thoughts on hand tools and green wood

“I am pretty sure IF a woodworker in the 17th century would have had access to a table saw – he would have used it.”

Recently the above quote was included in a string of comments to a post Chris Schwarz wrote about the joint stool book. http://blog.lostartpress.com/2012/09/07/without-a-scrap-of-crap/
I hear this line of thinking again & again when people see the way I work and hear some of the reasoning behind my methods. It doesn’t bother me much when people express this idea, but I think it’s pretty much meaningless. I decided to add my two cents’ worth – here’s some of it.

Lincoln chair, red oak, walnut & maple

I make reproductions of seventeenth-century furniture from England both Old and New. I have no interest in going back in time to the 17th century. (What? No Grateful Dead? Arrrrgghhh…) But I love the furniture from that period. For nearly 25 years I have been fascinated by this work, and the idea that it can be made with timber containing a significantly higher moisture content than what many of us are used to. In my on-going study of this work the idea has been to understand what it took to make this stuff in the first place. That means using a tool kit that is as close to the period tools as reasonably possible. I have some handmade tools, but nowhere near a full set. Probably never will have…most of my toolkit is a mixture of 19th-21st-century tools.

some PF tools

Now about the notion of studying period pieces for reproduction purposes. I have no qualm with folks who want to use tablesaws and other “modern” (I dislike the term “power” – my hatchet is quite powerful…) tools. If that’s how people want to work that’s fine with me. But that hinders your understanding of period furniture work. Usually you can see in a finished piece if the work was machined, even when skimmed by hand as the final finish. I am not interested in going whole-hog back to the 17th century. I like comfortable shoes, I have a nice anti-fatigue mat at my bench…I have done woodworking with the raking light from the windows versus electric light. I like it, but my shop is not my own, so that’s out of my hands. Overhead light I find annoying. But for the edge tools and the wood – I try to get them closely aligned with period practice. I study surviving pieces in detail whenever I get near them. I continue to find things on pieces that I have known for over 20 years.

joined stool, aprons to stile, showing mortise layout

To understand the significance in the period of a carved joined chest, we should know something about how much time it takes to make it. The most direct and effective way to gather that information is to make many of them, in something close to a period manner. Only then will we get it. My friend Ted Curtin made his first joined chest umpteen years ago at Plimoth Plantation. If I remember correctly he said it took a couple hundred hours. If he had stopped at one, then we’d have a skewed view of the chest’s worth. Over time, Ted got fast (til he became a school teacher!) and he & I reached a point at which either of us could make a chest in about 60-75 hours.

I’ve specialized in using green, riven oak. I have built joined work using pitsawn oak, millsawn oak & other woods, air-dried, kiln-dried. Quartersawn, flatsawn and in-between. All of it. My preference is riven green oak. It’s the best there is.

(way back I did a post about pitsawing at Plimoth, including a short snippet of me back in the pit after many years… https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2010/02/05/pitsawing/ and here’s recent stuff from the guys on pitsawing. No summer work for me, that. Winter only http://blogs.plimoth.org/rivenword/?p=3855 )

I nowadays buy a log from the sawmill, and use a chainsaw for cross-cutting the 2-foot diameter oaks that I tend to use. I have in the past felled trees and cross-cut logs this size with handsaws. I don’t intend to do it again. That means once a month or so for about half-an-hour I use a “power tool.” I hate the use of them, cantankerous to start and maintain. Loud, rumbly & noxious. But worth it to get the log to length. My preferred method is to get someone else to take the chainsaw to the log. Once it’s cut to length and I have split it into quarters, I do any further cross-cuts with a handsaw.

But in the woodpile and the shop, handtools are the way to go for me. It comes down to how I want to spend my time. Personally, I have no interest in working with machines. I dislike the noise and the dust. I’d much rather spend my time listening to the sound of a hatchet over that of the tablesaw, a plane over a planer, and so on.

