Are Your Tools Holding You Back?

Maybe, but not how you think.

Maple and walnut cutting board made into a brick wall design.

It’s part of the human condition to never be satisfied.  The house could be bigger, the car nicer – you can pretty much name an item and we can come up with something about it that could be better.  Woodworkers and Makers of all types seem to have a mindset of “improvement,” and ingenuity is in our blood.  I bet most of us have a jig or a tool in our shop that we modified to fit our needs.

This natural industriousness is part of who we are as a community.  It’s the source of tons of YouTube videos and is a contributing reason why some YouTubers are more successful than others.  Personally, I’m drawn to YouTubers who are either great teachers or those who come up with new ideas.  New methods, new materials, new jigs, tool modifications – all these things are the result of some innate drive within us to constantly improve.

Kitchen island, top made of yellow pine.

But let’s be honest for a minute.  I believe that most of us have fallen victim to the “if I only had ‘this’ I could be a better woodworker” mindset.  Or, “I can’t make ‘that’ because I don’t have good enough tools.”

Before anyone gets offended, I’m preaching to myself.  I’ve made a ton of foolish tool purchases.  Sometimes I’ll buy something thinking that even though I’ve never needed this particular tool before, I’ll use it once I get it.  I’m usually wrong about that.  But sometimes a new tool can have a negative effect.  Once, I bought a drum sander so I could churn out cutting boards faster.  Sure, it did the job, but it also had a negative impact on my skills.  Because of that drum sander, I never got any better at glue ups.  The glue ups actually got sloppier because it just didn’t matter anymore.  Ultimately, the drum sander didn’t save me any time at all because of the shortcuts I began taking.

Kitchen island, top made of hickory flooring with mahogany trim.

Most recently, I’ve been salivating over the idea of getting a bigger and more powerful table saw, a drill press with a bigger swing, a bandsaw with more resaw capacity, and a lathe with more horsepower.  Some of these are genuine needs with the things I have planned to build, but in the back of my mind there is a voice telling me I’ll be a better woodworker if I have these improved tools.  My tools are holding me back.  No doubt about it.

Many of you know about the recent passing of my brother, Doug Franklin.  I spent the past week at his home in Pensacola mourning with my family, going through his things, and preparing for his memorial service.  I always knew my brother was an awesome Maker.   I said in one of my Facebook posts that Doug was Jimmy Diresta before there was a Jimmy Diresta, and he gained his skills before YouTube was a twinkle in Mr. Google’s eye (I know that Google didn’t invent YouTube, but you get the idea).  Over the years I saw pictures of the things he made and knew that I may never reach his level of skill.  But it really hit home this week.

Fold-flat children’s picnic table made with Baltic birch plywood topped with Formica.

I had some things I wanted to make before Doug’s memorial service.  I needed to make a stand for his surfboard and two picture frames, all of which would be used for the service.  I figured I could do these tasks in an hour and a half, maybe two hours at the most.  WRONG!  I bet I spent about sixteen hours in total, and I was not happy with the results.  Let me give you a rundown of the tools I had at my disposal:

  1. A thirty year old Delta contractor saw with a fence so rickety it wouldn’t square.
  2. A forty year old Craftsman router with tons of slop.
  3. A Rigid 12 inch lunchbox planer with butter knives for blades.
  4. A random orbital sander that wouldn’t hold sandpaper.
  5. A belt sander with a 40 grit belt.
  6. Harbor Freight speed square and measuring tape.

That’s it.  No chisels, no hand planes, no spindle sander, no jointer, and no flat surface to work on anywhere.  No Domino XL, no leg vise, and not a WoodPeckers OneTime Tool anywhere in sight.  I was able to borrow a jigsaw from another brother and a trim router from my nephew, but aside from a new jigsaw blade, let’s just say that “sharp” was not a priority when it came to cutting tools.

Swinging cradle made of white oak.

My initial thought when I started these projects was “I can’t make anything with this junk!”  But, my brother did.  I couldn’t make a single cut without burning the wood.  My brother’s work was beautiful.  I couldn’t even flatten my stock.  My brother’s pieces were flat, straight, and square.  The pictures throughout this article are things Doug made with these inferior tools, so the evidence of my inferiority was indisputable.  By the end of the week my ego was deflated and my confidence shot.  I was truly and thoroughly humbled.  I realized that my skill as a woodworker was not in my hands, but in my head.  My abilities lay in my mastery of the tool’s owner’s manual, not in the muscle memory honed at the workbench.  My tools had stunted my growth.  My problem solving ability had atrophied.  My tools have held me back.

Don’t get me wrong,  my brother was definitely more Jimmy Diresta than James Wright, more Laura Kampf that Paul Sellers.  He probably didn’t have the skills of Charles Neil, but he figured out how to do what needed to be done with what he had.  That was his greatest skill.  That was a manifestation of his ingenuity.

Cathedral ceiling made with tongue and groove pine and false beams. Old skylight framed in with stained glass.

I’ll never be able to learn from my brother the wealth of knowledge he had, even though he was more than willing to share if I had just asked.  When he was alive, I guess I was determined to prove that I could accomplish it all on my own.  That’s my loss. Even though I still refuse to utter the F-word (Fes***l), I’m not against bigger and better tools.  But now I have a whole new perspective.  The lack of tools can hold you back, the quality of tools can hold you back, but having the tools of your dreams can also hold you back.  Maybe instead of asking myself what I need to accomplish this task, I’ll ask what I need to do, using what I have, to accomplish this task.  

I don’t want to contradict my previous article – I still believe that great tools can unleash creativity and artistry, and I know it has in my work in some cases.  But now I have evidence that it has also hurt my abilities in some areas.  I may still buy bigger and better tools.  Who am I kidding, of course I will.  But instead of keeping a mental list of Things I Can’t Do Because Of What I Don’t Have, I’ll make a new list.  The list may contain the same tasks as the old list, but the title will be different – Things I Figured Out How To Do With What I Have.  I think I’ll be a better Maker.  Thanks Doug.

Contributed by Rob Franklin – https://www.youtube.com/user/nilknarf007