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The Hazards of Hand-tool Woodworking

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It’s easy to find lots of scolding about the hazards of using woodworking machinery.

I have seen some stuff. I have cleaned the interior of a jointer after someone else’s accident. I have seen a man wrestle a grinder (and lose). I’ve seen a guy try (and luckily fail) to cut off his finger with a jigsaw. Oh, and don’t forget the fine, cancer-making dust.

But what you don’t hear as much about are the hazards of hand-tool woodworking.

I have seen some stuff. Through-mortises in hands. Severed tendons in arms after a chisel poke. A dismembered finger from a Japanese pullsaw (one stroke). And sure, sharpening and axe gashes galore.

But this blog entry is not about the gory side of woodworking injuries. Instead, it’s about taking a reasonable approach to work that allows you to be creative into old age.

I started in hand-tool woodworking against my will when I was about 10 or 11. My parents were homesteaders building houses on our 84-acre farm outside Hackett, Ark., without electricity. This was not by choice; electricity had not come to Hilltop Lane in 1973. So it was all hammers, handsaws and braces at first. And it was work. Back in our house in town, my dad had a full machine workshop, but I wasn’t allowed to use the machines for safety reasons. So again, everything I did was by hand.

Our second house on Hilltop Lane. This was after we got electricity (you can see the transmission wire). We had one plug.

After I graduated college, I started taking classes in handwork at the University of Kentucky under Lynn Sweet, and that’s when I got the fire in my belly. I wanted to do everything by hand. And that deep dive into handwork coincided with my years at Popular Woodworking Magazine. I started at the magazine when I was 28 and ended my association with them when I was pushing 50.

For me, handwork has always been the best part of woodworking. And I do everything to maximize my time at the bench. When I make a chair, the whole process takes 16 to 18 hours. Only one of those hours is on machines. The rest is at the bench.

As I’ve gotten older, I have observed firsthand the toll that handwork has taken on my body. Because of ripsawing and planing, my elbows are not what they used to be. After a full day of planing, I cannot do another day of consecutive planing, or my body will revolt. When I saddle the seat of a chair, my hands are curled into claws the next day. I have to stretch them out. 

I am happy with the cardio I get while hand-tool woodworking, but I am humbled by the repetitive stress injuries that come from brute-force jack-planing, mortising and ripping.

Let me put it another way. When I read about people who consider hand-tool work as exercise, I think about the exercise I have to do in order to do hand-tool work. Every morning my day begins with 30-45 minutes of stretches recommended by my physical therapist. If I don’t do these, I’ll end up on my back on a workbench, trying to work out the kinks in my back, shoulders, arms and hands. In the evening, a heating pad takes care of the muscles that are damn whiners.

I am not alone. I know other hand-tool woodworkers who have suffered repetitive stress injuries. (Sorry, no names to protect the crooked.) I have friends who can do only so much planing or sawing before their elbows give out. What caused their injuries? Planing and sawing. I know woodworkers who can’t hold a chisel or scraper well anymore after years and years of chopping and scraping.

So here is the personal confession: As I have gotten older, I’ve had to rely more on machines than when I was 20, 30 or 40. Don’t misread me: I love handwork dearly. But I love woodworking more. So any small crutch that can keep me making things at pace is most welcome.

To be precise, I have no interest in router jigs, CNC machines or any tool with a digital brain. Those things are cool (and yes, they are “authentic” woodworking). But they don’t suit my analog belt-driven brain. I am a simple machine guy, mostly band saw. Sometimes jointer and planer. Occasionally table saw and drill press. 

I do not hide this fact, either. One of the other annoying aspects of handcraft publishing is watching some people do one thing and tell their readers to do another. After years of handwork, I can tell when a streak of dust from a handsaw has been faked (I’ve watched set directors do it). Or when material that has been machined is held up as four-squared by hand (i.e. they planed the already-machined boards). Not everybody does this, but it happens.

This legerdemain fools some beginners into thinking they should embrace pure handwork. I’ve met a lot of them who took the bait, became miserable, then bought a band saw or a planer. And they were much happier.

Since the 14th century, woodworking has been about simple machines, plus a small kit of hand tools. And it can still be that way in the 21st century. The best woodworkers I know use all the tools – hand and electric. And they are smart enough to know how to avoid ridiculous situations. Such as making a Plexiglas router jig to cut one butterfly recess. Or converting entirely by hand 300 board feet of rough lumber into a highboy.

If you take a pragmatic path – machines for tendon-destroying donkey work and hand tools for the joinery and surfaces – you might end up like me: an old guy still working every day at the bench. Still with all my fingers and still able to cut damn-good dovetails.

This is the balance I have found that works. You might experience a different journey.

— Christopher Schwarz



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