More and more people are coming to grips with the idea that, as a country, we may soon face a existential event. Of the possible tragedies mentioned, the most common is that of a EMP attack. Loss of the power grid, either through a high-altitude EMP or acts of terrorism, would truly bring this country to its knees. Millions would die and those who survived would be forced to find other ways of doing things.
But for millennia mankind existed without electricity and all the modern conveniences it has brought us. So really, we don't need to look forward to encounter how to live without electricity, but rather, look behind. There is a resurgence of many of the ways in which the craftsmen of past ages did things, as people learn skills which may be of use in a post-electric age.
Probably one of the most commonly needed skills will be that of woodworking. Wood is not only a plentiful, renewable resource, but it is also one of the easiest natural resources to work with. Perhaps that is why wood has been used for centuries as the most common building material for homes, furniture, cabinetry and even vehicles. Even today, wood is used for all these purposes, except that of vehicles. Our modern vehicles use more complex materials.
But today's woodworking has changed much from that of the past. A combination of the need to conserve materials (and thereby lower cost) and conserve time has changed woodworking extensively. Today's woodworker uses power tools for almost everything, as well as factory-made metal fasteners. But as recently as 100 years ago, that was impossible. They used hand tools for almost everything and it was rare to find nails or screws used in items made of wood.
My father was an expert in many of these old methods. He was an old-school woodworker, who knew many of the old methods and built furniture fastened together with pegs, rather than screws. I'm glad I leaned much of this from him, as there may come a day when those skills will once again be valuable.
Ancient Power Tools
Today's power tools use electric motors or gasoline engines. This tends to make us think that the idea of power tools is something rather new. To some extent that thought is correct; but it is not totally correct. Handheld power tools are new to this world, with the first being the electric drill, back in Henry Ford's era; but some stationary power tools actually predate electricity.
What types of power tools would those be? Some that are known are the sawmill (both rotary and vertical), stamping mills, grain mills, pumps, the drill press, the lathe, and even the milling machines used by machinists. Without these tools, the industrial age never could have come into existence.
The two types of sawmills can be likened to the table saw and the scroll saw, at least in their operation. While larger, they operated in much the same way. Sawmills did more than just saw logs into boards too. Carpenters, cabinetmakers and ordinary citizens would take wood to the sawmill, in order to have it cut for shelves, doors and other projects. The sawmill was more efficient than cutting by hand, and would also produce a straighter cut.
There were three power sources used for these tools:
- Water - The water wheel has been in existence for centuries, with the first ones apparently being used by the Greeks, a couple of centuries before Christ. By the time of the Roman Empire, their use had spread throughout Europe. It also appears that water wheels were separately invented in China in the first century AD.
- Animal - Oxen, horses or donkeys were used to generate power by having them walk in a circle around a central shaft they were harnessed to. This was a common method in places where windmills were not common. For machinery and tools, the power from the shaft could be transferred to an overhead axle via a right-angle gearbox. This axle was usually nothing more than a smoothed out tree trunk, which was mounted overhead in bearing blocks. The power was then transmitted to the various machines via leather belts.
- Foot Treadle - Most of us are accustomed to the idea of a treadle sewing machine, having seen one sometime or another. But treadles can and have been used for powering other types of machines as well. Most specifically, drill presses, lathes and scroll saws were built by our ancestors, which cabinetmakers powered off a foot treadle. The secret to this form of power is the flywheel, which stored the energy created by the treadle.
All electricity did for these power tools is to reduce the size of their power plant, while making them universally available. Not everyone had a team of oxen or a water wheel to provide them with power. But the ready availability of electricity made it possible for everyone to have access to power tools.
While these methods may once again become useful, I would like to concentrate here on ways of doing things without any power tools or any of the other modern conveniences that carpenters and cabinetmakers are accustomed to using.
The earliest days of woodworking probably consisted of using logs, such as in making log cabins. But this type of construction is very inefficient, wasting a lot of material. You are also limited by the natural shape of the logs. Oh, they can be modified somewhat, such as squaring them to make beams, but that's about it. To make anything finer than that, requires converting those logs to boards.