I have been lucky beyond imagination in that I make my living doing woodworking that doesn’t have to meet a bottom line. I build furniture in a museum. People pay money to come see, among other things, my work. But, if this were not my living, I’d be like many people out there on the web – working wood with hand tools for my enjoyment. Period. I often maintain that if I had to sell my furniture to make my living, it would not work the way I do it.

I’m not trying to convert anyone from machines to hand tools. I think that for the amatuer it’s a great way to work wood, but all I am doing is showing folks how I do what I do. What people do with that information is up to them. Sort of a “Take what you need & leave the rest” situation.

While I was thinking about this subject & writing this post, I came across a short piece I wrote when Woodwork magazine did a feature on my work…I’ve posted it as a page here, and if you’d care to go back & see what I wrote in 2004 have a look.  https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/hand-tools-green-wood/

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31 thoughts on “thoughts on hand tools and green wood

  1. Well explained, Peter. You hit the hand forged nail on the head with the line
    ” I make my living doing woodworking that doesn’t have to meet a bottom line.” I think that when guys make comments like the one you opened with it is in the context of having to produce wood furniture to pay the rent. And, also, there is defensiveness that prompts such comments, let’s face it. Most guys couldn’t make kindling with axe or hatchet, and that is a threat to one’s manhood.

    • Your last line made me smile. I was out camping last summer and my niece brought her friend along. As I was making kindling with the hatchet quickly and efficiently, (I grew up with wood heat) she declared my “Skills to be legit!” in a note of surprise.

      It’s a simple thing to be able to handle an axe/hatchet but it’s quickly becoming a lost skill.

  2. This is a little off-topic, but I’m going to take the time to thank you for getting me addicted to carving spoons. I saw you on Roy Underhill’s show earlier this year and promptly put an order in with Del Stubbs for a slojd and a hook knife. A couple months later, I was making “spoon-shaped wood things.” I think I’ve gotten better! I now have co-workers bringing me their “prunings.” So far, my wife is still good with my new obsession – I still have all my fingers.

    I hope none of my friends or family read this, but there will be spoons for Christmas!

    So again, thank you!

  3. Well written Peter, I feel the same way. As an amatuer doing this only a little more than 2 years I know I have learned so much more than if I had used only machines. Sometimes people do take offense if a handtool user takes pride in their craft most likely because it reminds certain folks that they are unable to produce the same results without plug in gadgets.

    I feel a deep comunication working with wood using handtool methods and still hearing nature as I do it. I apprecaite your ideas and all of the artisans time on here and thanks for your inspirational work!

    P.S. Your recent Woodrights Shop appearances were a blast……thanks for the spoon carving bug!….lol.

    All the best,

    Joe

  4. Mr. Follansbee I salute you and what you do. It’s genuine, and gorgeous stuff.

    By the way, I think we need to make a small production line of t-shirts with: “my hatchet is quite powerful…” printed across the chest. Love to you!

    Adam, of Oakland, Ca

  5. All I can reply with is thus:

    I always loved 17th century “slightly-post-medieval” work and upon stumbling on your blog Peter….its changed my life. I just got invited to speak on my work at a local Maryland state event….because ….”once you go green you never go saween” or “its all about the water content baybee!

    Ah geesh, allergy meds kickin in…

  6. I am a hobby woodworker, so like you, I can work as I choose. As I grow older. I am less and less drawn to power tools. I think that part of it started as an aversion to people who insist that electric powered sanding is always preferable to old fashioned planes. The other part is the historian in me. My field of expertise was the 18th century, close enough to what you do to rely heavily on man powered hand tools. One thing I always wanted to do was teach a course on colonial America while actually making a barrel in front of the class. I never had the opportunity or the necessary skills but I really do believe that no one will ever understand the economy of the era without understanding the way people worked. They needed quality but were constantly pushed for production. The mortises in your joint stools are a perfect example-strong, tight, good looking, suited to green wood and a hell of a lot faster to make by hand than the perfectly fit mortises of today which are more suited to modern tools and kiln dried wood.

