One of JB’s favourite subjects was hand tools – or rather the advantages of hand tools over machines. Of course he had a holistic approach to the matter.
John Brown
My grandmother had y a theory that the heartbeat hadn’t altered since time began, and that the pace of life should be regulated by that fact. Even 50 years ago she could not understand what all the rush was about. She used to tell me that most of life’s ills were caused by men chasing money. I didn’t take any notice at the time, but recently have been thinking that the speed of modern life is out of synchronisation with the human body.

If we could slow our lives down there may be more time to savour the pleasant things before we rush on to something else. Woodworkers are not excused this malady, with the bulk of literature on the subject promoting the use of machines. Perhaps that is why I favour hand tools, with a little help from a bandsaw.

A young man interested in making things from wood could be excused for believing that machines are a fundamental necessity for the job. There are machines to add onto the machines we already have, with foolproof sharpening systems, more attachments and longer-lasting, sharper cutters and blades.

Hand tools have been relegated to the small ads section of most magazines, as relics of the past. Most articles and projects assume the reader has a full complement of power tools, with hints on how to get more use out of your machinery. Latterly there has been a healthy tranche of articles pronouncing concern for the depletion of the rainforests.

So for one brief shining moment I’d like to stand up for hand tools. Support their case. I appreciate that the average woodworker cannot render tree trunks into planks, and handsawing huge bulks is pure sweat. The use of a power saw is necessary and a planer/ thicknesser tempting. I believe that a return to the use of hand tools would add more value to the precious commodity we all use. Machines eat wood at an alarming rate.

In the past the main regulator on the amount of tropical hardwoods used has always been the price. The cost of first quality home-grown (a catch-all phrase that encompasses Europe) hardwoods has now become so high that some exotics are competitive. Good English oak is a luxury. However we cannot count the cost of rainforest timber in cash terms alone. Indeed we must not stop the importation of this timber altogether, as some of the voluble protesters might want.

Timber is a natural resource for these nations and they would be hard hit if their markets were so tightly shut. Sustainability is the key, and there are already caring timber merchants who are checking the suppliers for illegal logging or clear felling.

John Brown chair

With the preciousness of tropical hardwoods, and the ever-increasing cost of all wood, there is now an imbalance between the material and the labour content of the finished piece. This imbalance is exacerbated by the need for less labour with the use of more machinery.

Personally, I see woodworking as a creative activity and prefer to work in a quiet, aesthetic environment, close to my tools without respirators or ear muffs.

To a man, or woman, we try our hardest to do fine work and to produce an artefact that gives pleasure. I don’t suppose there has ever been a time when more enthusiasm has gone into producing good work. But, I ask, is there as much excitement for the finished product that has been made largely by machine?

I am reminded of a wonderful quotation by Aldo Leopold at the front of Dr Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: “We are remodelling the Alhambra with a steamshovel, and are proud of our yardage.” However I find the cost, financially and spiritually, to be too high. I prefer to spend more of my labour and less of my cash on producing furniture. It takes a little longer, but you need so much less.