Thicknessing with hand planes might seem like a slog. It’s certainly physical work, and if there’s a lot of boards to thickness, then it could soon become a workout. But with the right technique, planing wood by hand should feel more like a nice brisk walk, than an uphill struggle.
Related: Should you traverse the board? Learn about hand planing techniques.
What do you reckon to dovetail jigs for routers?
I would guess that many of you are reading because you’re hand tool lovers. Perhaps a dovetail jig is the ultimate crime, & the thought is making you regurgitate your dinner?
Or maybe you’re more open minded and anything goes so long as you’re enjoying yourself?
Personally I’ve never used a dovetail jig. I don’t think much of the results, or anything about them.
If I need to be quick, then scruffy, hand cut dovetails will hold remarkably well. And if I need to be presentable, then I definitely won’t be reaching for the router.
Lately I’ve been getting back used to having a hand tool only workshop. It’s brought me to pondering on the perception, that the preparation and thicknessing of boards is really just the ‘donkey work’.
I’ve always enjoyed the processes of planing wood by hand, right from the rough preparation stages. It’s something that I’ll do the majority of time when I’m building furniture.
But I’m also happy to have access to a machine thicknesser, and quite content with the excuse that I can throw my boards through at the start of a project.
After all, it’s ‘just the donkey work’.
A Hand Tool Only Workshop
I have no machines in my new workshop, so I’ve had plenty of opportunity to ask why I’m happy to call it this.
‘Donkey work’ seems such a disrespectful term for a set of skills which I happen to feel are so important to the craft of woodworking.
I’ve concluded that it’s no more than an excuse for making me feel ok, when I can’t be bothered to prep by hand.
A little like when my neighbour pops for a ‘Quick Smokey’. His quaint term, which perhaps relieves some of the guilt of going to quaff on a fag.
Planing Wood By Hand
Avoiding The Ear Muffs!
Each of us has different intensions for what our furniture will be, and why we build. We’ll also avoid different processes because we don’t like doing them.
I don’t sand because I hate sanding, it’s as simple as that. No excuse should be needed.
Creating my new hand tool workshop, is helping me to remember exactly how I like to woodwork, when it’s all on my terms.
I know if I start a project and think, ‘first job, ear muffs!’ then I’ve started it wrong. Both my mind and thoughts on the project have started on the wrong foot.
There are many reasons why I enjoy the process of hand prepping. With a small item of furniture and the right approach it doesn’t even take that long.
There’s a lot more I’d like to share at some time, about why I feel hand thicknessing is an important stage in a project.
The question for now though; at what point did dovetailing become such an important process to the hand tool woodworker, compared to the prepping and thicknessing of boards?
Why would I feel any more dissatisfied in cutting dovetails with a router, than running my stock through a planer?
I’m asking this of myself personally, and not suggesting that any of us need to excuse the way in which we choose to work.
I’ve come to realise that in my workshop there’s no reason that hand thicknessing should be considered an inferior skill to practice than any other.
I could equally start to call case dovetails on a large carcass donkey work, when there’s a lot to do. Especially since they’ll be barely visible once covered with a moulding.
And most mortice and tenons won’t be seen once assembled.
Hand prepping is probably one job, that will give you the most knowledge of your timber. And Planing wood by hand builds up the many skills, that you’ll benefit from at every stage of a project. Yet it is likely the job that the least number of people do.
I’ve decided to never again call the prepping the donkey work, and would love to dull the perception that it has to be a time consuming and boring task.
It will teach you to read your timber momentarily ,and become a problem solver to many difficulties you’ll come in to.
Prepping with hand planes is certainly a very valuable process to learn.
Vic Tesolin says
I have to admit that I am also guilty of referring to dimensioning and stock prep as ‘scut work’, your post has caused me to rethink this. I personally feel that the more tasks you do with hand tools the closer you become to the work. When I have to muck out each of the eight mortises for a simple table, I have more invested in the piece and it becomes dearer to me.
