It’s almost a religious debate: two camps staunchly divided and ready for battle. Or at least, sometimes the divide between hand tool users and power tool users seems this black and white. It’s either one way or the other, right? Well, not really.
Obviously, the development of powered tools dramatically changed the landscape of woodworking (among other disciplines). Power tools can dramatically reduce the time and effort to required accomplish certain tasks encountered while woodworking. They make many operations easier and more efficient. The obvious example of this is milling lumber from rough to ready. Our woodworking forefathers had to accomplish rough milling the hard way – in fact one of the first things that a budding woodworker learned in an apprentice program was to mill a board four-square with a saw and hand plane. Of course, this task required a significant amount of effort and also a great deal of skill with hand tools. The theory being that only after this skill was mastered could the apprentice move on to explore the real tasks of joinery.
Many wood workers today do not have the skills or the desire to mill rough lumber with hand tools. This is for good reason. Power tools allow us to be much more efficient and to more quickly get to the “real” work of joinery for the project at hand. This may be even more important for the amateur woodworker who may only get a few hours a week to work on a woodworking project and does not want to sacrifice those precious hours of shop-time to these types of tasks (on the flip side, an amateur may only work on one project a year and therefore could have the luxury of time to spend working exclusively with hand tools). For the most part, to the professional, time is money and the more efficient he can be at getting a project completed (without sacrificing quality) the faster he can move on to the next commission. These are all very justifiable reasons to use power tools in your woodworking.
Hand tools undoubtedly require a fair amount of skill to use efficiently. Most hand tools are devoted to a very specific need or operation (i.e. you can’t use a saw to smooth a panel). So, to complete a project proficiency is needed with a wider variety of tools. The power tool camp would say that nothing can be done as efficiently with a hand tool as with a power tool. Of course, there is a counter argument by the hand tool folks that say that if you take into account machine setup time, etc. you can do the same operation by hand as quick as with power (and a lot more peacefully, to boot). Well, like everything else, there is probably some truth in both of these arguments and the real answer is somewhere in between.
My personal view is that I would never give up my power tools because of the efficiency and productivity that they give me. They allow me to get the most out of my time in the shop and to make quick work of the more mundane tasks such as milling rough lumber for use on a project. Going a step further: I’m not going to be trading in my Table Saw or Band Saw any time soon because these tools allow me to precisely cut joinery with the repeatability necessary to create accurately fitting, high quality joints. However, there are many tasks for which hand tools simply excel. I don’t think I could live a day in the shop without my block plane, chisels and card scraper. These tools make the job of fitting a joint and/or refining a surface so easy and efficient that they have no equal in the power tool domain.
So, I think it’s best to keep an open mind when it comes to these kinds of things. It’s often the case that “you don’t know what you don’t know” until you’ve experienced the alternative. The best way to learn new things is to be open-minded to alternatives and then to try them for yourself. When it comes to the debate over which is right, hand tools or power tools, there is an equal opportunity for both in the shop and in fact a good mix of both is probably the best choice for the almost any woodworker.
For some other reading on this subject, Robert Lang recently shared his views in a good article over at the Popular Woodworking Blog.