Building an Adirondack Guideboat-Why use hand tools?

Visitors to the Adirondack Museum’s boat shop often are puzzled by the overwhelming use of hand tools when building a guideboat. To the layman, hand tools are something from the past, something that is irrelevant now that we have all manner of power tools, even portable ones undreamed of only a few years ago. Then, when they view the boat shop video of Willard Hanmer building a guideboat in the 1950’s, they learn that he “mechanized all aspects of building a guideboat that he could”. So why isn’t the Museum’s boat builder doing the same?

I once met a cabinet maker who still uses hand tools for much of his work. Of course, he had access to any power tool that he wanted. He claimed that he could perform a wood working task as fast, if not faster, using hand tools than when he used power equipment. The difference, he said, was that there was no set up time when using hand tools.

But there is something else about using hand tools. It is superbly expressed in the excerpt below from the book The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. The book is the story of the University of Washington’s rowing team that won the 1936 Olympic Gold Medal despite the best efforts of Hitler’s Germany to stop them.

One of the characters in the book is George Yeoman Pocock, and English rowing shell builder and authority on rowing who was recruited by the University to build their rowing shells.

“Pocock didn’t just build racing shells. He sculpted them.

Looked at another way, a racing shell is a machine with a narrowly defined purpose; to enable a number of large men or women, and one small one to propel themselves over an expanse of water as quickly and efficiently as possible. Looked at another way, it is a work of art, an expression of human spirit, with its unbounded hunger for the ideal, for beauty, for purity, for grace. A large part of Pocock’s genius as a boatbuilder was that he managed to excel both as maker of machines and as an artist.

Growing up and learning his trade from his father at Eton, he had used simple hand tools-saws, hammers, chisels, wood planes and sanding blocks. For the most part he continued to use these same tools even as more modern, laborsaving power tools came to the market in the 1930’s. Partly it was because he believed the hand tools gave him more precise control over the fine details of the work. Partly, it was because he could not abide the noise the that power tools made. Craftsmanship required thought, and thought required a quiet environment. Mostly, though, it was because he wanted more intimacy with the wood-he wanted to feel the life in the wood with his hands, and in turn impart some of himself, his own life, his pride and his caring, into the shell.”

The parallels to guideboat building re uncanny. A guideboat is a machine designed to carry at least two men with their duffel, and perhaps a hound or two, and maybe a buck, across rough water far into the wilderness. It must be light enough for one man to carry yet sturdy enough to last for years. And every one who has built a traditional guideboat has been complimented on what a work of art it is. The reaction is usually instinctive when someone views a guideboat for the first time; for an instant one stops breathing and then “Wow! How beautiful!”

Who, having built a guideboat in the traditional fashion, hasn’t felt part of him or her taken up by the boat while making such and extraordinary craft.

2 comments on “Building an Adirondack Guideboat-Why use hand tools?”

  1. Just catching up on your recent posts. Nice to see your thoughts, tips and progress. I particularly enjoyed your words on hand tools. I have a good collection of “antique” tools. I laugh when people view my shop and comment on all the “antiques”. I caution them immediately that I do not collect antique tools at all, but I find myself using many old hand tools (some of which I have purchased from antique stores) and that I don’t have a single old tool that I don’t use. Nor do I ever want one.

    For those in the know- compare the feel and sounds of power planing wood against the feel and sounds of hand strokes with a good, sharp hand plane. I found out 20 plus years ago after spending several days “rounding out” the interior of a large strip-built boat with sanders, grinders and anything else with power- except maybe a chain saw, that I was pursuing a lost cause. Shortly after, I found a small convex wooden plane (before I built my next strip-built boat). I did the same smoothing operation in about 1 hour with that beautiful plane. And the best part is that I really enjoyed the feel, the sounds, the smells and even cleaning up the shavings- not to mention the beautiful end result from using that hand plane.

    Of course old hand tools have other benefits. Every time I use my fathers old brace and bit, I relive fond memories of my times with him. Even many years after his death, we still have short conversations on occasion as I use his old tools. Among my other favorites from Dad are a set of his finest hand saws. He cherished them his whole career as a carpenter and then shipped them to me when he retired.

    So thanks for the memories and pleasure you brought me with your post on why we use so many hand tools. And yes- I also have every known power tool available and I use them all when appropriate. Tom

  2. I just read the quote in “Boys in the Boat” about Pocock’s use of hand tools . . . and why . . . last night. Loved it, especially as I am seller of hand tools.
    Robert Larson

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