Do tools make the craftsman?

This is one of those questions that is guaranteed to spark a lively debate; sometimes also known as an argument. My position on this, to put it simply, is no. I will absolutely concede the point that “better” tools whether hand tools or machines will make it possible for a craftsman to do more work, more efficiently. But putting an inept craftsman in a shop equipped with the best tools and equipment will not make that person a better craftsman.

It’s true that anyone with a good table saw will probably be able to make a straight cut, while that same person with the best handsaw in the world probably would not be able to do so. But that does not make the person a better craftsman, just someone that can operate a machine.

There a number of companies offering very nicely carved pieces: table legs, corbels, etc. These are produced on very complex high tech carving machines. No, they would not hold up under a close inspection when looked at side by side with equivalent pieces made by a master carver. But they are not bad. However, this is not craftsmanship unless you are talking about the mastery of CNC technology and machine engineering.

I did a lot of work for a guy who envisioned himself as a maker. He was a lawyer of substantial means and, over the years, he assembled a shop that would put mine to shame. Everything in it was “the best” and in pristine condition. Looking at his shop one might easily conclude that this was the shop of, if not a master, at least a very competent woodworker. But, in truth, the guy was … well, I just have to be blunt … the guy was inept. It didn’t really matter because he rarely worked in this fabulous shop anyway. But with all of that high end equipment, and all of his top quality hand tools (he had everything), the guy was incapable of producing a piece of quality woodwork.

On the other hand, I had a good friend whose tools were completely unimpressive. A cheap table saw, and some other old, lightweight machines set up in his garage. His chisels were of particular interest because they were inexpensive “hardware store” tools with plastic handles. But if you looked closely, the edges were always razor sharp. And with this ragtag collection of hand me down equipment and hand tools acquired mostly at garage sales, this guy did the most amazing work I have ever seen.

There is no doubt that a fine tool is a joy to use, regardless of one’s level of skill. It feels good in the hand and there is a definite sense of satisfaction to be had from using it. However, this does not translate into better craftsmanship. A woodworker of little skill can get just as much satisfaction out of owning and using something like a fine table saw or an expensive hand plane as a master.

D.D.

COMMENTS

  1. Jeff wrote:

    I understand and agree with this completely. I used to work in a well known woodworking supply store. The other workers were constantly complaining that I did not use the tools that they sold. I have always preffered shopping at Sears. A tool is a tool. As long as it cuts straight and is sharp. The quality of workmanship comes from skill not expensive tools. Look at antique furniture by the famous makers. They did not have anywhere near the tools available today and yet they remain the epitome of fine woodworking.

  2. Larry Mertsching wrote:

    Had a grandfather that always said “It takes a good man to use poor tools” …

  3. Mike wrote:

    It has been said that a true master of a subject must put in a minimum of 10,000 hours to be considered a master. Doing one thing well requires not machinery or tools, but time. I have been a wood turner for 30 years professionally, I’ve done my 10,000 hours plus. My customers return because of a skill level which was reached not by the latest gadget, but by time and experience. Our greatest tools are between the ears and at the end of our arms.

  4. Carolyn wrote:

    Couldn’t agree with you more. My first husband was a musician and if we only had just one more guitar, or one more gadget, he would be great. My second husband is a photographer, and if we just had one more camera, or one more computerl, he would be great! My Father is a woodworker and has just plain tools, no fancy handles, some of his machines are over 50 years old and he can still produce better furniture than those fancy machines ever will. He hand turns better than a duplicator!

  5. Scott wrote:

    I am continually amazed by potential employees who when seeing our shop say – If I had these tools I could do this kind of work. I have yet to hire anyone who has made this statement.

  6. Keith wrote:

    Very well put. I have a friend that used to come over for the occasional piece of wood cut to specification. He’d always say, “Boy, having all those tools sure makes a difference.” I always felt like saying, “So if I gave you a Strad, you would be able to play a concerto?”

    As far as people who always believe having the ne plus ultra tool is going to make them a better craftsman. I call this the “golfer fallacy,” as in “If I had that new putter, I could knock 4 strokes off my game.” No it won’t. Sooner or later, the limiting factor is on the rubber end of the club.

  7. john beth wrote:

    A-MEN !!!

  8. Doug Bittinger wrote:

    I’m really sorry, David, still no lively debate here for I too must agree completely: tools are tools, craftsmanship is in the user. And your timing is fortuitous. Just yesterday I had a group come to tour our shop. One fellow kind of scoffed as us because our tools are not all top-of-the-line. He has an all Powermatic shop. But he also admitted that he lacks the knowledge to build anything hes proud of. Great tools dont automatically yield great work. Of course, using crappy tools makes doing great work more difficult, but its not impossible, it just takes that much more skill on the users part to compensate.

  9. john beth wrote:

    carolyn says more than can be verbalized by most. thank you, carolyn.

  10. Randy Hughes wrote:

    OK, I’ll start the debate. I agree that the tools do not make the craftsman, but they enable the craftsman to focus on those areas where automation can’t help. In today’s world, it is hard to be a craftsman in any industry and stay competitive. A cheap table saw will flutter no matter how straight your aim is, and require you to fix or adjust, taking time away from other areas where craftsmanship will show. I will be the first to say I am not a craftsman level woodworker. For me the tools help make up for my lack of expertise, and also make the outcome good enough to keep on trying. When I had to work with cheap tools, wood was not fun, and the output was as valuable as firewood. Today I may not be as warm, but the junk I make stays around longer.

  11. Jeff wrote:

    Hi Randy
    If your table saw is fluttering it is probably not just because it was cheap. It is most likely the motor is un balanced or the saw blade/arbor is warped or loose. I would be afraid to use a saw that was doing that. At least this has been my experience. I use a basic craftsman table saw that i bought new in 1992. I calibrate all of my machines at least once a month and more if I am particularly busy. No problems so far, knock on wood(pun intended), except I did have a problem with a shopsmith. I put too heavy of a bowl blank on it and it bent the main shaft. Now I have to put the part on back order and then tear the whole thing apart to replace. So in this instance if I had a more professional lathe I would have been able to turn the big blank. So tool quality can be an issue.

  12. Jeff wrote:

    Hi again Randy
    I just wanted to add that you may want to get the saw professionally looked at just to be on the safe side. We can never be too careful.

  13. Randy Hughes wrote:

    Thanks Jeff,
    I should have been more specific. I was using a small Ryobi table saw (BT6000) to cut 2″ maple and the fluttering was caused by the componentry, with no way to adjust my way out of it. I recieved some advice from some folks and invested in a Unisaw and the fluttering is no longer an issue. I used the same blade in both saws (Freud), and didn’t get any burn from either (which I would have expected with maple if the saw was out of alignment at all), just the fluttering on the Ryobi. Other than this and the million adjustments on the Ryobi, it was a nice home shop saw. The Unisaw is incredible, but I am sure jealous of the Sliding mitre tables. Still, with the Unisaw I don’t have to worry about straight, smooth cuts…they just happen. I have found similar issues with other tools that just aren’t made to tight tolerances. They tend to do OK, but leave you with a bit of re-work. I started with an old Toolkraft table saw. Other than being half deaf from the experience, it was a pretty good saw.

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