Monday, May 14, 2007

Tool Buying

I was speaking with a fellow who is going to be taking a class with me in December. He hasn't made chairs yet and owns no tools. He is excited to get started and asked me what tools he should be acquiring. When students come to my shop, I invite them to bring tools that we can discuss, tune up and use, but they are not required to bring any at all. As may have become all too apparent from previous entries, I avoid tool buying at all costs (forgive the pun). But in talking to my future student, I realized that staying out of the fray is no longer viable. So I am going to make some basic recommendations for some tools that I think are worth buying and essential to chairmaking. One important note, I am in no way connected to any toolmaker or company and my recommendations are based on my personal experience and represent only my opinion (for what it's worth). Luckily, my students have brought with them just about every chairmaking tool made so I have had a chance to try many of the tools out there, for better or worse.
But before I start naming names, I want to share my own beginnings in tool acquisition. The photo above is of a piece of steel that I bent and sharpened to approximate an inshave. I made my first chairs with it and had fine success. I show it to make a a point. It is more important to understand the task at hand, the behavior of the material and how the tool works than to have the tool itself. Most of the time, with a minimum of ingenuity, you can get the job done. Don't get me wrong, much of the time my crude first tools are simply a means to understand which tool I should buy. The storebought "proper" tool is no guarantee of results, especially when it falls short of the requirements of the task. Sadly, I've found that many of the tools marketed as "chairmaking tools" seem better suited to coopering or some other woodworking task. I have heard the lament of many students with a chest full of tools that have learned that they are less than optimal for chairmaking. Not that they can't be made to work, but for the prices these companies charge, they should function better. I prefer to expose students to the skills that they will need first and let the necessity for tools follow, once the understanding is firmly in place. It is a tough lesson, a tool can extend your skill, not create it.
Forgive me if I seem cynical, it is difficult to combat an industry with thousands of people who spend all day coming up with new ways to convince us that the next pricey tool will set us free. I will be looking hard at my (beloved) collection and try to come up with some recommendations that will justify the money spent.

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