The average construction site is full of hard-working men
and women sweating over their craft while attached like
marionettes to the electrical grid. You’ll see them waving
thousands of dollars worth of candy-colored power tools
over their work, while trailing miles of copper gossamer
back to the nearest generating station. Ask one of them to
drill an oak plank two inches beyond the reach of their
longest extension cord, however, and they become as
productive as a three-year-old bruising grass with a toy
mower. Those that quick-draw a battery-powered tool in
response to such a challenge will lose their snugness after
the tenth or eleventh hole.
We seem to have forgotten what some of history’s best
craftspeople had no choice but to understand: The right
hand tool, with a generous application of human muscle and
skill, does the job quickly and well. A hand tool is on
intimate terms with the material it works in ways that a
shrieking, wood-shredding, finger-risking power tool cannot
approach. Despite the trend toward “more power,” a hand
tool is always a cheaper–and often more
efficient-alternative to the plugin come–latelys.
I’ve equipped my own toolbox with a few secret weapons that
make me a more productive, perhaps even more graceful,
worker than my plugged–in partners.
Brace and Bit
The need for a board to pass daylight is fundamental in
construction, and nothing bores kilowatt-free holes through
wood better than a brace and bit. Originating in fifteenth
century Europe, shaped like a set of handlebars, the modern
carpenter’s brace with spring-loaded split jaws and ratchet
was introduced in 1864. By pushing on the brace’s pivoting
“head” end and turning the middle, the carpenter can rotate
a cutting bit fixed in its “chuck” end continuously, and
with tremendous force. A ratchet allows the brace to be
used in close quarters where it can’t be turned full
Although a brace will accept any drill, an auger bit with a
lead screw which pulls the cutting edge into the wood is
most efficient. I always keep a few augers in the common
sizes up to one inch in my toolbox, along with an expansion
bit that can be adjusted to drill any size hole from one to
three inch diameters.
Using a brace and bit is as simple as lining up the bit,
holding the head steady in one hand–if possible
against the body–and turning the brace with the other
hand, as if cranking an old-fashioned ice cream freezer.
Don’t push on the bit, but allow the lead screw to feed the
cutting edge into the wood. Take a few turns in reverse now
and then to clear chips from the hole. To avoid splintering
the exit, either back the work with a piece of scrap, or
drill until the lead screw begins to break through, then
finish from the other side.
A pushdrill is ideal for fast, small holes, such as those
you need for starting screws and nails. It uses a
spring-loaded spiral shaft to rotate special “drill points”
when you apply a downward pressure to the handle. When
released, the handle springs back, ready for another
cutting stroke. A carpenter hard at work with a pushdrill
looks like he’s churning butter. Since its bits are stored
in the handle, my own pushdrill imparts an aura of
organized efficiency to my efforts. Onlookers no longer
catch me rooting through 50 pounds of tools looking for a
tiny twist drill. There is absolutely no trick to using a
pushdrill; extend your forefinger along its shaft as a
guide, start slowly, then pump like you’re rubbing two
sticks together to make a fire in the Arctic.
If you imagine a pushdrill on steroids, about 28 inches
long fully extended, you have pictured a Yankee
screwdriver. It uses a similar spring-loaded spiral action
to turn the standard array of screwdriving bits. A
carpenter wielding a Yankee is impressive, like a military
officer brandishing his saber, and effective; a stroke or
two will drive most screws. It has a switch which reverses
the driving action, or locks the shaft for use as a
ratchet-action screwdriver. A well–used Yankee can
easily keep up with an electric screw gun in soft materials
such as drywall, but since you are able to control the
speed of rotation with downward pressure, it is ideal for
driving screws in finish work as well. A Yankee paired with
a pushdrill is unsurpassed for setting hinges or cabinet
I recommend using a Yankee with either Phillips head or
square Robertson drive screws that make it easy to keep the
driving bit centered. In hardwood or finish work, drill a
pilot hole which is approximately the diameter of the screw
shank m inus the threads. If you’re driving screws into
seasoned oak or other really tough stuff, it helps to
lubricate the screws with a smear of bar or liquid soap.
Driving the screws takes no more skill than putting the
point of the screw on the mark and pushing. Use long, firm
strokes, and finish carefully to avoid over-driving.
The true measure of a carpenter’s productivity, of course,
is how quickly a large pile of shavings can be produced. An
important, often–overlooked advantage enjoyed by the
human–powered tool user is the ability to choose the
size of those shavings. The choice between fast, rough work
(large, coarse shavings) and fine, finish work (paper-thin
shavings) rarely occurs to the plugged–in
practitioner, but judiciously made, can make for a faster,
Where you desire quick wood removal, and where close (+/-
1/8″) is close enough, a hewing hatchet will make the chips
fly Where a conventional hand ax has a double-beveled
cutting edge, a hewing hatchet is sharpened to only one
bevel, with the opposite face left fiat. With some
practice, a carpenter can easily follow a straight line or
convex shapes with the flat side of the blade. You can
carve concave shapes with the beveled side. It is an ideal
tool for “taking off the high spots” in stick framing.
