When I began my career, I started out in construction management, and one of my first bosses would often say to the crew, “we have the benefit of 2000 years of progress and electricity, put down the hand tools and use the power tools!” At the time I really thought he knew something I didn’t know and I admired his stance on work. I was young and my own “tool” skills were just starting to develop so that phrase seemed like real wisdom to me. Since then, I have forgotten my early interest in management, and instead have dedicated my life to woodworking and woodworking knowledge.
As my skills and knowledge have grown I have come to realize how terribly wrong my old boss really was about hand tools. I can’t fault him, he was a business man, not a craftsman, and time is money.
These days I work alone in my studio/shop and build one of kind pieces of furniture or occasional cabinets for my clients. Like everyone I have to make a living, but the work, not the money, is the motivation behind what I do. I strive to make each piece of furniture, or even the simplest kitchen cabinet, a lasting piece of sculpture for its new owner. Without hand tools though, the excellence I hope to achieve would be impossible to reach. Hand tools, specifically hand planes, offer more then just a way to connect the woodworker to the wood.
While heavily into construction, I had the good fortune to work with different types of people with different work habits and skills. I learned something from all of them, but the most influential person of all was a carpenter named Ricardo. Several years ago I was renovating a historic house in Columbia and had hired a friend’s construction company to help finish the job. Ricardo, a self taught master carpenter with the odd habit of humming Alabama song’s while he worked, was the head carpenter for my friend’s crew.
At that time I was still a professional remodeler and owned every jobsite carpentry tool imaginable. On the first day that we worked together, Ricardo arrived before the rest of his crew and their equipment and began to work. Immediately he asked me for my hand plane. I stared at him blankly and said I didn’t own a plane and pointed towards all the other tools. And then I said it, “I have two thousands years worth of carpentry progress over there, can’t you use one of the power tools?” These days I remember that moment the way my mother remembers the Kennedy assassination. Ashamed of that comment, it would be the last time I ever said it and meant it. Ricardo, who was considerably older then me, gave me a look that I now recognize as the same one I give my teen age nieces and nephews when they are showing their age, but he said nothing, shrugged his shoulders, and went to the power tools to work. I spent the afternoon impressed by his work, but noticing he was constantly frustrated and fuddling with the tools. He had also stopped humming.
The next day, my friend and Ricardo’s boss arrived and brought Ricardo a beat up Stanley number 4 hand plane. When you think “hand plane” in your head, this is that plane. Millions of them have been made and used for well over a hundred years. I noticed two things immediately.
First Ricardo started humming again and secondly his production doubled and looked better then any work I could perform. I was intrigued. I spent the next few weeks watching him work. At first I was still hesitant about hand planes, but the more I watched the more I knew it was a skill I needed. Ricardo could do anything with a plane.
I watched him trim laminate for a counter top, fix broken windows and doors, correct a humped floor and create amazing door thresholds just to start. When he focused his skills to custom tables and raised panel doors I was amazed at the speed and purpose with which he put tool to wood. He could use the plane and nothing more then his hand as a guide and get perfect results. At that time I had already fallen in love with making furniture and I knew my work would not progress until I mastered the plane.
It took a couple more weeks to work up the nerve but eventually I put aside my embarrassment and asked Ricardo to teach me how to use the tool. My life has not been the same since. I can highlight the major moments of my life in the following order: the day my daughter was born, the day I married my wife, the day I graduated from college, and the day I learned to use a hand plane. Seriously.
Today, a hand plane is never far from my side. Ricardo returned home several years back, but I owe him deeply for the lasting gift he has given me. Learning to use hand planes did several things for me. It opened my eyes to hand tools in general. The more I learned about them, the more I scoured flea markets and EBay in search of them. With each new tool came a new skill and improved work.
As my knowledge in woodworking grew, so did my commitment to the craft and my inevitable switch from construction to furniture. But the most surprising benefit of hand planes was a chance rediscovering of my own family roots.
Recently I returned home from a trip to my family’s farm. A place that has been in my family far longer than anyone still living can remember. The farm is sadly no longer functioning and visiting it is like stepping back in time 150 years. While investigating a collapsed barn I stumbled upon a half dozen wooden hand planes. The planes had not been touched in thirty years. They probably have not been used in fifty. Upon showing them to my father, the last generation to grow up on the farm, he could remember watching my great grandfather and grandfather use them. Eventually when he and his brothers became old enough, they used them.
I have furniture in my home built by three generations of men with the very planes I now possess. It is something of a wonder to me how woodworking, in all its function and purpose, can have the added side effect of turning woodworkers into part time historians. With the discovery of these hand planes though, I am especially moved because their history is my history. I can see the wear on the handles from where they have been gripped and used and couldn’t help but notice how well my own hands fit those marks of wear. These planes are a tangible connection to my past and my ancestry.
As I work in my shop, I often find my hands drifting to those old planes and I instantly think of the furniture made with them in my home. It is not uncommon for me to turn off the machine I am working with and pick up one my working hand planes instead. I wonder if my grand children will one day hold the planes I use in the same awe that I hold my great grandfather’s.
The very tangible connection I have discovered to my family has only served to push me even harder to better understand the methods of woodworking used by my great-grandfather’s generation in order to improve my current work. I study joints and techniques and try to master them if they are new to me. I enjoy seeing the way craftsmen from his era understood wood and used that knowledge to help them work it. I buy texts from the era and read them with the thought that I am reconnected to men in my family. Men I never met, but now in this one small way, feel that I know.
I am restoring my great grandfather’s hand planes and plan to return them to their intended work. These will not be display pieces in my hand tool collection, but will instead be tools used by a fourth generation of my family. It connects me to them and hopefully will one day connect another generation to me.
No power tool could ever do what a simple piece of straight wood with a blade in it has done for me. I also teach woodworking classes and I commonly ask my students, “Who here believes that 2000 years of progress combined with electricity has made hand tools obsolete?” Someone always raises their hand. That’s when I pull out my Stanley number 4 and the class starts with, “let me tell you about a craftsman named Ricardo…”