The Myth about Hand Tools

The Myth about Hand Tools is,

Hand tools are slower, more primitive, clumsy tools that only mad skilled woodworkers who prefer to dress in renaissance festival clothing can master.

This tool, more, I think, than any other, created this myth.

The Low-Angle, Bevel-Up, Block Plane.

Here is the common, yet before this, untold story behind this myth.

One day a woodworker, one who has made a few nice things on his table saw, was at the hardware emporium perusing all the wonderful tools.  There amongst all the expensive little bits of steel and plastic, was a simple classic tool, the plane.

The cheapest plane there was a nice compact little tool, a Low-Angle, Bevel-Up, Block Plain.  Congradulating himself of finding this wonderful tool for such a reasonable price, he took it home and used it on some wood.

“Mangle, Shred, Tear, Rip!” Went the plane.”

“Mother-%$$#^@#^#$@!” Went the woodworker.”

The woodworker read the tiny instruction sheet, and tried to adjust the plane.  At first the plane did nothing at all, but with a bit of adjustment, it started to make a nice clean shaving and remove some wood.  But then it clogged up.

And clogged up.

And Clogged Up.


So the woodworker again adjusted the plane.

“Mangle, Shred, Tear, Rip!” Went the plane.”

“Mother-%$$#^@#^#$@!” Went the woodworker.”

After many tries the woodworker tossed it into the bottom of his tool box, to rattle around with the other rarely used tools.   And the plane was only pulled out when there was no other recourse, and hated even then.

So most woodworkers know from experience that hand tools are slower, more awkward, and likely to mangle wood.  They don’t trust a handsaw to saw straight, a chisel to cut without blowing out extra hunks of wood, and a plane to do anything but mangle the surface of wood.  So they use their power saws, routers and sandpaper to do everything, and only use the couple of hand tools when there is no other choice.

What caused this issue is a simple enough.   While being the cheap plane in the store, the Low-Angle, Bevel-Up, Block Plane is a specialized tool.  It also, like most hand tools, not ready to use.  Not ready by a long shot.  They also are not a great pick for general planing.    Without any education on tuning and use, they are not likely to make a user consider them a reliable tool.

Low-Angle, Bevel-Up Block Planes are usually just called a block plane, further concealing the fact that they are indeed a very specialized plane. For most woodworking, they are like using a spoon to cut meat. They are great for end grain and really not so great for anything else.    An expert woodworker can make it more confusing because if you really know turning, sharpening and wood grain, you can use this plane for a wide range of tasks.    If you are an expert you probably won’t.

What this plane does is clear when you look at the photo below,

On the far left, the wood is rough and dull from the saw marks left when it was cut.  On the right is the end grain surface that was polished smooth by the plane.  Shiny, clean, glowing and smooth.  This is what a Low-Angle, Bevel-Up Block Plane does best, clean up and make end grain look pretty.  But it needs to be seriously tuned up and sharpened first.


5 comments to The Myth about Hand Tools

  • Skip J.

    Ok! Now you’re talking!

    My first plane was a contractors’ grade Stanley reg angle block from Lowes. Didn’t use it much, went thru just about exactly as you describe here, except it’s not for end grain. My trip down this slope started years later, about a decade ago when I wound up with an almost new Stanley #4 smoother when my father-in-law passed away. It wouldn’t work either… But this time I started buying handtool books and reading them. Particularly about how to fettle planes, new and used. Most folks don’t have a clue that new planes are not ready to use out of the box – nowhere near ready. I had never heard the word fettle, I certainly didn’t know what it meant.

    Now I’m at 35 planes, including two different reg angle blocks and a low angle block. Need to thin the herd down tho….. Too many slopes, not enough time!


  • You just got me thinking, Skip!

    I really love Christopher Schwarz’ book on Worktables.

    One of the things he does is break down tasks, and give a rating on what fitting is best used to accomplish the task.

    I would love to see an article on plane types that goes along this line. I see listings by names and listings by Stanley number, but I have not seen one by task.

    I may put one together just so someone else can shoot it down or do a better one. I know a lot about planes, but not enough I think to be an authority here.

    I think I will ask this on Woodnet and see how far the discussion goes.


  • Skip J.

    Yes – I have CS’s Workbench book and he does just that. A high ideal to ascribe to I must say, my compliments!

    See, most non-handtools folks don’t know that you gotta have a smoother for softwoods and then another at a higher angle for hardwoods. Same thing for a jack, with a difference in camber too. Then there’s the foreplane before a jack and for some hardy souls, the scrub. I have a small scrub and a large scrub.. go figure….

    This way, you just reach up and grab the smoother to do what you want – not fiddle around with changing a blade with a different camber and/or cutting angle. Those folks with $200.00 and up new planes don’t spend any time fettling or even much sharpening. But then they buy several expensive blades to configure different ways – and then wind up spending woodworking project time changing blades out. Just to not have to buy more than five or six expensive planes.

    Well, you carry that thinking over into shaves and other tools and you just paid for a very nice tablesaw.

    Sorry – got carried away – a bit.


  • Bob: Thanks for preaching the gospel. I too am a fan of learning to appreciate and use hand tools. Over the years I’ve become more convinced that there is great fun using a well-tuned hand tool – a hand plane being perhaps the best example. Keith (

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