Hand Tools vs Power Tools for Beginners

*** previously posted to Popular Woodworking's Blog *** 11150910_890299227699601_1969902140969695678_nDo you start a kid (or kid at heart) down the woodworking rabbit hole via hand tools, power tools or both? The more time I spend teaching woodworking, observing students learning and contemplating the woodworking teaching process, the more I’m leaning toward the idea that power-tools should be eliminated, or drastically reduced – particularly for young woodworkers.

I am not against power tools at all. In fact, I’ll only give up my band saw when you pry it from my cold dead hands. Dimensioning all the parts for my project without burning electrons? A waking nightmare. You don’t get a figure like mine as a regular wood turner if you’re stepping on a lever over and over. There are some power tools I’m not overly fond of – I’m talking to you router and table saw – but I depend on them when doing large production runs.

Last week I was in production mode as I raced to complete a display in the few days before my woodworking school’s open house. The build started as 2×12’s (a theme at the school) and ended up as simple modular frame that can be locked together via shelving, yet it’s easily adjusted for different-sized artwork. It involved a lot of repetitive, production-style woodworking – the type of work where you set up the jig, turn on the tool, and don’t turn it off or change settings for hours at a time. Work machinery is designed for. Solid design, meet boring production.

While working, I was thinking on how I could turn this into a lesson. When I was in the public school sector, it was this type of worker the local shops were saying they wanted from school programs. Conceptually, I could see making a one- or two-class series covering safety and basic uses, but after that… I couldn’t see a whole course on how to stand in front of a band saw and cut tenons. Power tools really are assembly line machinery.

Then something occurred to me. What kind of employer wants a turnkey entry-level employee in a cabinet shop? I couldn’t see anyone having a teen sign a 1099, handing them plans, pointing to the tools and saying ‘get busy’. Realistically, there’d be a training period. Shoot… even McD’s makes their employees go though a week of training. So even if kids came out of a K-12 program fluent in power tools, they’d still be going though retraining, which would likely go into much more detail due to the machines specific to the shop.

Then I began imagining what a K-12 woodshop teacher’s class must be like due to facility and budget limitations. I was a technology teacher during my K-12 career and didn’t take shop classes myself in school. But one of my better acquaintances at the campus was the 30+ years shop teacher. The school had the best of the Delta/Rockwell industrial equipment line available. Granted, most was three decades old, but in fantastic working condition and in a facility with all the best dust collection, power, sprinklers, noise cancelling and lighting that could be acquired at its launch. This gentleman typically divided the classes up into teams with chores at the beginning and end of class. Even with a double block (a class that spans two class periods but meets half as often), this would mean they really only had an hour of realistic work time in each class.

So with those limitations, I could only imagine what kind of projects the kids got to participate in. Generally something small and fast, but done as a group. So each team would rotate between the machines accomplishing a step (module), then moving on. Each student theoretically would participate, but realistically, one or two would get most of the hands-on experience.

Eighteen weeks is a semester; you spend the majority of them learning about machinery, safety, design and production cycles, then make one or two group projects. Upon graduation they’d have the impression that until they acquired like machinery, they’d not be able to accomplish similar work.

At that, something clicked in my mind that has just about pushed me over the edge in this power/hand tool in education debate.

You see, before I even taught my first web mastering, digital media, business computing or comp science class, I knew all the technology lessons I taught would be worthless to these ninth graders by the time they graduated college. Where was technology eight years ago? We were just getting into HTML 4.0 and were still JavaScript dependent for interactivity. YouTube, Mobile, Facebook, wireless, biometrics, Twitter and such weren’t around. Most of us online still used dial-up (some had upgraded to 56k!). The programs we used in webmastering no longer exist or have morphed so much to become unrecognizable!

So if I’d focused the course on that specific technology it would be disposable ed. Fun for a while, but filling the figurative landfill shortly. Teaching kids to use specific woodworking machines to accomplish a specific project all of a sudden felt exactly like me teaching a WYSIWYG program (What You See Is What You Get) to create web sites. Once that specific point and click program to make a web page program went off market, the kids would be lost.

