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rough-cut elm boardsIt’s funny – projects for me are typically easy to start: I buy some rough-cut boards, start planing them down and squaring them up, and rip or re-saw them into rough dimensions.  It’s about that time that I see the real beauty and potential of the boards I’ve bought.  I start to make plans for my project: I want this knot to show on this part and this figure to be divided up amongst these parts… and then everything comes to a screeching halt.  I’ve arrived at my main hurdle.

This hurdle was very prevalent with power tools and machine woodworking: cutting just a little too much off as it shot through the table saw or a router bit biting a little outside the line or creating a ton of irrepairable tear-out.

The hurdle is the fear of failing.  It’s the fear of ruining a board with awesome figure that I’ll never get back.  This fear in woodworking is not something I can just push past without thought.  I have to conscientiously trudge forward in order to conquer and surpass it.  But usually not without a day’s pause and a lot of daydreaming about the finished product.

Here’s what multiplies this hurdle: I’m lazy…  Or you could call it that I like to be efficient.  The way to build that perfect project with power tools is to spend half a day doing test cuts on scrap pieces of the same dimensions as your final piece (like dovetailing with a router and jig, for example).  I hate this.  I always feel that my time is wasted whenever I’m not working directly on the project – and cutting into scrap pieces or spending a ton of time building jigs, to me, is not working directly on the project.  So, as you can probably predict, there’s a lot of room for improvement for my dovetails and mortise/tenons using power tools.  Truthfully, if the figure of the wood is too beautiful to chance a “first-time run” then I will take test cuts to ensure a better product… but I still hate doing it because I feel like I’m treading water rather than swimming forward.

In using hand tools, I arrive at the same hurdle but without that multiplier.  Why?  Because with hand tools, there is no need for test cuts to ensure the jig or spacing is perfect.  You just mark where the cut needs to be (without using numbers to measure), and cut.  I like that.  I feel like I’m making progress on my project.  Sure, in the end, it may take longer than with power tools, but consider this: total up the time you spend setting up a dovetail jig, making test cuts, adjusting, making more test cuts, then cutting your piece… Unless you are mass producing dovetails (say more than 20 total), I’d be willing to bet I’d finish hand-dovetailing around the same.  I guess it’s like the Tortoise and the Hare race (power tools being the Hare and hand tools being the Tortoise).  Regardless – because I’m constantly inching forward on the actual piece of my project, I feel that my time is validated.

Even better, I find that as I continue to do more and more projects purely by hand, this fear of failure is almost eliminated altogether:

  1. First off, because hand tools don’t zip through the wood (like a table saw or router), there’s time to tell that your cut is starting to deviate from where you want it.  In my experience with power tools, I usually find that the realization comes after you’re well past the point of correction.
  2. Even if the cuts deviate slightly, it’s way easier to salvage the situation.  All you need to do is adjust fire on the mating piece (the piece that you’re joining to the salvaging piece) and the problem is usually solved.  In power tools, you would spend another half a day readjusting your jig to compensate and then starting over with another piece of wood.  I’ve not once had to scrap a piece of wood with great figure because of some sloppy handwork.  In fact, I’m almost finding that handwork can be more accurate than machines in some cases.

All in all, I still take a pause of paralysis when I get to the point of joining and shaping, but then I am comforted by the hand-tool mitigation and can put one foot in front of the other and continue to trudge on.

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