Preview: My Thoughts on Power Tools

Last winter as we completed the planking of a 26’ lap-strake powerboat, I was offered the use of a random orbit sander to smooth the hull.  The promise of this tool was that we should be ready for the primer coat of paint in less time and effort than with the hand sanding that we usually employed.  We had never used an electric sander in the 37 year of this shop’s existence, and it was pointed out to me that for at least 30 of those years we had never even had a table saw. (Although we use one  now, but it has only a ¼ horsepower motor and would be seen as nearly useless in most shops.)

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15 Responses So Far to “My Thoughts on Power Tools

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    Gary Prost says:

    “Fanaticism consists of redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.”
    – George Santayana

    I read Harry’s piece on two levels – on one level – it’s about the benefits of hand tools versus power tools. On another – I think, more important – level, it’s about how we live our lives. My degree is in Economics, and I think we’ve all become fanatics of economic efficiency.

    We’ve seen the huge productivity increases power tools (and computers) have brought. That means that we can produce everything we need with less time laboring at it, and (assuming that the worker’s basic economic decision is labor versus leisure, we should have a lot more time to enjoy life. But that hasn’t happened. We’re working as long or longer hours now (in the U.S.) than we did forty years ago. That means workers must be making more money, right? Well, that hasn’t worked out, either. It has allowed us to create a lot of stuff that makes us less happy and causes us to burn through our resources at a rate that there’s a strong possibility we won’t leave anything of value to our descendants.

    We’ve forgotten why we have an economy. We’ve lost our aim. We’ve gotten all these increases in efficiency, and we’ve made our lives miserable with them. It’s supposed to make our lives better. If it doesn’t, what’s the point? Yes, the gardener can get a lot more done with a leaf blower than a broom, and if it gets him back to enjoying his life sooner, then it has great value for him. I suspect that’s not the case, though. We have become Santayana’s fanatics.

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    Dennis Olmstead says:

    I loved this essay. Those of us with the time and economic status can still use the broom. Unfortunately, the working men around here doing lawn maintenance have to use leaf (dust) blowers to feed their families. They can mow and clean up a yard in under ten minutes. Can we change the whole economy so they can switch back to brooms? I wish we could.

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    Willie Castillo says:

    Harry you taught me to measure accurately to cut compound miters, cut with a tuned hand saw to split the line, drill holes longer than the drill bit could reach, and make the tools to do the job. The eye, the hand, and the mind, all coordinate to hone the skills needed to get a satisfying result, but ultimately it is the process that gives me great joy. Thanks.

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    Raymond Nolting says:

    I’ve always loved real hand tools. Still have a few of my grandfather’s who was born in 1882. I recall my dad’s 92 year-old friend, Mr. McConville, a cabinetmaker from Ireland, fixing the parquet floor in our house in Queens, NYC, with hand tools from his ancient wooden tool box. Hand drill, hammer, chisels, wooden mallet. As a little boy I used to go over to his garage to watch him work and he always took time to tell me about what he was doing. Great memories of simpler days.

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    James Greene says:

    I would add the health benefits of hand work. Every day I hear how overweight Americans are and that stress is killing us. Well put down the power tools and get a work out! Not to mention, the harmonious and therapeutic sounds of a tuned hand plane can have on your soul. Thank you Harry.

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    Justin Brown says:

    In 1982 I was building a Victorian sofa for a stage prop. I began to wonder how they did it back then and that started me on a path of building furniture with the technology and tools of the eighteenth century. I did this for quite some time but utilized power tools as my “apprentices” hogging out the rough cuts and planing to thickness without twist or warp. But ALL the joinery was done by hand: chopping mortices, dovetailing, etc. A collection of wood-bodied planes supplied the basic moulding shapes i needed and some of the joinery such as panels joined by sliding dovetail. I was having a great time with one foot in the eighteenth and one in the twentieth century. But I found out this thing: my clients just didn’t care. They didn’t see the subtle tool marks in the carvings, nor could they distinguish between the scraped surface-vs-the sanded. The few museums I supplied with “working antiques” were the only ones who cared for the difference I made. They could utilize those pieces in their living history activities, but the public witnesses of theirs, I’m sure, soon forgot. Beveling frames and transom with plane and rasp feels more comfortable and reliable to me these days, than trying it with a bandsaw. I don’t trust power tools to render what I know I can do by hand. So, I empathize with what you are about but not so much for saving the planet as just a yearning for the old ways. One thing about it, tho; if the grid ever crashes such as in the event of an EMP, our shops will still be open.

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    John Mooney says:

    What a pleasant surprise to find EF Schumacher quoted in a boatbuilding article! Thanks Harry, for reminding us about the bigger (smaller?) picture.