This is why I like reading your posts – there is always something to think about in the end. Having recently sold my power jointer and table saw, I’m left looking at a band saw, thickness planer and drill press wondering which one will go next.
Thanks again for a thoughtful post. Vic
It’s nice to hear from you Vic. I agree that through using your hand tools you are adding a lot of yourself to your work and I find the prep work to be one of the most important stages myself for feeling a connection with it. I always regret if I haven’t started out with a hand plane, it seems to have less soul when the stock is too perfect.
Eddy Flynn says
A good point well made ,
Graham Haydon says
Nice article Richard. Maybe the term Donkey creates the wrong perception. After all a donkey is hardworking creature that’s needs little in the way of luxury to keep plodding on and doing the work. On stock prep I fully agree having the knowledge to prepare stock is very useful, especially when presented with wide stock that will not fit through the machines. I do and will prepare stock by hand but I need to be in the right mindset, sometimes I just want it done quick.
Paul Bouchard says
I find effort expended in dimensioning stuff to be a lot like shovelling snow but with a much more satisfying end results.
I really hope you present a series of articles / videos on stock preparation by hand. I can hand cut dovetails, mortise and tenons, housings, etc., and still find that hand prep of stock is hard to do (skill wise). Oh sure, I can get it flat. And I can get it smooth. And I can get it to dimension. But getting flat, smooth, and to dimension all at the _same time,_ well that is hard.
I think the term “donkey work,” probably wasn’t meant to be disparaging. One person I know who uses this term I’m quite sure fully appreciates the skill that is required. I suspect his use of the term more refers to a process where the hand effort may not add a lot to increasing the creative ideas the woodworker can express, even if it is skilled and rewarding. Hand dovetails can be done in ways that are hard or impossible with routers and can express new ideas that way. So, I think “donkey work” wasn’t about lack of skill, but just a choice about what to teach first and where to spend time first. If you’re teaching new woodworkers (like me!) you have to worry about giving them too much to learn at once, so choosing to start from dimensioned lumber might be a way to let them focus on other aspects of the skill development first, especially since if they do not get flat and square, that will telegraph into harder joinery work and increased frustration later.
So, I hope you go into hand thicknessing in detail! It is a skill I’d like to improve. I do it now and then, enjoy it, but wish I could do it better and with more confidence.
And, yes, I agree. If you have a large number of dovetails to do, and if your design can be done with jigs, and if you own those jigs, then it probably is fair to say that slugging those out by hand is donkey work. Of course, if you like to hand-cut dovetails, then every one of them brings pleasure and it doesn’t matter if there is a “faster” way to do them unless that means you can’t afford your rent any more. But, most of us aren’t in that position.
Thanks Ed, I’ve always used the term ‘donkey work’ from the way that I was brought up with it which is much like Mitchell describes; for any job which is mundane. As Graham says above, perhaps this is a little mean on the donkey?!
I will certainly try and provide some more information on stock prep in the future. I find that the methods for it are more over looked than most areas of hand tool woodworking and over time our experience with machines has led us to think we should shoot for the same true and perfect results by hand which is time consuming.
With a more hand tool based mind set on the stock prep I’d say there’s a lot of creativity that can be added to work even if it’s just through growing to understand the wood from your time spent with it and placing the grain more effectively as a result.
My term for dimensioning lumber is “the bloody sweats” and it is not a job I look forward to.
I am very familiar with your term for it, though, as it was a common one used by me old granddad when anyone, especially him, faced a job that could be classed as mundane. I always thought “donkey work” was a left-over from the days on the farm when they used animal-driven machinery, but I have no historic proof of it.
Since switching from horsepower tools to hand tools, I have always wondered why dovetails became the standard for quality that all us sawdust-makers are supposed to shoot for. There are far more difficult tasks in woodworking then dovetailing, yet there it is, with the proliferation of “How to cut a dovetail in 30-seconds or less” videos and all.
