A Higher Plane In the woodworking crowd, a rivalry splits the power-tool set and a splinter group of unplugged purists.

January 22, 1998|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Three years ago, Anatol Polillo had a close encounter with an electric router that nearly cost him a thumb. "It got ugly pretty fast," Polillo says.

A self-taught woodworker and free-lance video producer, Polillo knew there had to be a safer way to build an end table. He found the answer, and a new obsession, by tapping into Web sites and mailing lists where subscribers spoke ardently of such wonders as rabbet planes, hewing hatchets, draw knives, wooden scrapers, levels, chisels and gouges.

In forums like the Electronic Neanderthal Woodworker and the OldTools mailing list, the Baltimore resident found himself exploring a new universe of antique tool buffs. There, self-proclaimed "galoots" poke fun at the power-tool crowd's dependence on "tailed apprentices," their plug-in gadgets. Soon, Polillo was scouring auctions and flea markets for vintage planes and sawknives to replace his power tools.

Polillo, 31, had joined the growing community of "tool fundamentalists," those who worship antique planes, saws and chisels for their history, utility and beauty. These are implements made by master designers that reached a peak of craftsmanship in the 18th century. They come from an era before the Industrial Revolution, when woodworkers depended solely on hand tools, whether to build a simple foot stool or ornate crown molding.

Crafted before planned obsolescence, these tools were built to last and if tuned correctly remain more effective and easier to use than hand tools mass-produced today. They're regarded as artifacts worthy of the attention of curators and academics. Collectors have been known to pay in the tens of thousands of dollars for a rare specimen, such as a Sandusky Center wheel plow plane made of ebony and ivory.

The old-tool market is soaring. "It's crazy," says Patrick Leach, a hand-tool merchant in Massachusetts. "It's absolutely nuts!" Ten years ago, "the common planes that Stanley made, you couldn't give those things away at tool events. Everybody wanted the rare stuff." Now, guys go crazy over the most basic of tools, he says.

As the "Luddites" of woodworking, Polillo and his colleagues are in the minority. While 6,000 power-tool counterparts will be ogling band saws at this weekend's Baltimore Woodworking Show at the Timonium Fairgrounds, about 200 antique-tool buffs will be stroking plow planes and hand saws in York, Pa., at a meeting of the Mid-West Tool Collectors Association, an international organization that's 4,000 members strong.

There, participants will engage in "tool drool," defined as "rapturous description of newly acquired tool"; self-effacing jokes about hand-toolers' "being stupid enough to spend hours doing something that would take five minutes with a power tool"; and, of course, gentle razing of their power-tool counterparts.

The two tool camps have waged a friendly rivalry ever since a group of hand-tool fans defected from an online woodworking list a couple of years ago because it emphasized power tools and shunned "Neanderthals." Sure, we are, the old-tool crowd affirmed, and proud of it. Roy Underhill, host of the PBS program "The Woodwright's Shop," even opened one show with the battle cry: "Say no to power tools!"

At the Baltimore Woodworking Show, there'll be some hand-tool colleagues around to demonstrate nearly forgotten skills like saw sharpening and dovetailing, but the place will primarily team with "Normies," power-tool aficionados who emulate Norm Abram, the electric drill-packing host of PBS' "The New Yankee Workshop."

Some of each

Of course, only purists of either woodworking stripe abjure any association with the other side. It's a push-and-pull situation, says John Lavine, editor of the San Francisco-based Woodwork magazine. "It's almost impossible to make a living only using hand tools, [but] by the same token, there's no substitute for hand work."

Often, hobbyists who don't have to worry about bottom lines and deadlines begin with power tools and later discover that working wood with hand tools can be "much more satisfying and gratifying," Lavine says. "I think eventually it becomes a very layered process, and [each woodworker] figures out a combination of hand and power tools that is the most appropriate."

Just the same, Lavine says with a chuckle, after Woodwork recently ran a story about John Alexander, a Baltimore hand-tool master who makes post-and-rung furniture from green wood, an angry reader wrote something to the effect of: "This is the age of power tools, dammit!"

Donald Skinner, a member of the Baltimore Woodworkers Guild who'll display his work at the Baltimore show, is a power-tool guy. Skinner, 74, started out using hand tools as a teen and graduated to power tools to make furniture and jewelry boxes as a hobby.

Skinner likes power tools because they're faster and more efficient. "You can get your product done a lot faster and can enjoy it sooner," says the retired civil engineer from Towson.

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