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    Richard Maldonado says:

    “The main problem with this great obsession for saving time is very simple: you can’t save time. You can only spend it. But you can spend it wisely or foolishly.” (OR PLEASANTLY)
    ― Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh

    The industrial mind says that more and faster is always better.
    Isn’t it a strange contradiction to try and apply this kind of mind to something that will itself move so slowly, but gracefully thru the water.
    This kind of thinking seems to have no real place in the wooden boat building shop. I started boat building, in part, so that I would slow down, so that I would take the time needed to make something well.
    The energy of each stroke of the plane or saw transfer directly into that thing that will eventually become animate upon the water, almost a living thing, so much so that it will be given it’s own name.
    Measuring the time, or dollars of a thing is the business of corporations. When is the last time you saw an automobile with it’s own unique name carefully carved in wood, guilted or painted and mounted proudly upon it’s trunk. What we see is a nameplate that tells the observer that it is just like thousands or millions of other cars that are all part of manufacturing recall.
    The sound of a rake on leaves and stone verses the whine of a leaf blower, the sound of my hand saw, plane, scraper, rasp, verses the electric motor or combustion engine, this is the choice for a higher quality of life, for time well spent. I agree that you cannot really save time, but you can spend it well.
    More posts like this one would be a great benefit to those people who are in the direct line of fire from advertisers who would have us believe that we cannot do a thing well without the latest and fastest gadget. Thanks.

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    Martin Herbert says:

    “Far more thought should be given to actual versus perceived gain in replacing an older technology with the latest innovation”. This statement is going on my shop wall. The immediate image that came to my mind was of a broom and a leaf blower. First I think of the noise pollution and then the energy used and I shake my head.
    The next day I was working on a project involving a lot of 2×2’s. I would have normally used my router to round over the edges, instead I got down my plane and did a nice chamfer, listening to the blade and the wood and the birds at the feeder. My neighbor’s morning also proceeded quietly.
    About once a month I watch Harry roll his wheelbarrow boat down to the water. Its like a therapeutic visit to the East Coast watching that video ;and not an ugly boat in sight. Thank you Harry Bryan.
    Martin Herbert

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    Paul Gill says:

    I have long wondered why economists find it so hard to step back and look at the big picture. Their forecasts never take into account the fact that resources are limited. This may have not been obvious as late as the 19th century, when new lands were still being opened up to settlement, but there is ample and stark evidence now that our natural resources are being depleted and the ecosystem is under tremendous strain. If we had even one Krugman-like economist/journalist publicly espousing Harry’s environmental ethos, we might have grounds for hope that we can establish a sane economic model. Sadly, none of our politicians or economists have the necessary vision or courage to promote such a radical change in our way of life.

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    Peter Brackenbury says:

    I did a lot of shingling last summer and spent a lot of time looking at pneumatic devices to speed it up. I got tired in the end and my brother and I spent a rewarding 9 hr. day nailing cedar on my front porch. A nailer would have made this a one person job (I wouldn’t have been able to afford 2 nailers!) and instead I got the job done and had wonderful conversations about wooden boats with my brother. The hammers were money well spent and the job was time well spent! Keep writing Harry, especially about human-powered machinery. I want to see that Bandsaw!

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    Charles Barclay says:

    One of the first rulex of management accounting is “all costing decisions are arbitrary.”

    Harry’s same logic can be applied to spraying a hull vs. roll and tipping. More expensive thinner, and cleaning of the equipment; watching 40% of the product become a volatile airborne compound…PPE needed for the user, containment, etc.

    Thanks Harry, this should make us look again at intermediate technology when we make our own costing decisions.

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    Kip Otteson says:

    Wow. What an article. This really resonates with me. Thanks again, Harry Bryan for making my day with your sage advice.

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    Suhitha Edirisinghe says:

    I agree with everything here. As a software developer with a math/econ background, I always point out these very things to people in regards to technology. An economist looks at technology as a something that will produce a product of greater economic value for a given input of resources. More value means better quality, lower cost, lower environmental costs (externalities) etc. But producing the same product slightly faster, with different and potentially higher capital costs, doesn’t really qualify. A nail is still a nail, whether it’s hammered or driven with a nail gun. It doesn’t really help you scale out production, so the capital costs aren’t necessarily worth it. Boatyards that churn out fiberglass hulls would qualify in this sense, since it allows for greater scaling and faster production, but wood is wood, no getting around that.
    Come to think of it, a real piece of technology that could change everything is something like a 3D printer. Hmm, maybe for the next boat project lol
    Love your posts and videos Harry. Keep em comin!