This influenced my oddball teaching style in the classroom as I tried to use the class to teach critical thinking and analysis, and to reinforce academia (something I do today in the woodworking school). We stuck with notepad (the programming equivalent of hand tools). We did stuff like dissect eye balls to show the reasoning behind web page design, deconstruct the Blue Man Group’s act to improve animation flow, and prove math is sexy (the marketing of Diet Coke was proof).

I wanted my students to understand what and how technology was working so that no matter what program you put in front of them or how rules changed, they could figure it out. I wanted them to know that they could force the stupid computer to bend to their will and get the work done the way they wanted. They got its root motivation. WYSIWYG be damned.

Maybe they’d also take that “there’s always a way” mentality into other realms of their life too.

Which brought me back to woodworking. No matter how I analyzed the situation, teaching machinery-based woodworking to the kids seemed to lock them into the machines’ limitations. Hand tools could allow the kids to more easily understand what is happening in the interaction with the cutting edge and wood – the students would as a result better raw material for employers to mold into their businesses best interest.

Then I stepped back again and imagined myself as the student. Hand tools in a classroom environment lend themselves to smaller projects. More individualized projects. Yes, all the students might be building a box. But every student could be building his or her own, modified from a general design, to serve a personal need – something truly theirs. And we all know building small is generally quicker and many times more technical than building big. Tolerances on a 1/4″ mortise and tenon in a box are less forgiving than a 4″ timber framing joint. Knowledge can easily scale up but it’s generally harder to scale down.

Plus I imagine it’d be more efficient in an educational environment. Get 12 kids in a classroom all needing to rip a 3’ board in half. In a machine shop that’ would be a line at the table saw with unplugging, making blade adjustments, setting the fence, plugging back in and making the cut (if having each kid experience the work was a priority). But with rip saws, every kid could work simultaneously and at his or her own pace. This just seems like it would progress the class as a whole more quickly.

Now there is lots of dogma out there about hand tools vs power tools and safety from both sides. I’m not going to bore you with that. But I do want to touch one last topic: the financial costs.

Call me cheap, call me frugal, call me an idiot – but during my time in the public school sector I saw a lot of financial waste. Money tossed away that didn’t really influence the bottom line of education. I worked in a computer lab. One that generally got updated every three to four years. Thirty students meant 30 computers plus requisite software, printers, scanners, cameras, accessories and such.

One of the reasons schools say they’re eliminating shop classes is cost. For the price of a shop they could outfit three to four computer labs. So the cost/benefit in their minds lean toward the computer lab. (Off topic, but to me this is a short-term benefit because replacement costs of even a single computer lab is much higher than maintenance cost of a shop lab.)

Now let’s take that same mentality school boards are using to get rid of shops and flip it. With the capital investment a district puts into one computer lab, in how many schools could a hand-tool woodworking shop be created? And I’d bet that with the capital normally set aside for the building of one traditional industrial arts lab, every high school and middle school in the large district I worked could set up a hand tool shop. What’s more, it wouldn’t require constant upgrading and would need only inexpensive maintenance. You wouldn’t have to put it in a special room, therefore the classroom could be relocated or expanded with ease. For the most part, once the investment was made it could be used for decades.

Plus, the idea of being able to send kids home with a little kit of tools to do some homework or catch up on their own is appealing to me as a teacher.

There are some major flaws in this concept – for one, who’d teach this type of class? Finding qualified hand-tool centric instructors for every middle and high school would be problematic. Which is why I above that I was leaning hard in this direction … but haven’t jumped over the cliff yet.

What are your thoughts? What benefit would our current machinery centric K-12 woodworking education system have over what I described above? What would be other hang-ups that I haven’t discussed? Can you pull me back from the edge of this cliff, or should I jump?