If ye’r up for it, I do have another question. It is common for you to make references to your furniture making in your blog posts, as it is for Helen and her comments about furniture design. While I have found images, drawings and even step-by-steps on a few pieces, I haven’t been able to find anything on your commissioned pieces. While I understand a reluctance to delve into the making of these pieces, I would truly enjoy being able to see some shots of the finished work. Am I missing something here or do you have another website for this?
Hi Mitchell, I know what you mean about dovetailing, it seems like every bloody thing’s harder than cutting dovetails.
A lot of the furniture making for us was prior to this blog and besides the odd piece I’ve stopped making it in any quantity in the early workbench days (which were very much pre internet for us). We have many photos of the non digital sort somewhere so perhaps we should do some digging and scan some in – though I will also be back to building much more furniture soon (hopefully) now that the new workshop is almost up and running.
Scott Smith says
Amazingly there are very few videos on prepping stock. I think that is why most people would turn to a machine for this process. Perhaps if someone were to do a series of videos on prepping stock for a project it would help us to see clearly how it is done.
Richard, from my experience I think the rise in importance of dovetails as a technique may come from the availability of pre-surfaced lumber. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve started working again with rough milled boards, requiring work to smooth and dimension them. Most of the wood available to my projects has already been prepped at the lumber yard or box store. All I have to do is knock it together, so more time goes into the joints.
From my reading, this is something that started back in the early 1800’s with machines being invented to plane and dimension stock. The idea of woodworkers having to thickness or smooth their lumber on their own has faded from view, making it a less important function. Though not less enjoyable.
There seems to be a lot of reasons for returning to hand tools, in my case it’s noise and dust. But there’s also a huge amount of satisfaction in putting your hands to the work and having it come out right. And although I still use a thickness planer, I am slowly improving my hand skills to the point that when the planer finally dies, it won’t be replaced.
Thanks Kevin, very nicely said.
I have a small P/T machine that I used to use all the time. I never really considered my options: I just followed what a certain website was advocating. I always found it quite a faff when I was planing the first face/edge and if anyone was the Donkey in my scenario it was me. Now that I’ve moved over to mostly hand tool work, I had to confront the issue of dimensioning rough stock. I have got to the point where I’m using a hybrid method. I’ll flatten the first face and square off the edge using my trusty No4 (I keep promising myself a 5 1/2 one day) and then thickness the board on the machine. This has the advantage that I don’t have to keep converting the machine to/from a thicknesser. It can stay set for one job.
At the moment, the machine can simply do a better job of thicknessing than I can. I’ve never regarded this phase of a project as any less skilled or important that any other. Let’s face it, if you get the dimensioning wrong it’s going to came back and bite you further down the road.
My aim is to start fully dimensioning using hand tools on small stock and see how I get one but the larger stuff for now has to be machined. The irony is that I’m still running my plane over the machined stock to get the machine marks out.
John Walker says
A thought provoking post Richard. My two-pennyworth, as a person who doesn’t need to earn from woodwork any more, I’ve concluded that, if you enjoy the work you do, it doesn’t really matter what tools you use. Most jobs now are for friends and relations; or myself. If someone happens to be paying for hand-work, then hand-work they get. However, a tool is a tool; be it Festool, or Lie Nielsen, so maybe the term ‘hand-work’ should be applied only to making snowballs, or hand-thrown pottery. Being a mixed machine/hand-tool lover myself, that’s just a smart-pants response! Most who make furniture for a living though, give way to machines now and then for the ‘Donkey-work’; the preparation, because of time and financial constraints. The wood doesn’t know what’s being thrown at it, and if you finish off with hand-tools, neither does anyone else. I have even seen the waste routed out of lap-dovetail sockets before now. It might be overkill, but if done to save time then fine. If it’s to cut a neater socket than you could with a saw and chisel then maybe it’s fudging. But as I said, the timber doesn’t know. So I use the appropriate tool at the appropriate time. But dovetail jigs and maybe Dominos? Only for big runs of kitchen drawers and doors. Finally, on Saturday I made a nice PC Monitor stand; using hand-tools of course. My son thought it was great, and I had a warm glow all day Sunday. Keep up the good work Richard.
