described it,

#HandJoinery is a way to share joinery skills and encourage people to get in their shops and put hand tools to wood while sharing and asking questions.

Alongside Neil and I, Wilbur Pan, Shannon Rogers and Adam Maxwell also cut the joint that week and, as they worked on it, shared progress pictures on Twitter for the world to see. Wilbur also summarized his work in a recent post on his blog, Giant Cypress.

Here is the joint that I cut two weeks ago – a lapped gooseneck.

Lapped Gooseneck Apart Lapped Gooseneck Together

The plan is to start with a simple joint and add complexity to it each week then switch to another joint style and increase difficulty again. #HandJoinery happens each week on Thursday at 5pm Pacific/8pm Eastern. *Note: due to a scheduling conflict, #HandJoinery will take place Friday this week.

The goal is to get woodworkers used to the idea of practicing these basic layout and hand skills so when they need to cut joinery in furniture they’re less intimidated and hopefully more practiced.

This week’s focus is the T-bridle joint.

T Bridle Joint


Flattening Big Pieces of Wood

One of the most common questions I am asked is how I flatten the large pieces of wood I often use in my work.  This table top, for example, is approximately 45 inches wide and 96 inches long.

Relationship Study

Relationship Study

Machinery is Not the Answer

Perhaps one of the quickest ways to surface a board is to feed it through a thickness planer which removes material from the top.  The bottom of the board rests on the bed and the cutterhead above removes material until the board is of an even thickness.  However, the thickness planer is ineffective at making material flat unless the bottom is already flat.

Thickness Planer

Thickness Planer

When flat is the objective, the jointer is the answer.  This machine specializes in making one face flat, and one adjacent edge straight, flat and square to the face.  The board is slid across the flat tables and over the cutterhead between them.  Although you can establish four flat surfaces with a jointer, they likely will not be parallel.  The jointer and thickness planer need to work as a team to produce flat material that is even in thickness.



Another drawback of machinery is capacity.  To thickness the top of Relationship Study, I would have needed machinery with 48″ of capacity.  Most woodworkers have never seen a thickness planer that size, and I’m not even sure that a jointer that size even exists.  Machines also require the material to be brought to them and handling large pieces of wood gets tiresome quickly.

Hand-Held Tools Have No Limits

Unlike the jointer and thickness planer, hand-held surfacing tools have no capacity limits (but to require more skill and stamina).

When I am faced with a lot of material that needs to be removed, especially over a large area, I start with my power planer.  This one is made for large-scale work and is capable of taking a cut wider than many small-shop jointers.  It has a long sole which helps ensure that it leaves a flat surface.

Power Planer

Power Planer

After having done the preliminary flattening with the power planer, I use hand planes to refine the surface, removing any ridges or tearout.  I start with a long plane equipped with a convex blade which allows me to work fairly quickly, then I progress to a shorter plane with a straighter blade for a more even surface.

Hand Plane

Hand Plane

To get the second face parallel, if required, I use a cutting gauge or combination square with a pencil to mark the desired thickness on the edges.  Then I turn over the material and plane down to those lines.  It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s all worth it in the end.  It’s also a great fitness regime.

Pencil, Sliding Double Square, and Cutting Gauge

Pencil, Sliding Double Square, and Cutting Gauge

Hand-held tools, while not always as efficient as machinery, allow me to work with any size and shape of material I choose.  If I were to limit myself to working with material that I could surface with machinery, my work would look very different.

Machinery has its place, but so do hand-held tools.

Every Workshop Needs a Br’all

This post is part of Get Woodworking Week, an initiative started by Tom Iovino of Tom’s Workbench, to build interest and participation in woodworking.

I know that every one of my readers except for Paul-Marcel, for whom I made the first one, is scratching their head wondering what the heck a Br’all is, what it does, and why they haven’t heard of it.

A Br’all is a shop accessory that I think every shop should have.  I designed it to do one thing and one thing only.  It does not require a great investment in either time, tools or materials to make, so it is a great Get Woodworking Week project.

The first video is the one you should definitely watch.  I show you how to make a Br’all using different hand tools, techniques and the purpose of the Br’all.  (Duration: 13 minutes, 14  seconds; the high-speed segments are 2x speed.)

The second video shows the letter carving I added.  (Duration: 7 minutes, 12 seconds; the high-speed segments are 4x speed.)

Here are some pictures of my bench-clearing Br’all.