October 25, 2016

What about hand tools?

SOMETIMES I FEEL VERY UNEASY when I see how dependent we have become on machines. Have we lost the art of working on boats with hand tools, or have we simply lost the will?

I mention this because I watched with fascination a discussion on a boating bulletin board. A poster wanted to know how best to cut through a small stainless-steel pin, one that looked about 3/16-inch in diameter. “Get an abrasive wheel,” someone advised him. “Or get a large bolt cutter with hardened steel jaws.”

“No, no, said another. Get a 4 1/2-inch angle grinder.”

I shoved my oar in: “Use a hacksaw,” I said. “It’s simple. It’s easy.”

Big mistake. A quick rebuttal followed: Cutting 416 stainless steel with a hacksaw would be incredibly difficult, said a boat owner who appears to be speaking more from hearsay than experience, and who has apparently invented a new grade of stainless steel. “Get a cheap 4-inch angle grinder and some metal-cutting blades. And safety goggles, of course.”

“No, no,” said the next poster in line. “An angle grinder can cause a lot of collateral damage. Use bolt cutters.”

“No, no,” came the follow-up. “Bolt cutters will crush the pin and you may not be able to get it out of the hole.”

And so it went on. The collective wisdom of the bulletin board ground away, taking longer than it would have taken me to cut the damn pin with my little hacksaw.

I grew up in an era when boat people used hand tools not only because they were cheaper and simpler but because they would work on boats in mid-ocean as well as they would on boats with umbilical cords plugged in to shore power. It is revealing to me that the first reaction now is to rush out and buy a power tool.

I built a wooden one-design racing dinghy with no power tools whatsoever. I had a beautifully made Stanley hand drill, which I loved dearly, and still have. And I had screwdrivers, saws and planes, files and sandpaper, and a large supply of elbow grease. I’m no shipwright, nor even a good carpenter, but it gave me great pleasure and satisfaction to work simply and quietly with my bare hands; so much pleasure, in fact that I went on to build another three dinghies of the same design — only for those I used just one power tool, an electric drill. I still have that, too.

When I lived in San Diego, I bought a wreck of an International Mirror dinghy that needed a lot of work. The only place I had to work on it was in a garage I rented under an occupied apartment. I rebuilt that boat with hand tools in almost complete silence so that the occupants of the apartment wouldn’t hear me and have me thrown out. I secretly sawed and sanded and repainted and glued and screwed while listening to the noise of the television above, and they never found out.

The famous American round-the-worlder Jean Gau, the Waldorf-Astoria chef, used a hacksaw to clear his stainless-steel rigging after he lost his bolt cutter overboard when his 30-foot Tahiti ketch, Atom, was dismasted while rounding the Cape of Good Hope.

My boyhood hero, Henry Wakelam, built himself a small ocean-going yacht, a Thuella design by Harrison-Butler, without any power tools at all. He was working out in the open, in the bush.

There is great pleasure to be had in working slowly but effectively. There is deep satisfaction in developing the skills and patience to work with hand planes knives, saws and (if you have some toes left) the adze. The smell of curly new wood shavings thrills me still, as does the lack of noise, that infernal, unnecessary noise. It’s sad that too many people are now scared to do anything by hand, scared even to contemplate cutting a thin rod of stainless steel with a hacksaw. I can only hope this is a passing phase and that sailors will one day learn to use their hands again, just as their ancestors did.

Today’s Thought
There is a period of life when we go back as we advance.
— Rousseau, Émile

“Does your husband always speak to himself like that when he’s alone?”
“Dunno. I’ve never been with him when he’s alone.”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for another Mainly about Boats column.)


Alden Smith said...

I couldn't agree more. I built my 30 foot yacht outside (when it rained I covered the build with a tarpaulin) and the only non manual tools I used were an electric drill and a jigsaw. Providing the timber yard with a cutting list of lengths and thicknesses when ordering the bulk of the timber addresses the main cutting problems.

Presently I work in a carport open on two sides to the elements and continue to use hand tools (good exercise) and an electric drill and jigsaw.

I do think though that a drill press (is that what they are called?) would be good for obtaining good drill holes at right angles to the work and a thicknesser for small jobs (although I must say planing small bits of timber to the correct thickness is not too difficult).

If I had waited until I had a fully equipped workshop with all the electric tools available I would never have built anything!

SV Velic said...

Bravo for hand tools that work! Hacksaw, simple screw driver, box wrench, machete(a farm tool for coconuts is not a weapon). Heat tempers stainless steel, making it harder to cut. Slow speed hand hacksaw with light oil lubricant (use a very high grade blade, kerosene or diesel fuel is always available)is actually an advantage with stainless steel. My favorites are the Stanley hand planes and Japanese 'pull' wood saws. When the salt corrodes everything, especially the electrical charging systems, hand power works. Don't forget your grandfather's brace, which can be used with bits (for drilling holes)and driving screws with controlled torque and far more precision setting depth than an electric driver.

Unknown said...

Hi John, thanks for this post. This is something like very deep true. I see
similar mood around me all the time and it is very hard not to fall in it. I see
myself many times dream of some electric tool/machine I would like to buy, then
I realize the actual job of doing something manually would cost me much less
time/money than buying new expensive tool.

There is one fact that push this up, the quality of common cheap hand tools.
These tools are so bad that I can see the opinion of not being able to cut some
thread with hacksaw. But quality hand tools are expensive (the same expensive as
they were all the time, but in the flood of cheap chinese tools no one
realize that), so anyone rather buy cheap angle saw than quality hacksaw today.
Who cares that the quality hacksaw would last few tenths of years if properly

I, as young amateur woodworker and boatbuilder, have very hard time to find
someone, who can show me how to use properly and effectively hand tools. Also internet is full of
information about electric machinery, special jigs for them etc, but not much
for hand tools.

Barubi said...

There is a 416 grade martensitic stainless steel and it could be heat treated to be as hard as a hacksaw blade. Though I wouldn't want to use it in a marine atmosphere.
What could be more satisfying than guiding a freshly sharpened plane through a straight grained stick of teak?

John Vigor said...

Well, you live and learn. Thank you Barubi, I stand corrected. You're right about the teak, too.
John V.

Patrick Hay said...

My favourite tool for boatbuilding, yacht restoration and maintenance is a Surform.

John Vigor said...

Yes, the Surform is a very useful tool. I still have one myself, Patrick.
John V.

Anonymous said...

Surform, great Stanley invention....alas I bought a replacement blade for my surform block plane...now imported from you know where, couldn't grate cheese. keep all your old graters, and sharpen up your block plane...death of another good tool at the hands of cheapest is best.

Bow Designs said...

We have forgotten the era of hand tools and workmanship.. perhaps that's how it is supposed to be?