    From an artistic point of view I was blown away the first time I saw one of your carved and painted pieces. I had seen originals in museums. For the most part they were dark. Your paint, when fresh, enhances the carving. Fresh oak is a fairly light wood. Color, light wood, dark interiors, small windows, candles and fireplaces. Suddenly it all came together for me!. The hellfire theology of the Puritans (and Pilgrims were extreme Puritans) was positively raucous. So were the people. There may have been a dark side to their beliefs but all was not doom and gloom. After all, there was a sense of mission and of hope, opportunity and promise in this great leap of faith into an American wilderness. Carving to catch light and color to reflect it brightened their lives. Smokey interiors and oil finishes caused the pieces to darken quickly but the old, dark pieces better reflect the joinery, practical use and overall proportions than original appearance.

    I get preachy but what I want to convey was my sudden sense of revelation. I thank you for that. I don’t think it would have been possible had you chosen to work with modern electric tools, chemically compounded finishes etc. I guess sometimes you have to walk in a man’s shoes to understand.

    Thank you,

    George Lough

  7. Well said George.
    this all too common idea that making historic pieces with all the modern tools is better than the old way misses some important points. Sure, it can sometimes be faster, especially if you’re making 50 instead of 1. Nothing like modern tools for repeatability and raw power.
    However, if your aim is to understand the period and the original piece, the modern tools make that very difficult. Understanding how material characteristics, fashion, cost, and tool technology all fit together is best learned by trying out your theories in the workshop. There are many little clues surviving on old pieces that if noted -and here Peter Follansbee shines- can tell a lot about typical workmen’s attitudes and practice.
    The choice is also about how much like the originals you want your work to be. To capture the subtleties of “rough” and quickly done 17th century pieces is not easy by machine. The results are usually like comparing player piano music to good live performance. All the dimensions are correct but all the life is gone.

  8. Peter — well said. I am a woodturner and woodworker. I was taught “traditional” woodworking in my teens, and have worked in modern cabinet shops as well. There is a different feel to working wood by hand tools; one that keeps drawing me back.

    I am reminded of the following quote:

    “I think that if I did not work with wood, my life would be a hollow emptiness. If I did not form and shape and build, what would I have done to leave my mark on the world.

    “My eyes have been filled with the endlessly changing patterns of the grains. I have felt the warmth of a thousand suns in my hands every day. I have smelled the rich, tangy odors of the freshly hewn chips.

    “These are the things that have made my life so fine.
    These are the most precious things that I can leave for you, my son.”

    ~Jonas Wainwright, master carpenter, from a letter to his son, 1832.
    Quoted from “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker”, Lost Art Press (C)2009

  9. It seems that sometimes people do not make the connection between the tools and methods and the work produced. Certainly, the 17th century joiner who found himself with access to a working table saw would have used it. But he would not have produced the same pieces as he made with his hand tools. He would have, rapidly, adapted his work to his new tool.

  10. Very well put. As always, I appreciate your wisdom. Maybe someday I can work out a trip from CA. to take one of your classes. When Megan posted her experience I responded that it sounded like heaven to me.

  11. . . . floor seats for a three show run at the Garden, on Phil’s side, with a Dark Star tease and a Loose Lucy encore. . . sorry 17th C.

  12. Even professionals who have to earn a living with power tools can enjoy and learn from methods and practices of the past. Reading your book has reminded me of many lessons about the material hard won over the years and all too easily ignored as I am stuffing door number sixty through the wide-belt. The day I stop learning will be the day I start dying. That red oak in the front yard I took down this summer may not all end up in the firewood pile. My boys (5 and 3) and I are building a shaving horse, because apparently 70 hours a week in the shop ain’t enough for me. Living history museum? sounds like a slice of heaven to me. Continue exploring, and please continue to share your discoveries with the rest of us.
    p.s. I’ll sleep when I am dead

  13. I’ll buy into the joys of the feel and rythm of using handtools, certainly agree with not being able to understand original pieces without using something like original techniques, but it seems to me that handtool work is both faster and less drudgery than most people think , and that woodworking machinery is not as quick and easy to use as it might seem.

  14. Thank you Peter, you honor our craft and set a wonderful example of so many “lost truths,” to the ways of original woodworking.

