After ripping fifty feet of 6/4 Southern yellow pine by hand the other day I sat down to give my arm a rest and I snap a picture for social media. It wasn’t long before a friend commented on my post that there is, in fact, such a thing as electricity these days and I was welcome to use his table saw. Curiously, I had no urge to take him up on it.
I’m the first to admit that my shop is hand-tool centered, but not exclusive. I have a few machines for specific purposes - a powered lathe, drill press and bandsaw. The lathe and drill press I make no apologies for. I love them. I am sometimes tempted to equivocate about owning a bandsaw, but I find it very useful in processing green wood for bowl turning and the occasional resaw. Most everything else is hand work.
At Mortise & Tenon we are unabashedly about exploring the possibilities of hand tools and hand work. We try not to be pretentious. We know we don’t live in the 18th century and freely admit that we wouldn’t be able to publish as we do without modern technology, but at the same time we want to encourage people to discover the joy of pre-industrial woodworking and to understand that these tools and techniques aren’t necessarily as slow as we moderns make them out to be. If anything, pre-industrial woodworking is full of efficiencies we might readily overlook.
The fore plane is a great example of this sort of efficiency, but admittedly, the rip saw is not.
I’m generally not working to anyone’s timetable but my own, and I enjoy the exercise of ripping down boards when I’m not in a rush, but there are still times I look at a pile of lumber and sigh, knowing what’s ahead. Practice equals speed with many hand tool techniques, but this is one place where almost anyone will admit that hand tools earn their reputation as slower than their mechanical counterparts. Sawing is work, and no matter how ripped you are, ripping a pile of long boards, even with the sharpest of hand saws, is not as efficient as running lumber through a bandsaw or table saw. At least, not in the way that we generally think of efficiency.
Standardized tests train you to think in hours per person per units of work, and this kind of equation makes it feel like picking up a hand saw is the equivalent of wasting one of the above variables. This logic may make sense in professional cabinet shops today, and even in pre-industrial shops of centuries past, but if you’re not totaling person/work/hours to write out paychecks or feed your family, what’s an extra day on a project intended to last decades? And honestly, of all the things that slow most of us down (or keep us from finishing projects entirely), ripping stock by hand isn’t very high on the list.
In my workshop I’m rarely on anyone’s payroll, and I welcome the challenge of handling rough stock in this way. I enjoy the test of sawing to the line. I relish the meditative rhythm of the teeth through the wood. I like feeling physically tired at the end of the day, because after hours of other stressful pursuits, it feels good for the soul.
Ripping stock by hand may represent an “inefficiency” in some ways, but once I admitted that to myself and decided that I wasn’t at all bothered by the idea, it was a short path to finding joy in it. In any case, I’ll make up the time with the fore plane and that’s an equation I can live with.
- Jim McConnell, content editor