Where Have All The Hand Tools Gone
Good quality hand tools have not disappeared, but there are few to be found at your local hardware store or building supply outlet. For generations smooth planes, block planes, spoke shaves and hand saws have been stock items waiting for the beginning boatbuilder or home handyman to purchase them to start his kit of tools. Once purchased, they conveyed to the new owner the potential of future projects waiting only for his growing expertise to unlock the promise of creativity that is in any good tool.
That promise has been broken and with few exceptions the basic hand woodworking tools listed above have disappeared from local outlets or been replaced by cheap imitations of these products which work poorly or not at all..
The beginner needs a good tool. There is no economy in an “economy model”. A beginner risks discouragement with a poor tool because he will blame himself for failure when it is the tool that is at fault. During a beginning woodworking course that I taught, a student told me that he was unable to saw a straight line as the saw continually curved to one side. This was a new saw with a brand name bought at the local hardware store. I tried the tool with the same result. On inspection I could see that the teeth had only been set on one side. There is no way that this tool could saw a straight line. Not only had the student been robbed of his money in the purchase of this tool , but he had been prevented from expressing his creativity.
On two occasions while teaching, students have asked me to show them how to use their brand new Record spokeshaves. The shavings were jamming in the mouth preventing further work until they were cleared. The spokeshave is a very simple tool and a joy to use. It is hard to imagine how to keep it from working but in order to save time in its manufacture the company had changed the smooth rounded bevel on the cap iron to a straight bevel with a small square shoulder which caught and jammed the shavings. I called Record in England and their response was to send me a dozen old cap irons rather than correct the problem.
If there is anything that makes me angrier than stolen creativity it is when a poor tool is given as a gift. Not only does the present not work for the recipient, but the selfless act of gift giving has been compromised by the selfishness of a corporate bottom line. An elderly man came into my shop soon after Christmas a couple of years ago with a smooth plane that his son had given to him. He could not get the tool to work as it, like the spokeshave, continually plugged up with shavings. The chip breaker had been ground so that its bevel was open to the shavings which caught and quickly clogged up the mouth preventing further work. Ten minute’s work with a file fixed the problem, but the tool was worse than useless as it came from the factory.
I called the Canadian Tire Corporation which had sold this tool under the Mastercraft label. They told me that the plane was manufactured by Footprint Tools, a company known in the past for making good tools. The president of Footprint told me with some frustration in his voice that Canadian Tire had demanded that the plane be sold to them for under $30 wholesale or they would take their business elsewhere. The only way Footprint could meet this price was to cut corners in manufacture. A further call to the head buyer for Canadian Tire produced the angry response that their stores sold only top quality tools.
On a recent visit to a Home Depot store I picked up a Buck Brothers hand saw. Buck Brothers is a firm with a history of quality. If you find their antler logo stamped on an old chisel at a yard sale you can be sure that is a good buy. But the new saw I had in my hands was bent, its teeth had flats where points should have been, and the handle was rough and uncomfortable. No one could have used that saw to cut wood. I was able to speak with Buck Brothers president who was fully aware of the problem and seemed distressed by it. He told me that the Buck Brothers name had been bought by Great Neck Tools, a large manufacturer of “economy” tools. The saw I had been looking at, even though it carried the Buck Brothers name, was not made by them and they had no control over its quality.
Examples of the demise of these basic hand woodworking tools are many. Miller’s Falls has disappeared. Record Tools was bought by Rubbermaid and has stopped production. Someone has bought Record’s name and is hoping to start again making some tools in India and some in China. Stanley still carries a few planes made in England but the quality is variable. Students recently showed me a new Stanley spoke shave with warped blade and a block plane with its blade seat machined poorly, both preventing the tools from working.
Why has this come to pass? Partly it is the fault of our economic system which values profit above quality. Big companies buy little companies and make them more “efficient” by dropping some items and cheapening others. Power tools have played a big part in the demise of hand tools. The professional house carpenter once used hand saws extensively. He had a set of molding planes for sash and trim work and maintained a set of sharp chisels. Today, the pieces making up a house come pre-shaped and need only to be cut to length with a Skill Saw (interesting name) or chop saw. Cabinet work is machine made by specialists. Many professionals carry only a block plane (if any plane at all), and perhaps an old beater of a chisel. Stationary sanders do much shaping that was formerly done by planes and spokeshaves, and the router does everything else. In most catalogs there are more pages devoted to router bits than any other type of tool. Routers have replaced draw knives, spoke shaves, rabbet planes, plow planes, molding planes, chisels, and carving tools.
