The Helpful Yellow Machine

Or: Confessions of a reluctant machine owner

Nearly all of my tool purchases are carefully planned over a period of time, with a certain amount of questioning before I put any money down as to whether I really need that tool. As a result, I rarely feel conflicted about a tool when it arrives, because I’ve made sure that it fills a genuine gap, and it’s at a price point I can afford. Last summer, there was one tool which I felt horribly conflicted about ordering, even though going through that same thought process left me in no doubt that placing an order was exactly the right move. That tool was a 12″ thicknesser by DeWalt. After 7 months of using the machine, I thought looking at the reasons why I was reticent to purchase it, and whether those concerns were reflected in reality, would make for an interesting blog post.

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The cause of much soul searching and angst, or a helpful apprentice?

I know what you’re thinking – you don’t expect to read much about machines on OtW. And I do wonder if this post will result in a reduction in my regular readership (there’s nothing like living dangerously on a bank holiday weekend, is there?). But I’ve always aimed to be honest about my approach to woodwork, and while I remain hand tool focused there are some machines I wouldn’t be without (I love my drill press and band saw, and fear my router wth every fibre of my being). So here goes.

I first started considering investing in a thicknesser during the Policeman’s Boot Bench – processing a number of sizeable (and often unruly) oak boards entirely by hand turned out to be a much more time demanding process than I had anticipated. Now, woodwork for me has always been as much about the process as the finished article (let’s see how many craft-based cliches I can fit into one blog post shall we?), and handwork is really where I find my satisfaction at the workbench. But ever since the Apprentice arrived, there has been a constant tension in how I feel about being in the workshop, which I’m sure will be familiar to many other woodworking parents.

Most of my waking time is spent thinking about what I will do when I’m next in the ‘shop, mentally rehearsing tricky operations or techniques, running over designs or new projects. And then, when I am at my bench, I wish I was with the Apprentice. So there is a palpable tension between the need to be productive and build things with my hands, and the need to be a hands-on, and present, father. It’s a tension that has had me chasing my tail for nearly three years, and I confess there have been times when I’ve seriously thought about shuttering the workshop permanently and dedicating every waking moment that I’m not in the office to fatherhood. That doesn’t sound like a bad way to live at all. Dr Moss is a lot smarter than I am, and she disagrees. I think, because she recognises that if I did not have some opportunity to pursue this vocation, and to satisfy that need to build things, that I would eventually turn into a withered husk. And withered husks are not generally much good at being decent parents. So it is a case of balancing parenthood and the workshop, which requires a degree of time efficiency.

I’m not saying that handtools are slow, far from it. Having dedicated 2016 as a year of unplugged work focusing on fundamental hand tool techniques, and working my way through two thirds of the Joiner & Cabinetmaker, I can process stock by hand pretty swiftly. And if I were building small pieces, or still focusing on lutherie, then my stock preparation would remain handtool only. But for the larger furniture pieces that I seem to be building at the moment, flattening a large board by hand and then thicknessing it mechanically is definitely a time saver.

Ultimately, after much soul searching, it was words of encouragement from Jim and Chris that convinced me I wasn’t committing a grave sin by ordering the helpful yellow machine. And as Chris pointed out, thicknessing machines have existed in various forms for at least 400 years. One of my concerns was that a thicknesser would encourage me to become lazy, and also de-skilled. That might show a very specific handtool prejudice towards machines (and I know machine-orientated woodworkers who produce incredible work), but I’m glad to report that it has not been the case. Flattening the reference face of my stock keeps those handplane skills sharp, and I still thickness the occasional board by hand to keep that skill set current. Also, some stock exceeds the capacity of the DeWalt, which means that I have no choice but to process it entirely by hand. What the thicknesser has allowed me to do is move through the stock preparation stage of a project more swiftly, which increases productivity in the long run, and aswages any guilt about being away from the family for a morning. That peace of mind alone means that the cost of the DeWalt was a worthwhile investment.

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Munching 12″ wide boards down to thickness saves time which I can then spend on cutting joinery

So will you see my workshop trading out the hand planes, back saws, and brace and bit for a collection of shiny powered contraptions? Not at all. My focus will as ever remain on traditional handwork techniques and tools. And this is a focus which means that the workshop is an appropriate environment for the Apprentice to spend time in, should she wish to in a couple of years time. But for the grunt work of bringing boards down to the required thickness, I’m glad to have a helpful yellow machine to assist me.

21 thoughts on “The Helpful Yellow Machine

  1. As has always been the case, as long as I have been trying to find time to do woodworking and keep in balance with my real life, its about value for time. I own and use hand tools from some of the finest makers in the world, however as a technology guy, I use the right tool for the task at hand.

