Sooner or later, after several hundred thousand revolutions, every carpenter becomes prone to the circular saw blues.
The symptoms are an aversion to screeching whines, vertigo at the sight of spinning blades and a general lack of interest in letting the chips fall where they may. This can bring on a yearning for the days when carpenters were more than tour guides in a Disneyland of power equipment, feeding wood into machines.
The cure for this malaise can be a return to hand tools powered by 1 horsepower, if you happen to have a horse, or 1 humanpower if you don’t.
Here’s a short guide to some of the tools available to those who might want to enter a more satisfying world.
Carpenter’s level: This tool keeps carpenters on the straight and narrow. It’s usually a wood or metal bar about 3 inches high and anywhere from 6 inches to 6 feet long. (Note that the longer ones often develop crooked ways, so beware.) Bubbles in plastic vials are interspersed throughout the level, making it possible to determine at a glance whether you are vertical or horizontal.
Chalk line: A hand-held metal reel containing powdered chalk and a long string. Stretch between two marks and snap on the surface, creating the shortest distance between two points. In Euclidean geometry, anyway.
Chisels: A chisel looks like a cutting-edge screwdriver. These are indispensable in remodeling projects and furniture making, where precise shaving or mortising is required. You can use a chisel bevel side up or down, depending on whether you’re in a constructive or destructive mood, to remove wood.
Clamps: There are C-clamps and bar clamps and strap clamps and pipe clamps, and each and every one is indispensable to holding wood in place so you can do surgery on it. Without clamps, wood tends to get up and walk away like a patient without anesthesia.
Combination square: A steel ruler with a movable slide that has one face perpendicular to the ruler and the other at a 45-degree angle. They’re used to mark boards for cutting and to square off cuts. Some also have a cute little level bubble so you can tell if you are standing up or lying down.
Files: These tools separate the wannabes from the bes. Knowing how to properly use files can save carpenters from having to do the job over.
Think of it as a heavy-duty emery board, working to smooth and shape a surface. Emery is a very hard type of corundum. Isn’t that helpful?
Miter box: A small wooden box used to make 45- or 90-degree cuts for corner molding, picture frames and the like. By the time you set up a compound miter power saw, you can do the same job three or four times with a cheapo miter box.
Nail set: A little punch used to recess nails below the wood surface so you can putty in the holes and act as if faith alone is holding your project together.
Planes: A block plane is a one-handed wood shaver. A rabbit plane has a cutter that darts along a rabbit, or groove, in the edge of a board. A multiplane can create everything from ceiling moldings to tongue-and-groove floorboards. Tell Santa about this one, even if it might take a while to learn to use it.
Saws: Crosscut saws cut tidily across the grain of the wood. Rip saws slice along the grain. A backsaw has fine teeth and a stiff backbone for joinery and other finish carpentry. Often used in a miter box, it neither rips nor tears, it just cuts. A dovetail saw is similar to a backsaw but with finer teeth for cutting tenons. It can cut tendons, too, with ease, so watch your hands
Screwdriver: The Phillips screwdriver was actually invented by someone named Henry Phillips for use in auto production in the 1930s. It has a cross pattern as opposed to a slot pattern and is now ubiquitous in this universe.
Sharpening stone: If you’ve got chisels and planes and scrapers, you need something to keep them the best and the brightest in Camelot, as John F. Kennedy might have said. However, he could have been referring to blockheads, another type of wood entirely. Sharpening stones work with oil or water, though oil is preferred for a finer edge.
Shave hooks: These simple, wonderful devices can remove paint or finish from wood, cut grooves or round out corners. Depending on how you hold a shave hook, its cutting edge can be made to match just about any curved surface.
Tape measure: Here’s a truly astonishing fact: The tape measure was purportedly invented by someone named Alvin J. Fellows of New Haven, Conn., on July 14, 1868. By the way, Alvin measured himself and left this for posterity: 40-46-42.
Vise: Little gets done in a wood shop without a big vise. This device is so crucial they ought to make a TV series called “Miami Vise.”
Carpenters the world over would tune in to learn new vises. A woodworking vise has protective pieces of wood or plastic in the jaws so they don’t eat up the wood as you work.
For more, check your local library for “The Hand Tool Companion” by Katie and Gene Hamilton.
Jim Kjeldsen is a former assistant news editor at The Herald who now owns and operates La Conner Hardware Store in La Conner.