A good, sharp edge and a measured approach are necessary to
use a hewing hatchet. Trying to lop off too much in one
swipe will often tear grain and take the cut off the line.
Instead, use short, controlled chops to work down the line,
while supporting the work on a solid surface that won’t
damage the blade in case of a misplaced swing. Stand or
kneel so that a swing which misses or glances off the work
will also miss your knees. Wearing a three-cornered hat and
knickers is optional for this type of work.
A low-angle, adjustable-mouth block plane is useful for a
variety of more finished work, with accuracy down to the
nearest sixty-fourth of an inch. About seven inches long,
most block planes have their blades set at an angle of 20
degrees; the low-angle variety places the blade at only 12
degrees, which minimizes the tendency to tear the wood
grain. The “mouth” of the plane can be adjusted close to
the plane iron for fine work, or moved back to create a
large opening to pass thicker shavings for rougher work.
Sharpness for a block plane, as with any tool, is a virtue.
Before using the plane, adjust the mouth opening according
to how much wood you want the plane to take in one bite.
For the finest work, the merest sliver of light should be
visible between the cutting edge and the plane mouth. So
adjusted, a plane can cut end-grain wood glassy smooth,
slice through knots without tearing the surrounding grain,
and remove long grain shavings so thin they are as
transparent as onionskin. Open the mouth up to about an
eighth of an inch, and a block plane can remove the
thirty-second part of an inch at one swipe, with the clean
sound of a fingernail drawn across canvas.
Even sharp planes take a considerable amount of muscle to
work. Old molding planes were designed with a knob on the
front for hitching the tool to a team of carpenter’s
apprentices. Assuming you work alone, use your upper body,
take as long a stroke as possible, and line up each swath
carefully before putting your back into it. Rub a little
paraffin or wax on the plane’s bottom to reduce friction.
Hold the plane at a slight angle to the length of the cut
as you work to slice the wood fibers on the diagonal. If
shavings clog the mouth, either open it up or draw in the
For much of the fine work normally relegated to a heathen
belt sander-removing saw marks, smoothing glue lines or
torn grain–I recommend one of the simplest tools of
all: the cabinet scraper. Essentially nothing more than a
flat piece of tool steel, its secret is in its sharpening.
Viewed in magnified cross-section, a scraper has a T-shaped
edge. The “ears” of the T are actually burrs formed by
first filing the edge perfectly square, then rubbing a
steel burnishing tool, or the back of a gouge, at an angle
along the scraper’s edge. Use the scraper by holding it at
about a 60° angle to the work with both hands, thumbs
toward the middle, and …scraping. It should produce
feather-fine shavings, not dust. When it produces only
crumbs, it’s time to reburnish.
Learning to work with hand tools may be easier than
acquiring them. The neighborhood hardware store might have
a few, and some are available through specialty catalogs.
Have patience, and many of them will turn up at flea
markets, antique stores, and garage sales. I looked lot
years before I bought my trusty hewing hatchet for a few
dollars from a furniture dealer. Inspect an old tool
carefully. Handles must be secure. Any moving parts should
work freely and show little wear. Cutting edges must be
free from rust pitting. You can easily clean decades of
grime from wooden handles and knobs with a rag moistened w
it h a little paint stripper. Also, 2/0 steel wool and WD40
will remove surface rust.
A few dabs of oil on moving parts, a little linseed oil
rubbed into wooden handle now and then, some occasional
sharpening, and a hand tool will last generation.
Old timers used to build elaborate tool cases with ingenious
hold-down systems for each tool to secure its wood and
steel from damaging contact with others. To protect my own
hand tools, I wrap each one in a piece of canvas.
Of course, I do use power tools. But I prefer them for the
repetitive, brutish task, at which they excel. When my
fingers wrap around a hand tool, I enjoy my fraternity with
a long heritage of carpenters and cabinet
makers–through my pride in the crap, our common
material, and particularly through the tools themselves. My
brace was first my great-grandfather’s; my planes were his
son’s; my hewing hatchet belonged to an “E.W,” then an
“A.R.,” probably before my great-great-grandfather was out
of diaper,. As the chips fly, the shavings curl, and the
steel sings in my hands, I know I am hearing same tune that
these men enjoyed, and dancing the same jig over the work
those many craftspeople whose capabilities could be
measured in the keenness of their gaze, the strength of
their arms, the steadiness of their hands, and not by a
tangled length of copper.