Michael Forster says
I’m in the process of hand-cutting some raised panels for a desk for my wife and it’s engendered quite a lot of discussion on Facebook – as one chap pointed out, I could have done it in four passes and about 30 seconds using a router table. I enjoy hand-planing on that scale (a six-foot plank of 9 x 3 would be something else!), and love hand-dovetailing – and when clients commission something from me it’s usually got dovetails in it somewhere! But I do use machines for prep and I’ve been guilty of calling it donkey work! I don’t really know why I don’t enjoy prep – maybe it’s the sheer scale of it – and also the physical effort that I now find quite tiring. I don’t in any way deprecate it, though – it’s an enormously skilled process – so while I’m unlikely to go back to doing it by hand, I promise to stop calling it donkey work!
I keep talking myself out of buying a power joiner. I still have a thickness planer and I’ve gotten pretty efficient and fast at removing the twist out of a board to feed it through the planer.
I agree that flattening the board is a nice challenge and actually fun for me. Reading the “green” choosing the right plane, estimating the number of strokes to take off of each part of the board. I imagine that is kind of what golf is like. And its great exercise, who couldn’t use more of that?
Paul Chapman says
Nice, thought-provoking post, Richard. As a hobby woodworker, I’ve never been able to justify the cost of a planer/thicknesser and all the related dust extraction stuff. The advantage, of course, is that it’s forced me to learn how to set up my planes so that I can plane efficiently and effectively. Having done that, preparing boards is enjoyable and not the chore some would have us think. As for dovetail jigs, I don’t own one but think they are more trouble than they are worth. By the time you’ve set them up and done umpteen test cuts, you could have had them done (much better) by hand.
Brendan Gallagher says
Hi Richard –
regarding dovetail jigs, I confess I was suckered into buying a well-known brand of jig, lured by the promise of ‘accuracy every time’. This is misleading. Yes you can get accuracy, but only after meticulous setting up, umpteen test cuts, lots of wastage, dust and noise. I persevered, but the setting up process irritated me, and eventually gave up. I sold the jig (at a huge loss), did some research and learned to dovetail by hand. I love it. It is a real joy to pick up a saw and chisel and make infinitely better dovetails in a fraction of the time. I do have a planer/thicknesser, but tend to use only the thicknesser to do the ‘grunt work’ as I call it, after squaring an edge and flattening one face.
I love reading the comments as it stirs up the grey matter. I think you are all correct (no I am not sitting on the fence) as what a craftsman builds in whatever manner s/he chooses does not lessen the skills and knowledge required. I love using hand tools and get a great deal of satisfaction afterwards as it affirms I still have it. Although only middle aged I do feel the aches in some joints after a days graft and so appreciate power tools also. Cutting dovetails using a jig is a sin we may say but then we use the cordless drill to bore a few holes later on. The thought of living in an Amish community and traveling by horse is idyllic – but I bet we all drive in motor vehicles. If we could maintain a physical fitness forever that would be great but the aging process affects us all and so power tools have their place to make life a little easier on the body. That said – I am off to bed now going upstairs in my Stannah Chairlift 🙂
John Walker says
Ref the Stannah… I know the feeling m’man!
David Nighswander says
I enjoy the act of creation. I concentrate on using tools that help me create. Excluding a group of tools, for any arbitrary reason, is counter to that concept. I’m familiar with power tools. I’m learning the use of hand tools.
The differences I see between the power and hand tool processes are that the power tool has the process and guidance built in. Hand tools require motor skills to control the action and result.
