This is a question I get asked on a fairly regular basis. When I told my Dad I had sold off my power tools (extensive collection of a radial arm saw and a table saw), he asked how’d I’d ever get any work done and how I’d make anything square or decent.
Yet for a vast majority of recorded and all of unrecorded history, woodworking was done with hand tools. First stones then varying metals throughout the ages. Many tools were made of wood themselves (wedges, planes, mallets) and all of them were powered using muscle and expertise.
That connection to the past, when furniture was utilitarian and often served more than one purpose. A dining table might have had storage underneath for cutlery and plates. A chair would have had slots on the back to hold candles. Barring furniture meant for the upper classes, it was simple and to the point.
And each maker had their own style that came through. Now, you go to furniture stores and the only difference you see between brands is the name on the price tag. There is no difference between those items and the ones you find in Target or Wal-Mart. Many are even made in the same factory by underpaid workers in China and with modern plastics, it is offen impossible to tell the difference between wood and plastic at first glance.
With every cut I make, I reach back hundreds of years and pull knowledge back into the present. I don’t try to replicate woodworking from then, modern lumber, tools and customers are different, but I do learn from them.
Ultimately, working with hand tools gives me an incredible satisfaction. Using my muscles to push steel through wood allows me to learn about each board, where it was in the tree, how wet it still in, how fast it grew. With hand tools you have to closely work with the wood; with machines you force the wood into shapes.