    In my world, thicknessing and dimensioning material by hand takes far too much time than is necessary, or of value. This is not how I chose to consume the few hours I had to dedicate to my craft, especially when I had a young family pulling me in other directions. Now that I have much more time, I still choose to use machines to do the job they are much better at – machining. This lets me work with stock that is prepped and focus on the skills I have learned with years of practice. I do not see the value in spending hours of my time thicknessing material to prove to some hand tool guru that I am worthy.

    Use the right tool for the task, and spend your time doing the tasks that require the skills you have learned. ‘Nuf said.

  2. Thanks for this! I just bought one myself, and currently worried about the same kinds of things… however, it’s giving me much more time to focus on joinery, where I’ve been lacking. Nice to know I’m not alone, and I think you’ll be just fine!

    • Thanks for your comment, Andrew! Moving the focus from stock prep to joinery has been very welcome, and beneficial. The struggle resolved itself as soon as I put the Helpful Yellow Machine into use, which I guess proves it was the right decision 🙂

  3. Love mine and it’s dramatically improved my productivity. I’m still a hand tool guy but a thickness planer and bandsaw are a nice compromise; mechanized milling.

    • It’s remarkable how much of a productivity bump I’ve experienced since the Helpful Yellow Machine arrived. I never felt this conflict about my bandsaw or drill press, I’m not sure why. But yes, this was a good purchase.

  4. Thank you for this honest assessment of tools, needs and time constraints. I currently have the same debate running though my mind as well. Not that your words are the tipping point for me to run out and by a thickness planer, but it’s always good to know you’re not alone with your dilemmas 🙂

    • The best thing about writing this post has been hearing from everyone else who has wrestled (or resolved) the same dilemma. Thanks for your comment Bryan – I agree, it’s good to know that I’ve not been the only one to experience this internal struggle.

  5. Unless you’re committed to fellling the tree, splitting the logs and rendering the lumber by hand, you’ve already handed part of the work over to machines. I’ve come to the place where I appreciate all of the wonderfully poetic (and oft romanticized) things about hand tools, but I also live in the real world with the same constraints you mention. No one human can do it all, and far from removing the fun and skill from the craft, the right machines can help you get there in a reasonable amount of time. Now I want one of these wee yeller beasts.

    • Thanks as always for the words of wisdom, and sense of perspective, Jim.

      If you do get a Helpful Yellow Machine then it’s worth looking out for the 13″ DeWalt (which for some reason is not available in the U.K. As far as I can tell). That extra inch makes a difference, and you can retrofit it with a helical head for quieter and smoother operation.

  6. Amen brother.

    And one other thing: a happy parent is a good parent. You and the good Dr. both need your time with and without the Apprentice. I too, struggle with this constantly but advice sometimes sounds better when coming from a fellow woodworking parent. At least I hope it sounds better.

    Great post.

    • Thanks for the parental solidarity, Shawn! What you say is true, although occasionally having that needed “personal time” and not feeling guilty can be a real struggle. But it definitely does me good to hear it from another woodworking parent.

  7. You cannot become lazy and skillless if you reach the end objective. Unless you cut the wood and mill it all without power and by candlelight or lantern then the use of electricity has already been accepted in the process. Virtually all of the handtools woodworkers use were made using very large machines that are power hogs. The real question is does one hand plane with powdered wig on or off!

    • You make a very good point, Joshua – where does one draw the “hand tool” line? I think I’ve found a solution that I’m comfortable with, and which eases my time pressures. It’s the hand-tool only/ electricity free blogging which would become tricky too 😉

      • I think you draw the line wherever you choose. Using hand tools should after all be solely for your enjoyment when it isn’t or when part of it isn’t then its not just acceptable to make a change but is highly suggested you do. Hand planing is a lot of fun mostly but doing it for thicknessing becomes unfun pretty quickly. One can love working with the earth by hand and there’s a respect most of us can give that person for doing it but they nor we would ever struggle with them using a machine to do a lot of ditch digging. In fact at least I would tend to draw the line in respecting the fella if he refused a machine and dug it all by hand just our of the blind commitment to hand work. I’d never consider drilling holes by hand anymore either. I love my cordless drills but I love my hand planes and handsaws, etc. I don’t cherish the skills for making a hole in wood with a brace. Just doesn’t get me off. That line is different for us all. I’ve seen many a power tool woodworker who had far better skills than many of the hand tools guys and vs versa. We can respect the technique but honoring the creativity and end result is of much higher importance.

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