Howard Lobb says
I have to laugh along with you on this one,,, As I near the finish of my shop reno (The machine room) and I look at the floor space and all the machines and where they will be placed I have been asking myself ,,, Do I really need them,,, or do I just want them cause I have em,,, I wrestle with this question I know that I could do well without a lot of them and which ones do I feel I real NEED,,, OR wouldn’t it be nice to just do it all by hand,,, quietly,,, and use that extra floor space to be more comfortable and versatile,,, As a carver and furniture maker I too have been noticing that it real is the process I enjoy and the true satisfaction of doing something with fine hand tools and hand work,,, I guess it does come down to WHY do I do what it is I do,,, It isn’t about the time or making of money that I use machines because that isn’t always faster or economical ,,, I really think for me it is like fast food rather than a great home cooked meal ,,, Fast food is convenient and there are no dishes to do,,, a home cooked meal is better for me even though I have to do it myself and the damn dishes,,, I enjoy a home cooked meal much more generally,,, Though it is nice to have the convenience I suppose it is nice to make a choice and to have a choice and maybe It doesn’t have to be all one way or the other,,, Cheers
Michael Forster says
This thread – and my reference to 9×3 timber above – has reminded me of one of the high-points of my training course in the 60s. I had to make a casement window as an exercise, and just as I got to it the machine shop went down with some sort of catastrophic failure. My old-school instructor’s eyes gleamed as he sai, ‘Well you’ll just have to do the whole job by hand,’ and pointed to a stack of 9 x 3 planks. By the time the machine shop came back on stream, I’d got the bug and was enjoying the challenge. Every bit of the process was hand-done and I learnt (among other things that weren’t on the syllabus) to use wooden moulding planes. It was all a joy in its way, but that window would undoubtedly have cost a fortune in labour costs had it been a real job. the main thing I learnt from it was that it was the detail stuff that really interested me.
The other point about hand-prepping is that having the skills to dimension, smooth and flatten timber imparts a lot more confidence for things like finish-planing when I can work without the anxiety that I might perhaps be spoiling the flatness of the panel in the process.
Michael Gathright says
Interesting term “donkey work”. My Grandmother would tell me of her Fathers’ work as a Carpenter and Builder (post Civil War). During the winter months in the Midwest USA, his workshop set up to make stock for the upcoming building season. This was also a time they forged their tools. So ” donkey work” was her literal expression for the use of Donkeys to run the machinery or tools in making molding , trim, cutting and planing. I now wish to have known more of this process. I often show off his tools and wish I knew more of his story.
I frequently ponder what my great grandchildren ( if my boys ever get to the job ) will think of my shop tools. Especially, the fancy-dancie; dovetail and mortiseing jigs that look almost like new, after the dust is removed.
I do hope they will have heard the story of Great, Great, Great… Grandpa’s “donkey work”.
How often do we really need to thickness stock anyway?
I suspect machines have turned it into a rule that all stock should have a definite thickness, be it for stiles, rails, panels, etc.
But traditional woodworking has one rule that suggests it might have been otherwise before power tools: if we need to keep track of which is the face side and face edge all the way until the piece is assembled, it probably means that there was significantly more tolerance in terms of thickness and parallelism.
I’ve done some fairly convincing panels last week without ever touching the other side, just like I remembered an old cupboard I had.
Sadly, I can’t find hand-tool woodworking videos explaining just how sloppy/accurate we may/should be depending on each project and each specific side/edge So it’s mostly guess work, but in doubt, I prefer erring on the side of imperfection: then I can learn from my mistakes when it turns out that the imperfection was not allowed in that circumstance.
Av in Michigan says
Apologies, I realize this reply arrives near a decade late to the party but nevertheless… Richard, you have mentioned (perhaps in the Retro Sideboard build?) that dimensioning gives you a fast start into a project and sets the tone for a new build. I also completely understand (and agree) with your reference above of getting to know your timber. For someone contemplating furniture making as a profession though, I am curious when (if ever) you would recommend machine use for dimensioning. You regularly talk about optimizing processes to make them cost-effective for production, both in term of the methods you deploy and designs you opt to build. and personally I have found this to be incredibly useful. I am just wondering how this is influenced by time dimensioning.