“…picked up a (mallet) and a little piece of (oak)…”

My kids have been asking to hear the song John Henry over & over again lately. We have the Bruce Springsteen CD called We Shall Overcome: the Seeger Sessions. It’s pretty lively music. They are particularly interested in the part where John Henry hammered so hard that he broke his heart & died…

I have just told them that he laid railroad track (trains are a big deal…) but it’s difficult to run down the whole man versus machine thing for 4 yr olds. So I save that for later…

 But the John Henry story is important for me, in a way. Being a hand-tool enthusiast, I have no interest in machine woodworking. If other people want to spend their time that way, that’s their business. Just keep it away from me. 8 months out of the year, I work in front of the museum-going public, answering questions about the woodworking & furniture aspects of 17th-century England and New England. Some folks I meet are woodworkers, some are not. I often get the question “Did you use a router to carve this?”
I didn’t even know it was possible to do so, but if you live long enough, you see all kinds of things in this world. Last night, I saw video on the web of a guy carving a 17th-century style panel with a laminate trimmer…I couldn’t believe it. It was so horrible I couldn’t look away.  The video ultimately answered the constant question – how long does it take? And the fellow said he spends over 4 hours per panel. Works with the router first, to remove the background, then chops the edges of the outline with gouges…I didn’t stay to see the end. I had seen enough.

 The panel in question is one I know very well, having carved it many times; and seen about 5 original chests decorated with the design. I hadn’t timed one of these panels in a while, so I took out some white oak, some gouges & mallet, a clock & camera and carved one today.

panel, joined chest, c. 1635-1680


I spent about 5 minutes laying out the grid for the pattern. (the video used a template, but the original work clearly used a pair of compasses, a marking gauge, awl & square. Perhaps a ruler, but not really necessary.) I scribed four half-circles to define the ends of the pattern. That’s where I was at 10:30 this morning, and it was nailed to the bench ready for working. Then I started carving. I won’t show you the blow-by-blow, partly because I wanted to just carve it, not produce a photo essay on carving it. (that takes a longggg time).

15 minutes, most of the outline done

It took 25 minutes to carve the entire outline of the panel. Some of this was V-tool work, some was struck with gouges. Then fifteen more minutes to remove the background. And that was it. Forty minutes, and the panel could go in a chest, and be essentially just the same as the original work…

25 minutes
40 minutes


finished panel


I intentionally tried to go as fast as I could. If I had taken my time, the panel would have been even better; and still under an hour. I didn’t have my notes & photos with me when I carved it, so was mostly going on memory. Mine has less background than the original; but its background is faceted, as it should be…

Score one for the John Henrys of the world. SO HERE”S MY HARSH OPINION – If you want to copy something made by hand, with hand tools – use hand tools. You learn more, have more fun. And get better results. BUT it takes one other ingredient – practice.

24 thoughts on ““…picked up a (mallet) and a little piece of (oak)…”

  1. We live in a world of “it needs to be a displayable or usable piece on the first try”

    There aren’t a lot of folks who like to try things several times without success, but fortunately, it seems like that number is increasing.

    Whether or not it can survive or thrive in the age of the ever more affordable CNC router is a question that is yet to be answered.

    • well, I’m not sure I agree. My friend Drew Langsner & I were talking on the subject of practice one day. Musicians, athletes – these are examples of folks who practice. Drew told me of a smith he knows who when he starts up his forge, makes some nails just to warm up. I practice carving all the time; turning too. I often burn what I produce, or in the case of the carving, plane it off & re-use the piece.

      I hope you are right about the tide turning; and people taking some time to hone a skill…
      thanks for the comment.

  2. Lovely work, I doubt I could even draw it let alone carve it. But it would be very satisfying to be able to accomplish such work.
    Le Loup.

  3. Hi Peter,
    I’ve been reading your blog for several months and this is my favorite post so far.
    I work in a school where the faculty have decided not to permit a microwave in the kitchen. The students beg for one (they even volunteer to bring it in), yet we are steadfast in our refusal, for various reasons.
    Last month a colleague was making chocolate truffles as a fundraiser with 11th graders. She asked the faculty’s permission for the microwave because she had “never used a double boiler and was too intimidated to try it.” The microwave would be used in short bursts of 30 seconds until the choco was melted. I volunteered to teach her, which took 1 minute and used a pot and a metal mixing bowl that were in the kitchen already. Melting the chocolate took 2 minutes without the risk of burning — almost no attention required. (The microwave would have to be opened and checked periodically to avoid scalding the chocolate.) Voila — old technology was clearly more effective.
    Plus the added bonus: most people can actually understand the working of the “double boiler,” whereas the microwave remains a mystery black box to most.

