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Sometimes You Just Need A Brad Nailer

There I said it!

It was a hard thing to admit for this hand tool zealot, but sometimes, it is faster, cheaper, and plain easier to power it up and get ‘er done.  Even though I am the proprietor of a virtual hand tool woodworking school, I admit that a hybrid approach will make you more efficient.  While I  espouse better woodworking through hand work, I try to make the point that learning the fundamental hand skills make you better because of those moments when a power tool can’t help you.  The rest of the time, you may have great success by plugging in.  A fair balance of the two dogmas will ultimately serve you in the long run.

I build by hand mainly because I enjoy it.  I love my planes so I mill a lot of stock with them.  But there are times when I just need to get something done.  Take last night for instance.  I was asked to build a manger for our church’s live nativity about 2 weeks ago so naturally I put it off until the very last moment.  With Monday night football set to begin in a few hours I had to be quick to get this project done.

A quick dig through my wood stash yielded some  5″ wide reclaimed Redwood left over from Adirondacks I made this summer.  A pass across the 6″ jointer, run through the planer, rip to width on the bandsaw and I was back at my bench a few minutes later with the parts I needed to make a manger.

A manger is really farm equipment used to feed livestock so it obviously should not be pretty.  It would however hold a live human baby so it needed to not fall apart or be splintery.  Intricate joinery is not needed here, but I did want to join the legs in an X pattern strongly as this joint would hold all the weight.  40″ long legs crossed at some undetermined angle needing to have a half lap joint cut into them is not the domain of a power tool.  It could be done, but it would take me much longer to set up a miter gauge and install a dado blade than it took me to knife in some lines, saw the kerfs, knock out the waste and level the joint with a chisel, then transpose the joint to the mating piece and repeat.

With my legs joined together in a tight fitting half lap, I crosscut all my slat pieces to the same length with a Carcass saw and bench hook.  This was because I was too lazy to uncover my table saw and I love my saws.  Additionally I wanted the slats to look rustic, so precision cut edges was not in the cards.  Unfortunately I have had a lot of sawing practice so my cuts actually came out quite pretty.  Regardless, with a few minutes work, all my slats were cut and ready to be attached to the leg assemblies.

Enter the brad nailer.  I don’t care how much of a purist you are, we all love the satisfaction of pulling that trigger and instantly joining two boards together.  Bam, bam, bam and I had the end slats attached to the upper half of the X leg assembly.  Now I had to trim those slats flush.  Working on already assembled pieces is where hand tools really shine.  There is no need for jiggery to match an angle or depth of cut.  Just secure your work piece, point your saw and cut.  The two ends of the manger are done and ready to be joined to one another along the length with the brad nailer.

Manger from Reclaimed Redwood and PineIn about 30 minutes I had a manger that would make any cow or donkey blush.  My manger however needed to hold a baby “wrapped in swaddling clothes” so I decided to insert a bottom piece.  The sides converge at angles that would allow me to wedge a board in the bottom.  the angles are not exact nor are they even identical so out came my coffin smoother and I cut chamfers on the long edges to match the disparate angles.  Again a hand tool triumph as matching the angles and setting up a saw or router bit would have taken 5 times as long as the plane to fit approach.

Apply a little exterior grade glue and press the bottom into place and I was done.  Now I fired up the random orbit sander with 100 grit paper and eased all the edges to kill of any baby spearing splinters and the manger was Nativity ready.

I will win no design or craftsmanship awards with this 45 minute project, but I think it perfectly illustrates the beauty of the hybrid workshop and selecting the right tool for the job.  There are many many other ways I could have built this and it will vary for you based on your tooling but if you embrace everything at your disposal you become the picture of efficiency.

Now maybe you can see my point that hand tool skills make you a better woodworker.  I could have spent a lot of time figuring out how to make the half lap joints and precutting all my slat pieces, or I could fall back on my hand skills and just cut to a line.  Combine this ability with modern power tools and you can have a lot of fun building stuff…and isn’t that what this is all about after all.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from The Renaissance Woodworker, not just a hand tool guy after all.

PS: now I need to find a baby to put in it.  I think the “swaddling” part might take longer than it took to build the manger.

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