Best Tool for the Job

Something that I preach is that we woodworkers should use the best tool for the job. It that’s a table saw, jointer or big-honkin router, so be it. It the best tool is a handplane, egg-beater drill or sharp chisel, go for it. Mitersaw_cutTo be wholly dedicated to one woodworking discipline while ruling out others is nuts.

The story I like to tell is a tale on myself. When I built the Baltimore Card Table article for Popular Woodworking Magazine, I was more dedicated to power tools even though I used hand tools. In one of the early steps of the build, I needed to trim the ends of the brick-laid apron. I spent 20 minutes or more setting up the cut at my miter saw. Of course, the cut was square and right. (See the image from the article above.)

Years later, after hand tools began to play a bigger role in my day-to-day woodworking, I taught how to build that table at a woodworking school. When the time came to trim the apron, I grabbed my pencil and square, laid in the lines then made the cut using a hand saw. Of course, the cut was square and right. The difference was that I did not spend 20 minutes setting up the cut.

What’s important is to choose and use the best tool for the job.

In the photo below, I guess the tool would be classified as a hand tool. I  know, however, that it is the best tool for the job. Why? No only does this tool make spreading the oil/varnish mix quick to accomplish and easier to direct finish were it’s needed, the process also warms the oil ever so slightly to better allow mixture to soak into the surface.


Build Something Great!


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15 thoughts on “Best Tool for the Job

  1. Very good Glen…

    … I like to just tear off a piece of an old T-shirt to spread BLO… then, of course, I spread it out & hang it over the edge of a trash can… 🙂

    Thank you… Have a great weekend.

  2. “To be wholly dedicated to one woodworking discipline while ruling out others is nuts.”

    Ignorant generalization — would you tell a dedicated cyclist that he’s crazy for not using a motorcycle?

    1. John,

      I would certainly tell a dedicated cyclists that he should use a motorcycle. If the task was to fill a prescription for heart medication, a cyclist would be a fool to ride his bike to the store, if he had a quicker mode of transportation.

      If the task, however, was to enjoy a leisurely ride to the store (without any urgency), then the bike idea would be great.

      Most so-called “dedicated handplane users” I know allow the grunt work of board prep to be done with machines. (Even when power tools were not available, apprentices did that work.) Masters were (and are) adept at using their time more efficiently and effectively.

      1. I guess you can tell that I’m a dedicated “hand-tool-only” guy, and I can’t say that your response changes anything for me.
        I do want to say thanks for your considered and courteous response.

        1. Your “job at hand” is to use hand tools to build furniture. I, as I find with many woodworkers, look at the “job at hand” as building furniture. In my world, power tools often are the best choice.

  3. In many cases, the Skill Factor that one has enters into the decision process… as well as Likes & Dislikes enter into it…

    If I hate hand planes, I’m not going to use them… even if they’re the best tool for the job… 🙂 (just as an example… I like to use some hand planes) 🙂

    The “human Factor” must always be the final factor in making the decision… Yes? 🙂

  4. Whatever it takes to get the job done.
    I think using a combination of a little bit of everything makes us all better woodworkers.
    The more skills I try the better I get at each.
    (Ans I liked your “hand-hand tool”)
    Thank Glen.

  5. Well said, there are always many approaches to a task. A combination of them usually work best. To rule one out just because of a power cord is silly. To each their own, I do not tell people how to work. I mix it up and see the pluses and minuses of each.

    I recently put a drip edge on a installed window sill with a record 43 as it was better than setting up a router bit and I didn’t need a cord. I also planed some 2×4 stock with my delta planer for my workbench. Time is expensive and not infinite to me and I adjust accordingly.

  6. Sometimes the best method is dictated not by the tools available, nor by the preferred method, nor even by the ‘best tool for the job’.
    After finally finding a wonderful woman who could put up with me, we had kids. Their bedrooms are right above my shop space. Out went the power tools to the other shop space and the handtools came in. Now, I can work even during nap time.
    Problem is, hand tools just keep coming in…

    1. Sounds to me that, given the conditions under which you work, hand tools are the “Best Tool for the Job”. 😉

      And it’s obvious you turn off the lights in your shop when you’re not working, otherwise those pesky hand tools would multiply like that…

    2. When I wrote that post, I was thinking only about the building of furniture or doing projects. When you choose your tools for the reason that you did, you did select the “best tool.” The first time I was told that was the reason a student gravitated toward hand tools, I was amazed – it all made sense to me.

  7. This Article brought out some real good points, but I think they key concept to walk away with is, “whats your primary purpose”? we all work wood…it’s the primary intent or key drivers that really define what the “best tool” is.

    If you have a job to do, and you know you can cut your production time in half by using a large portion of machine tools, then that’s the obvious answer. your purpose is getting the job done faster while not sacrificing quality. Or, you may be that home woodworker who isn’t locked into a schedule, but simply likes the efficiency of speeding up any processes you can in the project. in that case, your need for efficiency in a sense of time/effort is the primary driving purpose.

    However, if you simply enjoy the feel of hand tools and are not in any hurry to finish the said project, your desire to work with hand tools will drive your results. you will avoid the machines. If you have a noise/dust/location issue, this can also drive your purpose, or intent. to work with wood, but in a way that doesn’t create noise/dust.

    All of the above situations make the “best tool” something different, but the end result is the same. using the best tool to get what you want out of the project. I think one other point brought up subtly in the article is this: To always be looking beyond what you do now, and your own personal perception, to ideas that could improve your woodworking. if it fits, if it is something you like, take advantage of it.

    Like using your hairy paw to spread oil finish. I had never ever even though of that, but that’s because i had a perception molded by conventional wisdom in how to apply finishes. ill have to give the hand thing a try…if i can deal with nasty, sticky silicone sealer on my hands, I can deal with smooth oils. it will be interesting to see the difference in results!

  8. For the hobbyist especially, you have to add the condition “subject to the constraints of the workspace”. I spent years wishing I could build stuff in a shop like the one I had in 8th grade shop class, but I never had the space or the money for the big power tools. So I never built anything.

    But I always had space for a small quiet hand tool workshop, I just never knew it. A 4’x6′ space that you don’t mind getting a little messy temporarily is all you need.

    That’s one reason I discipline myself to learn how to do everything entirely with hand tools, to show others they can still build things even in a constrained space.

    That opens it up to a much wider audience, helping to turn all those dreamers into doers. So I don’t see it as nuts, I see it as adapting to the situation, a perfectly rational response!

  9. Very good points Glen
    I teach adult woodworking for my local community collage and when my students ask what tool is best for the job,many times we have to improvise, because the shop I teach out of may not have the tools I have in my own shop or my student may not have the correct tool at home. So I might extend your article to
    “the best tool you can make work for the Job.”
    I’ve always enjoyed your writing. Good luck with 360 to you Chuck and Bob.

  10. Hey, if it works, it works. The proof is in the pudding !

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