First let me start with my disclaimer. Read the entire article before you pass judgment on me or anything I say, not everything is what it seems. I am not here to condemn anyone, judge anyone, start riots, start fights with people, or have fights start between people on my website, or anything else in regards to the way you or others work with wood. The question above is only one that you can answer. This is a question that I ask myself all the time when I am working, at home and at work. I personally don’t care if you use all power tools, all hand tools or a mix of both in your projects. In the end, the question for you is, are you happy with the product and how it was created?
Second, I am going to define the terms that I will be using in this article. People have developed their own definitions of words over the years (which is part of the problem) and some words have multiple meanings, SO , this is to help us all start on the same foot.
Handmade: adj. Made by hand, not by machine; made by a process requiring manual skills.
Machine: noun any mechanical or electrical device that automatically performs tasks or assists in performing tasks
Power tool: noun a tool powered by an electric motor or gasoline engine.
Machinist: noun a person who operates machines to cut or process materials.
Lets look at the definitions for just one second. With these definitions we can conclude that, by definition, for something to be handmade no power tools can be used in its creation. Power tools are machines because they are powered devices and those who use them are in turn machinists.
Now, before we go any farther, I know someone will bring up human powered treadle lathes and tools. A treadle is a foot operated power source for a machine. Meaning, yes it is a power tool. A hand plane is a simple machine, it has no moving parts that assist the tool, so, no it is not a machine.
Back to the original question: What does “handmade” mean to me?
I work as a sign maker during the day for, lets just say a very large corporate organization. I make vinyl signs, road signs, carved Redwood signs, displays, custom picture frames, plaques, miscellaneous wooden things and retirement gifts from wood. I work in a shop that would be the dream of many people. I have every hand held power tool you can imagine and a full shop to include, a Delta table saw, Delta jointer, Delta 24” thickness planer, hollow mortise chiseler, compound miter saw, a shaper, router table, belt sander, 14” band saw, panel saw, radial alarm saw and a 36” band saw. So, lets just agree that I have lots of experience working with large power tools all day. Now, all of the Redwood signs I have made untill now have been hand carved signs. With the purchase of a new CNC machine I no longer can call them hand carved signs. In a business management point of view, buying the CNC machine is a good thing because it speeds things along. Even though I still will have to come back with a chisel to clean up the corners, it is now a machined sign and no longer takes really any skill to make. Yeah, that’s right, making signs with a CNC Machine is monkey work, it takes no real skill to make CNC signs. Learning to use design software is not very hard and that is the only place where any skill might be involved in the process. Now that might set some people off, but again, this is my opinion and experience. At work I primarily use power tools for everything. The reason is that I mill very large slabs of Redwood down to make sign blanks out of them and I work with sheet aluminum. I really don’t want to cut 4 x 8 sheets of aluminum by hand. I do make some other small woodworking projects at work, but again most of that is nothing special and usually done with power tools. I don’t build furniture, cabinets or anything that requires the special touch or skill of hand tools, at least while I am at work. So you could say that at work I am a machinist, and I will be more so when the new CNC machine shows up next week.
At home my work habits are a complete 180 degrees. I spend my time only using hand tools and enjoy making things with my hands. When using hand tools I feel a connection with the wood that is just not the same as when I use power tools. I also believe that I learn much more about each piece of material that I am working on when I am using hand tools. I can feel the changes in grain direction, not just see them, I can feel how tight the grain is, not just see it, I can feel the fibers of the tree pulling apart, something impossible to feel while ripping a board on a table saw or edge jointing on a jointer. I believe that this deeper connection with the wood gives me a better understanding of how it will work in my projects. I might make a panel thinner and lighter because I can feel that the wood is more than strong enough and stable enough for a given application. When I hand plane a board I then know what is the best direction to push a chisel to make a groove, an open mortise, or better yet, when carving a letter or design. But really, the biggest thing for me is that I know that when I get done my hands were the guiding power source for everything that was done to each piece that makes up my project. For me I guess it is a deeply engrained satisfaction that I guided and powered each tool in the creation of something. Though it is possible to be extremely accurate with hand tools, every project you make will be just a little bit different. It is much easier to batch things out with power tools and make them all the same, but I believe that deprives each piece of its individuality.
In my own work, any time I use a power tool anywhere in the process, I feel that it has cheapened the end result. Now this is obviously my own feeling on the subject and maybe that’s because I use power tools all day. I don’t know what it is exactly about using a power tool on a project that does this to me, but it does. Though someone else may never know that I cut those dados with my router instead of using my dado plane, or cut the grooves for the drawers of a project with my table saw instead of using my plough plane, I know and that’s what matters. I guess when I analyze it, I feel like I lost a little bit of myself or, in a way, sold out a little bit. At this point some of you probably think I am a little crazy, but this is just how I look at using power tools.
So, what is the point in me telling you all of this? I believe that at some point we lost the idea of what handmade means and started calling anything that is not mass produced, handmade. When in reality we are making custom made pieces. I know for some this is just a matter of semantics, but it really is important. There still are people making projects out there that are made entirely by hand and when we call things handmade that are not, we in turn, cheapen their work. When a person sells a piece of furniture under the label of handmade, but they used 50 router jigs to produce that one chair, it is not a handmade chair and they are misleading people, also known as false advertising. I feel that this is a very important point because once we start misleading our customers their understanding of our craft changes. Many people I talk to don’t get it when I tell them I made something with just a saw, hammer, mallet, chisel and a plane. Most people out there don’t even think people do that anymore. I often get asked, “Why would you not just use power tools?”, answer, “Because then it wouldn’t be handmade”.
This may sound like some super deep touchy feely stuff, and it kind of is. I guess my main point is: Do you want to create projects or make projects? Do you want to mold something with your own hands or just push wood through various machines? The end result is a piece of furniture, a chair, a table, or a box, but the process is a lot different.
THE SUPER SHOCKING CONCLUSION:
So, you might think that I am ready to throw my table saw, router, band saw and other various power tools out the back door, but that is just not going to happen. I like using my power tools just as much as I like using my hand tools. The two can work very well together and using them together can save you lots of money and time. Because once you know how to use hand tools, you never have to cut that 16” wide piece of Walnut in half to fit it through your thickness planer, or waste time setting up your router when a moving fillister will get the job done faster. I call most of my work custom made and shy away from handmade labeling, unless the piece was made entirely by hand. I am a hybrid woodworker, I just have heavy hand tool tendencies.