This article first appeared in Good Woodworking, a British magazine back in 1997. While I was very happy with the editing done for the magazine, I recently came across the original pages and thought it appropriate that I put them here on the site. You will recognize many of my ideas and opinions, most of them have not changed since then… It was also the first time that quote on the home page first appeared in print.
And yes that picture is even older than that…. and I still wear that shirt.
I was talking to my sister the other day and she said that people don’t really care how things are made. What they notice is whether or not they like something and they may not be interested in just how something is made. (And lets be honest, most people are quite ignorant of how cabinet work is made.) I think this is a shame and somewhat of an embarrassment on us as a society. But on another level, I believe people do care. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be anything on this planet really worth having.
So does it really matter how furniture is made? At the very least, it should matter to you as a cabinetmaker. Not so much as a selling point but as a basis for doing your best. How can you possibly do your best work if you are indifferent to how you accomplish it. Just what is your motivation? Is it money and efficiency rather than enjoyment of the process and quality? How you choose to work will definitely affect the results.
I have been making furniture by hand for over ten years and I still feel the best way to achieve you intended goals is with hand tools. Most people are shocked to discover the lack of power tools in my shop. And by no means do hand tools equate to sloppy joints and rough surfaces, as I work to very high standards. Nor do hand tools limit me to basic weekend projects, I have a preference for larger complex pieces, china cabinets, breakfronts and the like.
Why hand tools? I am asked this question so often I wish that I had a short, concise and comprehensive answer but I don’t. While I lack a simple answer, I can give you some good reasons for working the way I do.
The most important one is that I enjoy it. Whenever I do something with my hands there is a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that just can’t be achieved by other means. With hand tools there is no doubt that the results are directly related to my labors. Whether it’s the time taken or the quality of the results there is no mistaking just who has done the work. Besides, there is no tired like a tired you have earned….
The pace of hand work is very easy to adapt to as well. Working by hand allows you to carefully look at wood prior to cutting or think through some complex joinery without a change of pace. The steady and regular pace of working this way allows me to do better work.
The environment that hand tools create could not be better. There is very little dust or noise in my shop. I don’t need a respirator or hearing protection to safely do my job. And the chance of injuring myself or my kids in the shop has been drastically reduced and in some cases eliminated all together. When my boys, Benjamin 8 and Jeremiah 3 are with me I am thankful that I work the way I do. Caleb at less than a year, is still a bit young to be out in the shop. No matter what I am working on whether planing boards, cutting dovetails or chopping mortises they are welcome to be there with little danger to body parts or health. What has been the biggest surprise to me though is how easily they can fall asleep at my feet regardless of how much noise I am making. I guess they find my shop a pretty peaceful place. This in itself is almost reason enough to keep working by hand.
Hand tools have become a sign of quality unhurried, reminiscent of a time when very different attitudes prevailed. And while slavish devotion to the past is not good, a solid base of knowledge of the ways of the past does create a foundation for better work.
I have never wanted to be one of the crowd and working by hand does set me apart. At the present time I don’t think there are more than a handful of people in the industrialized world who do furniture work entirely by hand. Part of me would like to see this change.
I really care about what I do, not only in the end result but also in how it gets done. In today’s fast paced, almost out of control world you do not hear of too many people who love what they do for a living. While I don’t make a lot of money the payback comes in other ways. And what is so bad about making less money doing something you really care about?
Does it matter how it’s made? Yes I think it does. The things I make might be for others, how I make them is for me.
Tony Konovaloff, 1997