What is “Hand Tool Only”?

I spent the weekend at The Woodwright’s School in Pittsboro, North Carolina. I met Roy Underhill, used the giant dovetail saw and saw some awesome woodworking obscura (like a restored Barnes mortising machine).


Proof I was there: A one-of-a-kind dovetail saw with my water bottle in frame.

I also learned to rive green wood and made a little dovetailed box from poplar and walnut. Not the best dovetails I’ve ever cut, but I’m not ashamed. It was a beginner’s class that my buddy wanted to take, so I only learned a couple of things.


I finished dovetailing so quickly that I got to rive a walnut box lid.

Because it’s the Woodwright’s School, the big theme was “hand tools only”. I have tended lately to call myself a hand tool only woodworker. But I own three large machines for my shop: (i) a double bevel compound miter saw for cutting to rough length, (ii) a 13″ thickness planer for squaring edges and faces once I’ve hand planed two sides true and square, and (iii) a benchtop drill press for repeatable, plumb holes. All three machines are integral to my woodworking. I do not own a table saw or router table.

The only hand-held power tool that gets any regular use in my shop is a cordless drill driver. I also have a circular saw and jigsaw (both used almost exclusively with sheet goods) and a compact router set for quick-and-dirty chamfers and roundovers (or occasionally flush trimming).

So does that mean I’m fibbing when I claim to be a “hand tool only” woodworker? It depends on what I mean by “hand tool only”.

I cut the overwhelming preponderance of my joints with the saw, chisel, brace, and plane. I say overwhelming preponderance because sometimes the drill press or drill driver pulls brace duty. So I draw my own personal line at using machines for joinery when making furniture. That is what makes me, in my mind, a “hand tool only” woodworker.



      1. I kindof think of it like this: if it’s something that in the days of yore was handed off to an apprentice to do unsupervised after only a small amount of training, then it’s scut work and doing it with a machine makes no real odds if you have done it by hand yourself in the past.

        Personally, I’m after ordering a benchtop bandsaw (one of the little 80mm ones that were made by Record Power then cloned in one giant factory in China and then rebranded seventy different ways before sunday). I’ll use it for rough cuts and I might muck around with bandsaw boxes and the like, but I won’t be feeling guilty for having it because this is 2017 and we only have so much time to get a project done before someone pushes a button and we’re all glowing corpses in a nuclear apocalypse.

        It’s not an impetus I’m used to in a hobby, mind you…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Easily cured, just look at the size of the workspace it’s in 😀
        (Literally an 8′ by 6′ potting shed in the garden. You almost have to step outside in order to turn around…)


  1. I would agree with that sentiment; Especially when it comes to dimensioning lumber. The only power tool I use in the shop is a thicknesser, but if I had the space I would use a bandsaw for re-sawing. All joinery and final cleanup is done with hand power. That is what makes a “hand tool” woodworker” IMO anything beyond that would be a “period woodworker” and that is a whole other can of worms 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I generally say, “I’m a hand tool woodworker, but I’m not vegan about it”. I go to a local shop and rent time on their joiner, table saw, planer, band saw to dimension and square. Paul Sellers calls that “donkey work”. After that, just hand tools.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I would love to go to a class by Uncle Roy. Living on the West a Coast makes it more difficult.

    I almost always use hand tools. The whole romance of it was why I got into woodworking. I don’t look down on power tools or those who would use them. In fact I hope to buy some over the next two years. The biggest threat to woodworking and any hobby disappearing is folks glued to the couch watching tv and surfing the web. As such, I am happen when I hear if any friend having any interest or hobby.

    A perfect example ow where I am eager to use power tools is this years Christmas gifts which I have started. I am making an approx 12x5x4 Japanese style carpenter box out of walnut and maple for friends and family. The prototype I made with hand tools and it took my 20 hours (partly because I am slow and partly because it’s a new project so I’m learning lots of things for refinement).

    I need to make 16 of these so I need to speed things up. I’m borrowing my neighbors chop saw and bandsaw. For what it took me to make one in terms of dimensioning, I will be able to easily dimension all 16. There is still enough hand tool work to make me happy. In fact, I’m recording the hours just to see how many hours it ends up for each. I’m thinking of making a bunch for the local farmers market to fund the power tool purchases.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Roy is rather avuncular.

      I bet you could gang-cut the finger joints for the Japanese carpenter’s boxes to save some time. What nails are you using to fasten the corners? The Rivierre die forged nails are so pretty and would probably be proud enough to work.


      1. There are no finger joints in these. I am following the style that treebangham showed on YouTube. I experimented with some different nails. What do liked best was using a finish nail 3/4″ 18 gauge on the sides. To glue and nail the top cross pieces on the removable top are 1/2″ 19 gauge finishing nails. My stock is 5/16″ thick.

        I had also picked up some 1/2″ and 3/4″ carpet tacks and if I were making a few boxes just for myself I would be more inclined to use these for a more prominent looking nail head. With the carpet tacks I would have to pre-drill or the wood would split. With the finishing nails I don’t need to pre drill. I just use a bird age awl to mark the spot. Having to make 16 in short order drives some of the decisions.


  4. Hand tool -only-. Do you actually speak English as a first language? Trying to weasel your way out of a word’s definition like a South African politician is not only a poor show, it also paints you as a muppet.


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