  15. Peter,
    I have followed your blog for some time, and I really appreciate this post. I too work wood in a museum environment. Believe it or not I am a wheelwright, and produce 18th century vehicles in front of the public. In the shop I work in we rive our spokes, hand plane all of our stock, and of course do all of our joinery by hand. This has been my full time occupation for nearly eight years (I am 27). I share your love of white oak, though we dry all of our material (to include ash and elm) about a year per inch of thickness. I encounter the power tool question/comment daily, and while it used to bother me, I have come to realize that it is often made as a result of someone feeling inferior because of their lack of ability with hand tools. I am quick to point out that regardless of the type of tool, practice is what makes someone good at their work. I am fortunate enough to have had lots of practice with hand tools and proper instruction in their use. I also get the impression from many people that they believe the physical exertion required when using hand tools to be excessive. I find that the work I do has made me stronger and healthier, an opportunity not afforded in many modern professions. I could not agree more with your comments about understanding work from the past by using the original construction methods to reproduce it. Doing something the way it was done historically allows us a glimpse at why it may have been done. To attempt it another way seems pointless to me. In essence, I find that working wood by hand is healthy, fulfilling, and educational. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Thank you for doing the work you do and sharing it on your blog.

  16. A table saw is of little use in handling small pieces of wet wood. It’s o. k. for plywood. But while we’re on the subject of sawing, let’s not forget the Dutch had a major industry sawing wood, but they also provided riven wood for export. Further, beyond pit-sawing, many shops used a small saw strained in frame for reducing stock lengthwise and for veneer. If Peter was making objects extensively veneered with exotic woods, he might use that smaller framed saw more often. If I had unlimited resources, I’d commission a Boston-style case piece made with cedrela, cocobolo, snakewood, ebony, etc., and then that might have some impact. Across the board, Peter is right, and the people who say woodworkers would have used power tools if they had access to them don’t get the entire point.

  17. Hi Peter,

    I like reading and thinking about what others have read before entering my “two cents.” It would seem that most participants here, unlike other blogs, agree with most of what you have to write. I’m no different.

    What is worth sharing is some simple realities that so many Americans seem to forget. The world of “green woodworking,” is very much alive and well. I would even wager the bet, that if you are speaking of human hands on wood, not large volume industrial machines, most wood worked in the world is worked “green.” Even the wood, by the millions of board foot volume, that is rendered into everyday used products, (i.e. pallets, fruit boxes, shipping crates, etc.) all go into the machine “wet” and dry in there new shaped form. Globally, it is a relatively small amount of wood that is kiln or substantially air dried, which goes into production of wood products.

    As a timber framer specializing in the obscure folk styles of Middle Eastern and Asian origin, I have noted most craftsmen in these regions; all use hand tools more than machines. Often passing them up for the same reasons we are discussing. They are noisy, they are dangerous, they cost to much to own-operated and in most cases are not that much, (if at all,) faster.

  18. I will add my thanks to the stream here, as I’ve (re) discovered a world of woodworking and carving. I can’t work in green wood, it’s just not feasible in my life right now, but I love to read about it, and learn about it.

    However, there is a lot to learn regarding hand tool wood working even without being able to work green wood. Layout techniques, and philosophy (using dividers, and getting over the need to measure everything) have been really helpful for me. I’ve been working carving things inspired by your work, and the resources you’ve shared. I’ve gone down some of my own research pathways because you exposed the first steps. I’ve been looking at old furniture in a whole new way.

    Badger

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  20. A table saw is of little use in handling small pieces of wet wood. It’s o. k. for plywood. But while we’re on the subject of sawing, let’s not forget the Dutch had a major industry sawing wood

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  22. Reblogged this on Froe Yo and commented:
    “Personally, I have no interest in working with machines. I dislike the noise and the dust. I’d much rather spend my time listening to the sound of a hatchet over that of the tablesaw, a plane over a planer, and so on.”
    This is a great post from Peter Follansbee, the joiner at Plimouth Plantation in Massachusetts, about why he uses hand tools.

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