Wednesday, August 26, 2009

testing new tools... where do we go from here?

Just before I left for New Orleans, I got a package from FedEx full of a new line of new joinery devices, so today, for me, it's back to work in the shop, and I've been testing and scratching my head. Yes the things work. Yes, they are ingenious. Yes, they are well made. But in recommending something to readers, I have to ask, would I spend my own money on it? Does it do something better that can scarcely be done without it?

And sometimes the answer is no. You can beg me to tell what it is, and I'll not tell. But I will give some rough guidelines, rules of thumb that I follow in the acquisition of tools. Is it something I would use a lot? Is it something that improves the quality as well as the efficiency of my work? Does it self-identify to the viewer?... That is, will another woodworker look at what I've done and say, "He did that with a so and so?" Guess what? If the answer to the first 2 questions is yes and the answer to the last one, no, then I might buy the thing.

So what is the problem with tools that "self-identify?" When woodworkers all over the US are shopping for tools from the same catalogs, and reading the same magazines, and not looking beyond those as their primary sources of inspiration, their work will look alike. If a tool self-identifies, and you inspire towards expression of creativity instead of boredom, look for another way, one that challenges your inventiveness or skill. Besides, I don't really like the idea that some people have that quality work is something you buy for yourself. Got money, do good work? I prefer the notion that quality come from within... Good work is a discipline that requires attention to detail and honesty of intent manifest through acquired skill.

When in doubt, don't be afraid to put the new-fangled tools aside... go back to basics, refine your skills. You earn new skills by spending time in the woodshop, and each moment is an expression of craftsmanship. Best of all, in the long run, new skills are better than new tools, hands down.


  1. Doug,

    Interesting thoughts...I agree with what you have said.

    I am constantly amazed while reading at woodworking blogs and message forums about all the new tools and gizmos that woodworkers are buying with reckless abandon - often times with no real need!

    It sometimes seems that tool acquisition (and display) is the goal as opposed to the use of the tools in pursuit of our craft. I routinely see shops full of all manner of new tools (both hand and power) and purchased jigs and often very little production of woodworking objects.

    It is interesting to see woodworkers frustrated and avoiding building pieces that they perceive to require a specialized tool to compete. Ironically, many times all that is needed is to build a simple and quick jig or fixture to accomplish the task.

    Woodworkers are missing out on an important aspect of the craft that requires developing skills of problem-solving and design when they avoid creating simple jigs and fixtures as part of their build process. As you stated, without the ability (and/or desire) to do this, our designs will become limited by what we have in our shops and/or what we think we can buy and the nearest woodworking tool outlet.

    The Craftsman's Path

  2. Anonymous2:50 PM


    As you know I work for the largest woodworking retailer here in the US and I see quite a bit of what both you and Mark mention. You know the we are the mouth of the world and the world and our leaders want us to consume. If we don't consume the whole world suffers,lol. I think that is our nature and for our industry that is a good thing.

    Yes it is unfortunate that we have more stuff then we need and as a woodworker myself I realize you do not need half of what you can buy. I really think it is about education and developing skills. However, the consumer really doesn't get the education concept because they spend there time on woodworking blog sites which pitch all kinds of woodworking goodness.
    You attend shows like the Woodworking In America and the most attended aspect is the dealer area and the woodworkers get all tingly inside at the beautifully made, perfectly sharpened and tuned products. I call them the snooty tool users. Ah well just a mini rant and I apologize for the bit of negativity.

    I think you should submit to one of the magazines you write for your criteria for new tool purchase but I don't think the advertisers would like that. As my owners says, "your job is to take all their money."
    Scrap Wood

  3. I think something is lost from woodworking when it is reduced to a series of acts of tool consumption. There is a Zen saying that "Poverty is your greatest treasure. Never trade it for an easy life."

    Inherent in the proposition of doing without is the opportunity for creativity and growth. So I believe that making do with what I have should be my first recourse. Using this strategy, one would learn to cut dovetails by hand first, learn them thoroughly, then when using a router jig when appropriate to do so, with a better understanding of objectives and a better framework for assessment of its work. If you want to run a board through the planer, you will have learned more about the qualities of the wood and the potentials of the materials if you have planed by hand first.

    But all that said, tools are a very large temptation. I sent the test tools back today and told the magazine that if they want a more positive review they should send them to another craftsman to test. I suspect (based on never seeing any) that magazines don't like to be in the position of giving negative reviews. It is not profitable to offend advertisers.

  4. Doug,

    Excellent thoughts. In the long run, all these new fangled gadgets end up becoming pillars. Giant pillars for woodworkers to hide behind. They put their trust in someone else's ingenuity rather than their own abilities or even lack of.

    Growth cannot happen without breaking the barriers of fear and comfort. Most furniture makers find themselves using fewer and fewer tools as they develop in skill and ability.

    Terrific post. Let's keep doing what we do to move the craft forward.