Given the above it is no wonder that hardware stores have such a poor selection of hand tools. The proprietor of a building supply store in Calais, Maine told me he could special order a smooth plane but he did not stock them as “there were few fine craftsmen in the area” and he might only sell one plane a year. A generation ago he would have stocked two grades of Stanley smooth plane. Even the lower priced “Handyman” was a good tool and most households had them.
Why do we work so hard to eliminate hand tools from our work? We use the power tool wherever we can and pick up the hand tool if we must. The professional house carpenter is trapped in a box where time equals money. If his competition gets an air nailer and eliminates enough labor to underbid him, then he must get an air nailer or find a client who will pay extra for hand work. But the amateur craftsman is not in this bind. He may tell himself that he cannot afford the time to “do it by hand” but he will miss the essence of the game. Hand tools are quieter, they make less dust, and they allow a more intimate connection between the brain, the tool, and the wood itself.
The quality of the surface left by hand tools is fundamentally different from that left by power tools. Years ago I worked for a well known yacht builder. On new construction the foreman’s rule was that we should sand until the machine marks disappeared. I still follow that rule and have come to realize that it is not the smoothing of the surface that is important, but it is the creation of a new surface made by human hands. A few missed hand tool marks made by a smooth plane, or the figure of the wood subtly showing through the paint, although not left on purpose, can add to the appeal of a project. The precise repetitive hint of surface planer marks leave a colder, less inviting surface that can be felt even from a distance.
Fortunately, some woodworking arts, boatbuilding among them, include a number of operations that are most efficiently accomplished with hand tools. So while very little hand tool work is done in a modern cabinet maker’s shop, a visit to a shop where wooden boats are built confirms the continuing value of hand planes, spoke shaves and saws. There are now enough craftsmen building wooden boats for a living or for their own enjoyment along with others who work wood by hand, to begin to change the bleak outlook regarding hand tool availability. While it may be a long time before the chain hardware stores and building supply outlets carry good tools again, there are some new sources of excellent tools.
Lie-Neilsen , and Lee Valley (Veritas) are makers of excellent new planes. About the only complaint I have heard about these tools is their price. While most of us will have to think long and hard about spending over $200.for a smooth plane, it is worth thinking about why the price seems high. The few planes that are still offered in local hardware stores show only too obviously the steps taken to hold the line on price. Castings are rough, pieces fit poorly, adjusters are sloppy, and chrome masquerades as quality finish. If the integrity of these mass produced tools had been maintained over the years their price would be much closer to Lie Neilsen and Veritas. When you buy one of these new quality tools you are paying a worker who is proud of the work he does and cares about the work that you do. That is worth a great deal.
There is a middle road in pricing. Buying and restoring an older tool can be very rewarding. For perhaps a quarter of the price of the Lie Neilsen or Veritas you can can put an older Stanley back in shape. I find value in holding and using a tool that has had the hands of an earlier craftsman where mine are now. You can carefully inscribe your name beside those of previous owners and take care of the tool for the next generation.
At the present time you can still buy a professional model Stanley block plane. It offers decent quality at a modest price. Stanley still makes bench planes. Their professional smoother works well but has lost the sweet feel that inspires loving care. It comes with plastic handles, admittedly comfortable, but why would a craftsman who knows the value of the feel of warmth and texture in his products chose to hold onto a chunk of plastic if he could have wood? I recently talked to a customer representative at the Stanley headquarters. He told me that the man now in charge of hand tools was a woodworker and hoped to turn the present situation around, making some of the older tools available again. There is hope.
E.F. Schumacher in Small is Beautiful says that “The type of work which modern technology is most successful in eliminating is skillful, productive work of human hands, in touch with real materials of one kind or another." I believe that this is true and that the best way to stop this trend is to support the use of quality hand tools.
Originally published on Off Center Harbor