Friday, December 21, 2012

What Difference Does It Make Which Tool Woodcrafters Prefer??


There's a LOT of tools out there, especially for woodcrafting and carving.  I know this for a fact because there's a Lowe's just south of me that is my second home... and a True Value with a lumber depot just north of me that is getting pretty close to it.  Also, I'm on a couple trade product magazine catalog mailing lists, so I have a pretty good idea how amazing technology has made tools these days.

I mean, you can get a Dremel drill that has wi-fi, a laser sight, and can peel potatoes from 20 paces.  Serious!  And that's the smaller one, you should see the size of the one that changes your oil in Russian and can explode large watermelons from another city!

Okay, okay, so I made it up.  It does canteloupes, not watermelons.  Still, it WOULD be pretty awesome.

But I'd like to make a tiny observation, if I may.  It involves the difference between a good power tool and a good hand tool.

There's a lot of push for the electronic stuff, and I use a lot of them.  I have an amazing 8" drill press that makes perfectly straight holes through wood, which is awesome if accuracy is required when making something like the Whackadoo v.02....

...if only because I don't have the ability to stay perfectly still with a power drill or an impact drill.  Granted, my drill press IS electric, but it is brutally effective and efficient at what I need to do.

Another power tool I use regularly is the saber (aka "jig") saw, which can cut curves and straight lines.  The only problem with it is that the blade cuts about 1/16" across, so I have to cut the wood just outside my lines.  This is what a saber saw looks like...

For what it does, tho, it does good stuff.  And it turns mid-cut on a dime.  Plus the bevel feature helps a lot.  The only downside is that it doesn't do well with small-piece cuts, because even when I use my tabletop jig station, as soon as the wood is cut all the way through, the saw kicks... not every time, but I can't tell when it will.

I picked up a coping saw from Lowe's a month or two back, for $8 and another $2 for a set of 8 blades.  Here's what one looks like, from Kobalt...

It's relatively simple, it can adjust the angle of the blade, so if you can't do a straight-cut, you can parallel-cut (in other words, cut like you normally would, but the C-holder would be to the side), and you can also cut from inside the wood piece.  So if you were to, say, cut a window into a wood block car, you simply drill a starting hole, thread the blade through, secure the blade, and then go to town on it.  After you finish, you unlatch the blade, pull it out of the wood hole, and then re-secure it back into the handle.
Now here's the meat and potatoes of what I'm trying to get to, so I do appreciate your patience.
As I mentioned, the saber saw (usually starts at about $45 for a basic model) is electric, has beveling capability, and can turn on a dime for curves and stuff.  I like it for the big stuff, like the Dippy Ducks I made....
...because I can cut a lot of wood, fast.  But... the downsides are plenty.  It's loud (I do wear protective gear), it cuts a 1/16" swath (which may not sound like much of a problem, but then it does mean I have to shift where I actually run the blade), I've already blown the bevel gears on one model (that went after about 16 months of working with it), and also it's typically now made as an "orbital" saw (which means it's not straight up-and-down, but slightly forward-back too) so the "down" side is rougher than the "up" side.  And I have the basic model, without that fancy laser thingy telling me where I already know to cut.
Now, the coping saw (starts somewhere around $8).  It's hand-powered so it's relatively quiet aside from the typical light-sawing noise.  The blade is 1/8" but cuts somewhere close to 1/32" or 1/64", essentially hair-thin so that means I don't have to move the cut far to get where I need to go.  Also, when I have to drill a hole inside the wood to get the blade through for an internal cut, I only need a 1/8" drill bit instead of the 1/4" for the saber saw (so a smaller pilot hole means less potential damage and a LOT more accuracy).  And remember how I said the saber saw turns on a dime?  The coping saw can literally turn on a pinhead, if not tighter.  So I don't need as much real estate to curve my cuts.  Add to that the ability to shave bumps off and that the coping saw isn't orbital so there's not rough finishes, and you can see some advantages.
In fact, you can make small stuff really easily (because it's designed for fine work, not tree-cutting), like these...
...relatively easy (that's an orbital sander, btw).  Plus, if you look closely at those pieces, yes, they are in fact dovetails, another bonus for the coping saw.  Don't get me wrong, saber saws can do it too, and I did try it.  But it's like using a nuke to wash your car... just too much power for the detaling.  It's one of the reasons I'm enjoying making my Corner Curio Bookcase with a coping saw, because I know I can get the tight fits I need.
There are times when I fall back on power tools, because there's simply so much to do that a hand tool might not be as time-effective due to scope.  And I do love them, I really do.  But even with all those amazing things out there (and it'd be easy for me to blow my paycheck in a heartbeat), I just feel more connected with what I build, and less like an assembly line, with a hand tool instead.  And yes, I do still use hammers and screwdrivers (though for hard woods, I do use a drill.  There are times when blood, sweat and tears isn't enough to get through pressure-treated woods and plastics!)
Then again, there are a few woodworkers out there who will swear by power tools, and they do quite fine with them.  They do some amazing stuff with those.  But it's kinda like the difference between preferring between hiking and Nascar races.  You're going to find a lot of people with toned legs and a lot of people with tanned legs.
So my best advice to you, should you be interested in any particular hobby, is this... don't be entirely set on one type of tool or another at first, experiment.  Feel how the tools fit and move in your hands.  Get a sense over what "feels right" and listen to your intuition!  If the back of your mind says, "I like it, buuuuuuut y'know what?" then figure out why it says that and research.  Hit the library, Youtube, Google, whatever.  Hell, talk to the shop staff, other carpenters and wood hobbyists, learn everything you can reasonably absorb.  But also, remember that you do have physical limits as well, so don't get something more powerful or bigger than you can handle on a bad day, when tired, or when distracted.  Safety first!
Okay, that's my thoughts for now, so I do appreciate you listening.  I hope this helps you feel not so weird about what you like about tools and woodworking because honestly, we've all been there and we all keep learning with every project.
Stay awesome, Stitchers!
--Nick The Stitch

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