Hand vs. Machine Tools

From Wayne's Dusty Box of Words

There is a somewhat contentious debate over whether or not to use machine tools in the creation of furniture reproductions.

The medieval craftsman didn't use a pit saw for its spiritual purity, it's what he had and as soon as water-driven mills came onto the scene (as early as the 14th Century in some areas), happily used them.

The question is one of the goals: are you trying to build reproductions of medieval furniture or are you trying to be a medieval craftsman making furniture?

The Medieval Craftsman

Andre Felibien - Carpenter's and their Tools (1676)

If your goal is to work as a medieval craftsman and produce contemporaneous furniture, it makes sense to restrict yourself to tools and processes available to that craftsperson. This will start with a journey into what tools were available in the period and culture of your craftsman. Then you'll need to acquire these tools either by purchasing acceptable modern alternatives or modern reproductions (if available). Or, creating them yourself if you have some metalworking capability.

Things you can make:

  • Any of the marking and measuring tools: try square, miter square, level, ruler, marking knife.
  • Mallets and hammers
  • Pole lathe (if appropriate)
  • Work holding devices: saw bench, workbench, shave horse,

Things you could make, especially if you purchased the blades:

  • Planes of all types
  • Saws especially frame type saws
  • Gimlets, augers, braces or other boring tools

Things I would buy (18th or 19th Century version if possible):

  • Dividers
  • Chisels
  • Drawknife
  • Planes (if not using self-made ones)
  • Hand saws (if not using self-made ones)

That's an incomplete list, but it gives you an idea or where you're headed. Your tool kit will dictate what range of furniture you could build and that will grow as you make or acquire more tools.

As for wood, you aren't restricted to green woodworking where you're felling your own trees and splitting out timber with wedges and a froe. Sawn wood was commercially available quite early on and even where it wasn't yet a business, it was likely a separate occupation.

What if I just want to get on with making stuff?

van Vliet's Carpenters (1635)

Personally, I am not trying to be a medieval craftsman making furniture. I am a modern furniture historian who wants to have a bunch of cool period furniture.

Because I have or can develop the necessary skills, I choose to make these things myself. For me, it's part of the study of the furniture. Reproduction is the best way to truly understand the how and why a piece is the way it is. This dovetails into my other passion, the history of tools. Tool marks and construction techniques shed light on the tools used in the construction of a piece.

So, what tools do I use?

I use a mix of hand and power tools. Over the course of my career, I have shifted from 100% power to somewhere closer to 30% power.

I use dried, sawn wood (see my discussion of Green vs. Dried Wood). I process it with a joiner, a planer and a table saw into my rough dimensioned parts. From there, it's mostly hand tools. But, if I come to a repetitive or tedious operation, further power tools will be deployed.

For instance, chopping out a couple of mortises is no big deal by hand, I have a couple of great antique mortise chisels. But, faced with 36 mortises in one project, in oak, I wheeled in and set up my hollow chisel mortising machine (a benchtop drill press that drills square holes for the uninitiated) and laid on like a butcher.

I want the finished item to resemble the original item closely (though...see my article on Medieval Reconstruction and the Modern Aesthetic. In addition, I have limited time to spend filling my house with cool furniture having a full-time job, a part-time job, a family and other demands on my time.

So, I could rip that plank with a hand saw. I have several nice ones that I restored and sharpened. But I won't. Sorry.

Unless the power is out. Or there is no power.

For instance, I keep a crosscut saw in the back of the truck for use in the Home Depot parking lot, if needed, to get wood into the truck. I have seen contractor types fire up a generator in the parking lot so they could use their circular saw... See, now that's krazy. The garbage pine you are buying at Home Depot (or Lowes, not to play favorites) had leaves on it yesterday and a sharp handsaw makes very short work of it.

German Workshop

In some sense, the operation you are performing dictates the tools you can or should use.

Operations that involve straight lines are well suited to machine work: turning a log into boards, ripping boards to width, planing boards to thickness. More complex operations, particularly ones that can't be fenced, can usually be done faster with hand tools. Even some simple straight cuts are much easier with a hand saw than a powered saw.

For instance, using a table saw, an angled cut up to 45-degrees is pretty easy. But 75-degrees? If you can't manipulate the board so as to make that into a 15-degree cut, it's possible, but not advisable. With a hand saw either cut is the same level of difficulty (and risk).

Similarly, low relief carving can be done with a router and great care. But the process is slow and risky (and noisy and very dusty). Carving by hand is quite quick. Most of the common motifs are executed with just a few chisels and layout tools such as a square and a set of dividers. Some designs only use a v-tool, others add one or a couple of gouges. A remarkable array of carving can be done with just these tools. See Conybeare (1991) for extensive examples.

So, no matter how pro-power tool you might be, you are going to have to use some hand tools to execute all but the most trivial reproductions.