There are two basic ways of making boards; splitting logs or sawing them. While splitting doesn't produce a smooth board, it is much faster and simpler than sawing. Wood will always split along grain lines, so driving wedges into the end and side of a log will produce boards.
With practice and the right sort of logs to work with, it is possible to split logs into very straight boards, although they won't be thin. One secret is to use wood that has long, straight grain. Most types of pine won't work well, due to the high number of knotholes in it. Likewise, oak and olive are poor choices, due to the twists and turns in the wood's grain. However, maple and walnut work well and poplar is an excellent choice for splitting into boards.
The more common means of making boards has always been sawing. While there are many means of doing this, our pioneer ancestors normally used a two-man saw. The log to be cut would be placed on supports over a pit. One man would work in the pit and the other above it, alternately pulling the saw to cut the log.
One man working alone could cut board too, using essentially the same method, without the other man in the pit. It was harder and would take longer, but the boards could still be cut. The trick was to make sure that the cuts were absolutely straight and that the saw wasn't canted to one side or another. A canted blade would cause problems with board thickness or putting a twist in the board.
While this may seem like an incredibly hard way to make boards, you have to remember that they were cutting with the grain, not across it. Therefore, it was actually much quicker than one would normally imagine. Boards could be cut very accurately this way, and were cut as thin as one inch.
Once boards are cut, they need to be shaped and smoothed. The lumber we buy from a lumberyard is sanded on all sides, to make it smooth. It is then stacked and dried, usually in a kiln, to help ensure that it is dry enough to work with and hopefully not warped, twisted or bent. However, as we all know, finding a straight board is like finding a needle in a haystack.
Our ancestors had this problem as well and had a solution for it. As they were planing the board to its final thickness, they would also plane out any twists, cupping, warping and other unwanted abnormalities.
The first part of this was done with a jointer plane. There are several styles of jointer planes, all of which have one thing in common; a very long shoe. A typical jointer plane is about 24 to 30 inches long. That allows the plane to span any variations, helping the user to straighten them out. There is also a longer jointer plane, which is held stationary, leaning against a workbench and held in a vice. The board is moved across the plane to cut it.
Another tool that was used in conjunction with the plane was a pair of "winding sticks." These were two identically shaped and sized pieces of wood, in different colors. Usually, one would be made of a light colored wood and the other dark, so that they would be clearly visible against each other. The winding sticks were placed on opposite ends of the board and sighted across. This would make twisted boards obvious, as the visible line of the far winding stick would be visible above the near one, giving away any twist in the board.
Thinner boards can be created by resawing thicker ones. Today, this is done on a band saw, but in olden times it was accomplished with a resawing frame saw. This is a saw which looks like a picture frame, with a long, fine-toothed blade spanning the middle, set at a right angle to the frame. The wood was held in a vice for resawing.
Cutting boards to length is done with a crosscut saw. This is a finer toothed saw than that used for ripping, as it is designed to cut across the grain. In a survival situation, a "pull saw," rather than the more traditional "push saw" would be advantageous, as it is much easier to cut with, especially when accurate cuts are needed.
Many different materials have been used as roofing, throughout the centuries. Probably the most common have been thatch sod. For a sod roof, cut squares of grass would be laid on a framework to make a roof. Thatch was dried grass or long-leafed plants, which were tied in bundles and then tied to the roof structure. While not perfect, these did an admirable job of keeping the rain and snow out. A thatch roof could last as long as 20 years. As long as the sod received enough water, it would survive and keep the home relatively dry.
The invention of shingles in the mid-1600s greatly improved homebuilding, providing a good, easy method of roofing, which was not as easily damaged by the weather. Early on, the only shingles were wood ones, called "shakes." You can still find these used in some parts of the country today, normally made of cedar.
While cedar has been a popular material for making shake roofs, it was not the only wood used. Literally any wood available could be used. However, some types of wood, like cedar, resist decomposition better than others.