  4. Peter, why not mention Robin Wood’s youtube video… I fully agree…we need the rest of the world to open their eyes. I’m still practicing.

  5. While I agree with your main point about practice and acknowledge that many skills won’t be developed if power tools are relied on, why be doctrinaire to such a “harsh” degree? An example: Alan Breed. His work is way, way up there, and he uses power tools to waste material and to prepare stock. There are many similar examples of outstanding craftsmen who use both hand and power tools in their work. I don’t believe it has to be all one or the other.

    • I agree that for some people, power tools make sense. Not for me, however. I just don’t like them. and for carving, the best way to carve designs in wood is with gouges & chisels. Machines don’t make it there…

    • I totaly agree with you and i think if our fore fathers had routers they would have used them too no doubt

  6. Hear here! I like your perspective a lot Peter.

    … and I don’t consider it either doctrinaire or harsh. People should be able to make their own decisions without being labeled.

    Thanks for the short demo.

  7. It is one thing to make a chest. It is another to clam to be making a chest “by hand” and then start sneaking around the planer and the jointer and the bandsaw. But everybody seems to missing the point: even in industrial production, if it is more efficient to do certain steps in a process by hand, they do it. Also, Peter said, I do mine in a hour, this other guy with the router (and a horrible Massachusetts accent, and I grew up there and don’t sound like that) took four hours. And his panels suck. He also got all the dimensions of the stiles and rails wrong, even though they are available in Robert Blair St. George’s 1979 article about the shop tradition that made the chests and in The Wrought Covenant. So the real point we’re driving at is, such people are marketing handicraft designs to people with a garage full of machines, and it doesn’t make any sense. We’re not Arts & Crafts ideologues, we’re historians of woodworking. NEVERTHELESS it pisses me off that this guy got a TV show because he’s “hot” or some such twaddle.

  8. Peter,
    Do you have a sense how your speed would have stacked up against the original John Henry’s? Period carvers who struggled to keep two steps ahead of the bill collectors.


  9. Hello Peter,
    Another great article.I continue to find lots of inspiration from all the posts on your blogs.I am very much on your wavelength there,and have myself also been enjoying the wonders,of working green oak with hand tools,(partly inspired by early articles of yours on John Alexanders site,)keep up the good work,
    many thanks to you,


  10. There are most definitely things that can be done more quickly (and better) with handtools than with power tools. And some things that just can’t be done with power tools (tiny, profiled scratch stock comes to mind). That said, I’m not quite ready to toss out my table saw and planer. But maybe someday….

  11. There is general agreement that many things can be done more efficiently and better with hand tools, and there are certainly results that can only be achieved by using hand tools. But, as Peter suggested above, that requires practiced skill, which is, for many of us, part of the attraction.

    I haven’t seen the video, and I don’t know who this poor fellow is who has sentenced himself to listen to the scream of a router, but I guess it’s his loss — too.

  12. The thing that is kind of bizarre is that the hand skills required to do the job with a laminate trimmer probably required a more than a little practice too.

    I couldn’t find the guy online, but on the other hand, I would bet that he just pulls a kiln-dried board off a pile, touches it up on a belt sander to remove the milling marks, and then gets to work. If you count the extra time to find a good log, rive and then square up a board, the time difference would not be so pronounced, and the end product (does it also take longer to carve hard dry stock with chisels and gouges?) harmonizes better with a piece of furniture largely produced with machines and sanders.

    But that’s the big difference — Peter has his art on the wall at the MFA, but somebody using machines and laminate trimmers will never come close.

    • “pulls a kiln-dried board off a pile”

      I am a just a blog reader and not a carver. So indeed Thomas MacDonald for example works hard on dried white oak, saying the wood is to hard for his chisels. He says the originals where probably made with green wood. But as it is a ‘You Can Do That’ project, it seems honest work to me.

  13. Well nobody wants to be hard on Mark the North Bennett Street graduate, especially since he looks like he could beat us all up. And he is correct in thinking that the biggest woodworking audience is the one Norm Abrams built, the power tools weekend warriors. Nevetheless, you’d think he could have compromised. Maybe carve the panels in green riven wood, then make the rest with machines. And why choose that kind of project? Other than the fact that he learned how to make it “somewhere.”

  14. Don’t know how I missed this blog and its comments. Excellent discussion. Bear in mine that the workpiece is green oak that is rived on the ray plane and allowed to dry until it is workable moisture content. Thatis best for carving. It is hard to power or handsaw to a ray plane. Strart with green wood and a fro, and there it is! ready for clean up. The lumberyard is not the place to start. Nor your saw. Wood is wonderful. If any reader hasn’t yet split stock on the ray plane. Go to an oak an knock an as or hatchet into the plane with a wooden club firewood pile

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