Woodworking Without Electricity
The electricity is out once more. Gas prices have soared above $10 per gallon, and that’s only when gas stations have the supply and power to operate their pumps. The combined state and federal sales taxes under the Leveraged Index Financial Emerging Liabilities Interoperable Nullification and Easement (LIFELINE) Act of 2013 have reached 25%, making a $5 half-gallon of milk cost $6.25. Unemployment rates (uncorrected) hover around 30%, with an additional 12% underemployed. This means that nearly 50% of Americans are living below the poverty line for the first time in generations, as companies close or relocate to more favorable economic environments.
The US dollar now trades below the Mexican Peso since Mexico partnered with Brazil to drill in the Gulf of Mexico. Strict environmental regulations on coal, natural gas, and fracking have driven production costs to 375 times their 2010 levels. To conserve fuel, frequent brownouts and blackouts are occurring across the nation. The average family that cannot afford a power ration exemption can expect to be without electricity for a minimum of 7 hours daily, often longer.
The scenario I’ve just presented may seem far-fetched, but is it really? Imagine living in this world. Could you still purchase inexpensive, mass-produced goods from Wal-Mart when your dollar is worth less than 60% of its 2008 value? Would you be able to use electricity freely or drive your car to buy a loaf of bread and a $25 pack of cigarettes? What about replacing items when they break or wear out? Can you afford to repair or replace them? Do you possess the necessary resources?
You claim that you do, mentioning your grandfather’s woodshop or your father’s garage full of tools. However, what do most of these tools require to function? Look closely—yes, they need electricity. So, it seems that the pressboard and veneered plywood furniture might not last much longer. You planned to fix the bed frame with your electric welder from Harbor Freight, right? Now the question remains: what do we do next?
How about embracing traditional methods? Let’s channel our inner Norm Abrams or Roy Underhill. Before the 1940s, most people didn’t have access to electric tools for personal use. Think about returning to those days when hand tools were the norm.
Hand tool usage has become somewhat of a rare skill. Why spend hours planing and scraping a project when you can use a jointer, planer, and power sander to complete the task in less than 90 minutes? Well, in a world with limited electricity, you may not have a choice, and you might even find satisfaction in doing things the old-fashioned way.
Let’s explore some useful hand tools for a post-rolling brown-out world.
We always need to cut our wood pieces to size, and saws are the most efficient, clean, and precise tools for this purpose. Saws can be classified by design, purpose, origin, cutting mechanics, and other criteria, which can be overwhelming for beginners. For simplicity, we’ll focus on the essential criteria and let your experience and learning curve guide you further.
Design is the easiest criterion to use. Western saws are generally divided into rip cut, crosscut, and combination saws, with specialized saws addressed separately. A rip cut saw is designed to cut along the grain of the wood (lengthwise), while a crosscut saw cuts across the grain (perpendicular or at an angle). A combination saw, as the name implies, is designed for both purposes. Tooth design and pitch determine a saw’s classification.
Another factor to consider is the cutting mechanics of saws. Most saws cut in a single direction. In the Western world, most hand saws cut on the downward stroke, clearing the kerf (the channel created by the saw removing wood material) on the upstroke. An efficient stroke is indicated by sawdust piling up in front of the teeth. Saws perform best with full strokes at comfortable angles.
Eastern, or Japanese, saws are generally the opposite with the cut being on the upstroke. Buck, limbing, and planking saws (think old stereotypical lumberjack saws) cut it both direction and clear the kerf at the same time.
Specialized saws to consider are gent’s or dovetail saws, miter saws, and coping saws. At a minimum, a prepper will have at least a 12-14” combination saw, a coping saw, and miter saw, as well as a woodsman bow or limbing saw. For more detailed work, gents’s or dovetail saw and a variety of Japanese saws will be in your repertoire.