Shakes are cut from a section of log with a mallet and froe. The froe is placed on the log, which is standing on end, and driven through it with the mallet. Typically, a shingle would be about 3/8" thick on the top end and about 3/4" thick on the bottom.
While today's shakes are factory made, they still vary in width, as they are made of different width pieces of log. However, they are consistent in length, as they are always cut from the same length log. For those who are conscious of their material usage, shingles are great, as they were traditionally cut from branches which weren't wide enough to be sawn into boards.
As long as man has been making things out of wood, he has sought to adorn his work, making it more attractive. There are countless ancient examples of woodworking which have survived, showing everything from carving to moldings, from marquetry to brass wire inlay. All of this was done to enhance the natural beauty of the wood and make the finished product more attractive.
While a survival situation may not leave much room for creating things of beauty, once the survival needs are met, we will most likely turn towards improving that which we have made. We may replace certain things or go back to them, seeking to make them more attractive.
This probably means either carving the wood or creating moldings. Carving is a learned skill, which takes a lot of time and practice. While driving a chisel through wood with a mallet may seem simple, doing it in a decorative manner isn't. Skilled wood carvers take years to learn their craft.
But making moldings is much easier. While we use routers and shapers for this today, carpenters and cabinet makers used molding planes before the invention of those materials. A molding plane is nothing more than a regular plane, with a shoe and blade that has been shaped to the profile of the molding that the woodworker desires to make. In times past, carpenters would make architectural molding on the building site, shaping boards with a plane to turn them into molding.
If a number of carpenters needed to be able to make the same molding, they would first create a mother plane in their workshop. This would be shaped exactly as the finished molding should look. Once finished, the mother plane could be used to cut the bodies of the molding planes, ensuring that they all had the exact same profile.
A smaller, simpler tool can be used for making small quantities of molding, such as would be used on a piece of furniture. This tool, called the "scratch stock," is nothing more than an old piece of saw blade, clamped into a handle. It is filed to match the shape of the desired molding. The handle acts as a guide and the scratch stock is drawn across the edge of the board until it cuts the full depth of the desired profile.
Molding plane for rounding edges (left) and scratch stock (right).
Note that the both ends of the blade in the scratch stock are ground, providing two different profiles.
The nice thing about the scratch stock is its simplicity to make. While you wouldn't want to use one to cut all the molding for a house, if you are making a piece of furniture, this is an easy way to create a nice edge, such as a beaded edge. Woodworkers would save old band saw blades and other broken blades for use in their scratch stocks. Today, some of the best blades for this are worn out reciprocating saw (sawzall) blades.
Today, we smooth the wood projects we make with sandpaper, often held in one of the various types of power sanders available on the market. But sandpaper is a relatively new invention, hitting the market here in the United States in 1834. Yet there was a lot of high-quality furniture, with an excellent finish, made before then.
Before sandpaper, woodworkers would plane a board as smooth as they could and then switch over to a scraper. This was nothing more than a flat piece of tool steel, with a straight edge. They would use a burnisher to raise up a burr along that straight edge. Then, when the edge was drawn across the wood, it would make tiny cuts of anything sticking up, smoothing the surface.
A scraper in the hands of a skilled woodworker will actually produce a finer surface finish than sandpaper can. That's because the sandpaper leaves behind tiny threads of wood fiber, which you almost need a microscope to see. These end up in the finish, causing unevenness. However, a scraper doesn't leave any of these fibers, rather cutting them off to leave a perfectly flat and smooth surface.
Using a scraper is an art, so before you actually need one, you might want to watch a few videos of someone using one, and even try it yourself. Putting the burr on the edge of the tool is tricky, as well as holding the scraper at the right angle to get it to cut off irregularities in the surface of the wood. But if you want a really smooth finish, this is definitely the way to go.
Making Holes in Boards
If you do any woodworking, for any amount of time, you're going to end up having to make holes in boards sometime. This will be especially true if you are building without having fasteners available to use. You'll need holes to peg the boards together (we'll talk more about that in a minute).
