Working faster with hand tools

6 June 2017
Working faster with hand tools

By Salko Safic
Its a common misconception that working with hand tools is a slow and tedious project, and the justification of having machinery in both amateur and professional workshops are based on these common misconceptions. Professional woodworkers claim that time is money, and all of us agrees upon this statement, but have they been misled by advertisers that machinery is truly faster.  

 We can come to an agreement that once machinery, or a single machine is setup to perform a repetitive task, it most definitely is faster. Most small cabinet shops don’t deal with mass production type work. A successful cabinet shop won’t also work with single commissions, but will have a multiple of various commissioned orders with a back log that can run into the years ahead. Still one has to ask is there any truth to this misconception?  I would have to say yes and no, yes for thickness planing and ripping long thick material, and no to everything else.

Say your building a chest of through dovetailed drawers. Will the router get the job done any faster? And again I would have to say no, not for any single project. The task can be quickly and time efficiently done by hand in the same time it would take to setup a router and a jig.  

By developing a good work habit you can avoid simple mistakes and increase your production time by following some examples below.

Arranging your work to suit

You want to keep your work organised, so plan ahead. Be mindful of your workbench, you know it’s strengths and weaknesses. If your chopping a mortise, you would choose the corner of your bench as there is more solidarity minimising vibrations, noise and softening blow effects than if it were in the middle of the bench. You wouldn’t chop one mortise and one tenon to suit, but you would chop all the mortises, while marking each one as you go along with a number or a letter, then make all the tenons to suit again, marking each one that corresponds to each mortise. This will not only speed up your production time but will also eliminate mistakes and time wasting locating what fit goes where. The same principles apply to making dovetails. You would employ what we call stacking, where you lay each board on top of each other in a stair step sequence. If your sawing dovetails you can gang them up in your vice and saw multiple boards in one operation. Frank Krause made a video back in the 90’s demonstrating these techniques. It takes Frank 2 mins to saw, chop and fit two dovetailed boards, it would take longer to do the same with a router and jig setup. 

 When planing, plane all your boards rather than as the need arises, if you can afford to have several planes it would be highly recommended. You can preset these planes according to your needs, you can also save time in sharpening by having several planes, set, sharp and ready to go. Ron Herman a house wright in the United States does just that. 

 Another good method is to own several marking gauges set at different settings, here you can save a lot of time without the need to set your gauge constantly.

 Unnecessary clamping and unclamping of boards is also a huge time waste, many artisans throughout the ages avoided as much as possible clamping anything on their bench. They would either lean on it or work against a stop, for example if your chopping out some dadoes, rather than go in and out of the vice, you can have it rest against a stop.  

Another overlooked aspect of hand tool woodworking is regularly sharpening your tools in particular to hand saws. It wouldn’t be uncommon for a woodworker working twelve hours a day, six days a week not to wear out and replace his saws a few times in his lifetime. By regularly sharpening your saws as soon as you feel a slight degradation in the cut will decrease your sawing time. My new bow saw has a Japanese disposable blade, it cuts very fast, faster than any of my western saws. At first glance I couldn’t understand the reasons why until I stopped looking at everything but the obvious. It was razor sharp, so I took my western saws to the vice and took light strokes making each tooth to the same level of sharpness as my bowsaw, none of it took more than five minutes as they were already sharp but all I did was take it to the next level. Immediately there was a notable difference, it cut just as fast, one was not faster than the other. Had I not experience a Japanese saw blade I would never have made this discovery. 

 One last thing comes to mind, if a particular technique or tool works for you then stick with it, rather continue developing your skills and efficiency with what your doing than trying out someone else’s method because it works for them. Reality is, in some cases there is a right and wrong method, but if a method works for you then stick with it. What works for you might not work for me and vice versa, it all boils down to who trained us or how we trained ourselves.

Woodworking is a repetitive action, you as a craftsman decide what joints your going use and then you repeat it throughout your project. Experience develops from repetitive actions, speed develops over time through muscle memory, and muscle memory develops from repetitiveness. Work smart, not hard and remember, always safety first, if it doesn’t feel right; it’s not.


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