Hand tools versus power tools is still an ongoing debate in the arena of woodworking. The purists will tell you that using hand tools is the only way true craftsman do woodwork where as the practical woodworkers of current day and age will tell you that it just doesn't make any practical sense not to use power tools.
The modern day scenario
There are certain hand tools that will always be a necessity. For example most of your measuring and marking tools are hand tools. There is no replacement for a good combination square. Similarly your marking tools like the marking knife.
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So when we speak of hand tools in woodworking, we go with the assumption that we are speaking of tools that have a mechanized counterpart. For example, tools like a saw, drill, chisel etc.
In the present day scenario hand tools definitely have a place in a workshop but just as surely not at the cost of power tools. Power tools are an absolute necessity if you are doing any kind of commercial woodworking. The exceptions will be a handful of highly skilled and renowned woodworkers who can get away with using hand tools for making work of art rather than utility wood projects like furniture.
If you are pursuing wood working as a hobby, then no doubt you can work purely with hand tools. One of the great aspects of using hand tools is that they slow you down. They make you pay more attention to the skill required for using them. They make you appreciate the craftsmanship in woodworking. These qualities of hand tools don't only suit the hobbyist but are also appreciated by the professional woodworker.
Using hand tools for better finish and better satisfaction
Several professional woodworkers have made the choice to include certain hand tools in their tools arsenal. They use them both for the joy and satisfaction it brings as well as to get the results. It is true that the kind of finish some hand tools can give you is not possible by any power tool. An example in this case is a hand plane. A smoothing hand plane can give you a glass like finish on the wood surface which is not possible using power sanders. We have written post on 11 must have hand tools in a wood shop, sometime back.
Similarly, a hand tool makes certain jobs easier to accomplish. Fine tuning a joint using a hand plane and a chisel is easier as opposed to going back and forth on a table saw and trying to make very minute adjustments which are almost impossible to make without using jigs and other props. Chisels are amazing cutting and shaping tools that can do everything a router can do, and more! Here is a little bit more of a low down on the subject, how to use chisels to clean, make cuts and make joints.
Practice till you get it right
A very important thing to remember is that in order to get the desired results from hand tools, you HAVE to know how to use them correctly. If you do not know the technique of using a particular hand tool, it is going to give you a lot of grief. Even professional woodworkers sometimes can make a mistake when using the commonest of hand tools for the first time.
For example, I know somebody who received a hand saw from someone in the the family. When he tried using it to cut up a board the saw just wouldn't cut. He hated the saw and almost threw it out after using it just for the first time. It was only a couple of years later did he realize that hand saws are different for cutting with and against the grain. A hand saw meant for ripping will not work so well cutting with the grain and vice versa. When he did finally use this saw the way it is intended to be used, he discovered that it cuts through the wood like butter.
Ironically, you can save time with hand tools
It can sometimes be quicker to use a hand saw to make small cuts during the building process as opposed to going back and forth in the table saw.
Hand planes are specially useful because they are great all-rounders and can perform many functions in a wood shop. They can be used to smooth any kind of wood surface right from front edges to entire table tops. Hand planes deliver excellent finish when used to smoothen the surface. They allow you to do things which would be very cumbersome to do using power tools.
For example if you find that you have made a shelf and after gluing the joints you find that they are not completely flush with the surface. It is a simple matter to smooth it out using a block plane.
Similarly if you have made a tabletop by gluing and joining a few boards together, and need to plane it down, you have no option other than using our hand plane. You will not find a power planer that large except in huge woodworking factories and they cost thousands of dollars.
Hand planes are also really handy when you need to find tune your work. For example if you are making dovetail joints and you find that the tenon fit is a little too tight. A hand plane will allow you to fine tune the joint to a perfect fit. Hand planes are fascinating tools and deliver a great finish. Read more about how to use hand planes to smooth the wood.
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Why hand tools lost popular favor with most woodworkers
In commercial woodworking, speed is almost always a necessity. The faster you can work, the more projects you can make. The more you make, hopefully the more you can sell. So the overall income of a commercial woodworker really depends on how much work he is able to produce when he is in the workshop. The amount of woodwork he can get done determines his average hourly wages.
Woodworking power tools are irreplaceable in the modern day workshop.
There is a reason why most commercial woodworkers have shied away from hand tools altogether. They are slow, yes. But perhaps there is more to it than that.
Many of us were introduced to woodworking hand tools when we were very young as something that our fathers and grandfathers used to use. We were also introduced to hand tools in our high school skill-based lessons, which have long since disappeared from most school curriculum today owing to budget cuts. The point is that many of us were not properly introduced to hand tools or it was done in a manner that it did not encourage their popularity.
For many professional woodworkers the discovery of hand tools and their value has happened later on in their career. After years of using power tools they have adapted hand tools to doing several woodworking jobs. Hand tools often give a superior finish and bring a sense of satisfaction and craftsmanship to the wood working process.
It has been suggested that when young people are introduced to woodworking, perhaps this is the way it should be done. They should be made to work on power tools first and then be introduced to the hand tools so that they can appreciate and recognize their value in working alongside the power tools.
Power tools are essential in modern day wood shops, especially commercial ones
The reason that anyone needs power tools in their workshop is because their speed cannot be matched by any hand tools, especially when repetitive jobs are involved. Most any kind of woodworking involves repetition of labor. If you are making a joint, the odds are you are going to make more than one to complete the project.
Also, power tool deliver the same kind of accuracy over and over again which is difficult to achieve with hand tools. For example, you need to cut out rabbit joints for making 10 picture frames. If you are working on a router table, all you have to do is set the drill bit once and start running your pieces through it one after the other. You will probably be done within half an hour. I don't have to tell you how long it is going to take and how tedious it is going to be if you attempt to do the same job using chisels and a mallet.
This is the reason why power tools are essential in commercial woodworking.
So the debate between power tools and hand tools is not really so much of the debate after all. Our fathers and forefathers used hand tools because that is what was available to them. Even if they wanted to, they did not have any other option rather than other than to use these tools. They used them and learnt to use them really well. They were craftsmen.
Also, the nature of woodworking has changed over the years and the commercial demand is higher. This demand cannot be met with the usage of only hand tools. When speed and accuracy for mass production is not required, hand tools can be a enjoyable way to work with and discover woodworking.
However, that said, some hand tools in a woodworking shop still serve a great purpose as many professional workers will tell you. For many professional woodworkers, who work mostly with power tools, hand tools bring in the element of craftsmanship which they really appreciate and enjoy. Additionally, then used properly they deliver great results and certain jobs easier.