Saturday, November 20, 2010

How Dangerous is Hand Tool Woodworking?

Today I volunteered to sit at a table to promote SAPFM (Society of American Period Furniture Makers) during a two day event sponsored by Lie-Nielsen Tools. I used to do lots of woodworking shows and events and have talked to thousands of enthusiasts over my career.

The group, SAPFM, is one of the best groups in America for promoting traditional woodworking skills and design. They have an annual meeting at Williamsburg each January and a mid-year conference sometime in the summer at a different location.

Today, when I walked in, the first thing I noticed was a bench full of beautiful, hand made wood planes. The maker, M.S.Bickford, was casually making a dado on a piece of wood with one of his planes. There was a single person standing there watching him. The sound the wood plane made as it removed shavings from the dado was like classical music to me.

On the other side of the room was the tables filled with Lie-Nielsen metal planes, probably the finest made currently in the US. Scores of people were busy crowding around these tables as the demonstrator worked to remove shavings from a block of wood that were perhaps a million times thinner than a human hair.

I have to confess that I don't use metal planes, mostly because I cannot remember which way to turn the screw adjustment (really a stupid argument) and also because they hurt my hands, which do not usually fit the tool. I have rather large hands. It seems that I manage to hurt myself each time I pick up a metal plane. Nicks, bumps and scrapes are normal.

I have hurt myself with wood planes also. Mostly it happens when I have too much junk on the bench and my finger gets between the end of the plane and what ever it runs into.

I think metal planes are more attractive to most woodworkers because there is a perception that they are more precise. I suppose that is true, but precision is not my primary goal, and has never been. Anyone who has seen my work realizes that it is not perfect, in the absolute sense. However, it has a certain impact, and seems to impress most people who look at it, in spite of the imperfections.

There is a large group of woodworkers who are really machinists working in wood. They have expensive and dangerous power tools which perform precisely and make their job easy. They are workers who are exposed to excessive noise, toxic dust, dangerous cutting edges, and powerful tools that can eject a piece of wood with enough force to go through the wall.

I prefer the sound of a nicely tuned wood body plane as it moves through the wood, cleanly cutting the proper joint, which may be approximately perfect. The pleasure, for me, is in the process.

By the way, I tried clamping my head the other day, and that hurt a lot. Bad idea.


Mid-Hudson Woodworkers said...

Hello Patrick,

Just discovered your blog and look forward to devouring it entirely. Scarcely a day goes by that I do not recall with pleasure the days spent with you at The American School of French Marquetry.

Your comment on metal planes struck me, the part about not knowing which way to turn the adjusting screw. I have one jack plane, a Sargent VBM that the screw turns opposite from that of my Stanleys! Frustrating because you try to advance the blade and it takes the backlash tension off the blade lug. They hurt my hands too and I do not have large hands.

Chuck Walker

W. Patrick Edwards said...

Chuck, you are one of my most enthusiastic students. I am going to reach out to all the graduates of ASFM and ask them to send me photos and details on their projects. I would like this blog to be a forum for the world of marquetry. Send me something that I can write about.

For example, how about your demonstrations using that strange portable chevalet?


Peri said...

I agree about the woodworkers who seem more like machinists working in wood. I have a fellow who works for me who swears he was taught at a trade tech "college" NOT to use hand tools because they are "slow to use, clumsy to handle and dangerous...modern man must only use modern tools". I do not doubt that conversation at all. The sad thing is that this fellow with his "degree in woodworking" cannot cut a simple mortise because he cannot use a chisel properly!
For me, like you, the wood body plane makes beautiful music!
The only wooden tool I ever hurt myself on was my chevalet --I got a bruise on my shoulder from changing blades when I kept breaking them the first week I used it!
Happy Thanksgiving.

W. Patrick Edwards said...


I started taking violin lessons at the age of 12 and was one of those kids who wore braces, thick glasses and carried a violin case to school. You can imagine what kind of responses I got every day. So I was always asked about the peculiar bruise and bump which was obvious under the left side of my chin (from the violin chin rest). I made up stories which were exotic, like it is a perpetual hickey. You can wear your bruise from the chevalet in pride.

Also, I should have noted on this blog entry the standard disclaimer: "Woodworking is dangerous. Stupid people can do stupid things. I am not responsible for the reader's actions in any event. Hand screw clamps should never be applied to the skull without parental supervision."

Keep your chisels sharp and your hands in your pockets.


buy tools online australia said...

Before you start your woodworking project, you should understand the right way to operate each of your tools. You should know how to use your woodworking tools properly for your own safety.

W. Patrick Edwards said...

This comment is a very clever way to get your business posted on my website. It is automatic to note this disclaimer if you sell large, potentially dangerous machinery, which eat people as easily as they eat wood.

I wrote this particular post intending it to be funny. Clearly, if you put a clamp on your head and tighten it you will void the warranty.

Life can be dangerous, but woodworking should not be.

CNC Router Sale said...

I have to agree with you.