Saws can be expensive but saws, with some TLC, can be refurbished. Keep them dry and clean the pitch and sap off of them. Be careful of the type of wood that you are cutting. Some woods are extremely dense, like ebonies and maples. Others are very resinous and require a lot of cleaning after use, like pines, and other evergreens. Some are very coarse grained and can cause rip cuts to go astray without careful cutting, like oaks and zebrawoods.
This is by no means an exhaustive lesson on saws, merely a primer. So what else should a Prepper have in their tool box?
Although a hammer may seem like a straightforward tool, a beginner visiting a hardware store could be overwhelmed by the variety of options. There are different hammer heads for specific applications, distinct handles, and various striking faces. So, how do you avoid bending nails or exhausting yourself while using a hammer?
Let’s simplify things by focusing on hammers intended for woodworking. While masonry, peen, slag, drilling, sledge, roofing, and drywall hammers all have their unique purposes, for our discussion on woodworking, we’ll concentrate on framing, finish, tack, dead blow, and mallet hammers.
The heads of these hammers are distinct, and their design is the easiest way to identify them. With experience and practice, you’ll eventually be able to recognize which hammer you’ve picked up just by its feel.
Notice the different framing head designs and the newer nail starter notches
Framing hammers are generally heavier than most others (16-28oz) and feature a pronounced, sharp nail puller that isn’t very curved and can serve as a lever for lumber during construction. The striking faces can be square or round, with either a smooth or waffled finish. The waffled finish reduces the striking face’s tendency to glance off nail heads during inaccurate blows or improper swings. However, the waffled heads can cause injuries like bruised thumbs. Modern framing hammers may have a magnetic notch to help with nail starting, but this feature isn’t universally appreciated. The strike faces are wider than other hammer types, and in the case of California-style framers, the head is very pronounced.
Handles are crucial. Traditionally, framers have hickory or ash handles because these woods absorb percussive damage and reduce vibration better than denser woods like maple. Estwing revolutionized the industry with their steel handle design, still favored by many carpenters today. Fiberglass and composite handles are becoming more popular due to their weather resistance, durability, and shock absorbency. Handle design is evolving as well, with ergonomic options providing reduced fatigue during long workdays.
Handle length is also essential. In the US, the standard framer length is 16 inches, which provides a quick measuring reference for framing since standard stud spacing is 16 inches. The exception is the California framer, which can have a length of up to 20+ inches, allowing heavier heads (24+oz) to work more efficiently using gravity.
Next, we’ll discuss finish hammers, commonly found in households. They come in various sizes, ranging from 8 oz to 20 oz, with the most common size being 16 oz. The heads feature distinctly curved nail pullers with a smooth top, allowing for work in tighter spaces and reducing the likelihood of damaging surrounding wood. The round and rounded strike faces enable light, multi-angled glancing blows for finishing and other small-headed nail fasteners, reducing the chance of marring surrounding wood from mis-strikes.
The handles of finish hammers are made of wood or fiber/composite materials, and their lengths can vary. These hammers aim to enhance control, minimize damage, and drive smaller fasteners without causing damage or unsightly results.
Tack hammers might resemble toys, usually weighing under 8 oz. Their heads look like bulky tuning forks from the top, and their handles are small. These specialty woodworking hammers are designed to drive small tacks and nails into tight and delicate projects, such as picture frames or jewelry boxes.
Dead blow mallets typically have barrel-shaped heads encased in rubber or soft plastic. They are weighted with lead shot or sand to enable shifting weight displacement and dampen vibration. These mallets are not intended for striking metal but are used to fit wood pieces together without marring the wood. Their weight can range from 8 oz to over 28 oz.
Wooden mallets are often used in the same way as dead blow hammers. Their heads are squared off blocks of dense woods like maple or beech. They can dead blow or they can drive biscuits, dowels, and plugs. They are extremely useful woodworking tools.
Stay tuned to the next part of the series where we look at wood processing tools briefly, like axes, adzes, froes, etc. We will also begin to look at wood shaping and finishing tools, like chisels, planes, and scrapers.