Automation in the form of CNC machines and robotics is clearly the present and future of professional woodworking. These days, virtually all of the shops I visit, regardless of size, already have a CNC machine or are actively figuring out how to add one. Even if they don’t have CNC, they’ve got laptops, tablets, and smartphones to do their design, marketing and social media promotions.

In the hobby and amateur “maker” world, CNC is the thing, too. I just saw a 4x8 CNC router kit that sells for under $500, marketed to modern makers to “be their own IKEA.” CNC choices range from the hand-held Shaper Origin, through desktop units from myriad manufacturers, on up to the big league machines we are used to seeing now in pro shops and factories.

So, for someone like me who was brought up on hand tools, should I be sending all my old hand planes and chisels to the antique shop?

Production vs. craftsmanship

The professional woodworkers I know who still make a case for hand tools tend to be in high-end custom furniture, art furniture, or specialty products such as musical instruments. The CNC advocates tend heavily toward the panel processing, cabinetry, and quantity production operations.

Arguments for hand tools steer to subjects such as less noise, less dust, less setup, no requirements for electricity. When I taught woodworking in an adult education program, I used to demonstrate how I could hand-cut dovetails faster than someone could set up a router jig to cut similar joints. Of course, if the setup were already done, there was no race. I would typically tell students that I would cut one drawer by hand but use the router if I had a whole bank of drawers to do.

Skills vs. technology

Today, the hand skills are simply going away. Most shops can’t find anybody to work and show up on time, let alone properly sharpen and set up a bench plane. Private schools that teach hand tool skills seem to be doing all right, but their students are mostly hobbyists not interested in pursuing a career.

It’s easier to invest in technology rather than training. Somebody recently told me the difference between an amateur and professional is that the amateur practices until he gets it right. The professional practices until he can’t get it wrong. Technology allows for fewer wrong outcomes with fewer hand skills involved.

Of course, there’s still some romance connected to hand tools. That’s probably why so many woodworkers feature hand planes in their logos and business cards even if you’d be hard-pressed to find one in their shop. I’m the rare old dog who does like to learn new tricks, so there is definitely a CNC machine in my future, but I’m not ready to give up my hand planes and chisels just yet.


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