Of all power tools, the first one that most people buy is an electric drill, whether cordless or running off AC power (house current). But those drills won't do the least bit of good when there is no electricity to run them. Then you'll have to turn to manually operated hand drills. Fortunately, these are still readily available on the market.
The two most common hand drills are the hand-crank hand drill (left) and the brace and bit (right). Hand crank drills are easier to work with, but are limited in the size bit they can take. Most won't accept more than a 1/4 inch drill bit. If you were to put a larger diameter drill bit in, with a stepped shank, you probably wouldn't have enough strength to turn it very fast.
The brace works with much larger bits, up to about one inch. However, it is a little harder to work with. Nevertheless, its capacity makes it a very handy tool to have on hand.
Another type of hand drill is the gimlet. These only come for drilling smaller sized holes, up to 1/4 inch. The reason is that they are driven by hand power, without any mechanical advantage. The gimlet has a screw end, which pulls it through the wood when pressure is applied. Then the drill flutes cut out the wood, making a clean hole.
Finally, holes can be made by burning through the wood. While not as accurate as other methods, this is definitely much easier. A piece of solid wire is used, heated up in a fire. This is pressed into the wood, where the hole is desired, essentially burning the wood. While the wire won't actually cause the wood to catch fire, it will turn the area it is in contact with into charcoal. This can then be driven out with a punch, leaving a hole.
If you're going to make much of anything, you're going to have to join boards together. This can be difficult without nails and screws, especially if that's what you are used to using. But in the Old West and colonial times, they didn't have too many nails floating around to use. Rather they would put wood together with wood.
Adhesives were used extensively for this type of woodworking, especially horsehide glue. The combination of glue and wood fasteners created a bond that would last for years; even more than a century.
The most basic form of this is assembling with pegs. Today, we call it doweling, mostly because we use dowel rod for the pegs. But if you don't have dowel rod, you can cut your own pegs out of scrap or even out of small branchlets from the tree you cut your wood boards from.
Assembly with pegs or dowels requires drilling a hole though the pieces to be joined. This is best done with the pieces clamped together, to ensure that the holes are exactly in alignment. Even a small amount of deviation in the alignment can make it impossible for the pieces to be pegged together. This problem is amplified for every additional hole you are pegging in the same piece of work.
Once the holes are drilled, the pegs or dowels are driven into the holes, with a little bit of glue on them. Typically, the peg is too long, leaving some of it sticking outside the ole. This extra can be cut off with a flush-cutting saw for appearances sake, although it is not necessary to cut it off.
The next step up in complexity is the mortise and tenon. The basic differences here are that the peg is actually part of one board, usually the end of the board. You have to use the end, as cutting a peg (the tenon) into the side of a board makes it extremely weak. Wood is strong across the grain, but not with the grain. A tenon cut into the side of a board will most likely break off.
The other difference between the tenon and a peg is that the tenon is usually square or rectangular, not round. So, the hole in the wood (the mortise) must be cut square to match. This is done with a mallet and chisel, cutting alternating sides of the hole until it is through the wood.
Cutting a mortise accurately is difficult. The tendency is to end up with the outside edge of the mortise, on the surface of the wood, being too large and the middle part, in the middle of the board, being too small. To counter this, start by cutting just inside the line you draw to outline your mortise and hold the chisel as if you were trying to cut at a slight angle, making the middle of the hole wider than the end. This usually works out to counterbalance the natural tendency and gives you a fairly straight hole.
A cut mortise can always be finished out with a square file, if you don't get it exact. On pieces where you have multiple mortise and tenon joints, mark each pair, so that you know what goes together. These are individual joints, not factor cookie-cutter joints. You may not be able to fit the wrong pieces together.
In the picture, the tenon is actually sticking out through the mortise, to the other side. This is my normal way of making them. I find that if I try to make them the exact length, they come out short. So, I cut them 1/4 inch long and then cut off the excess with a flush cut saw.
Corners of drawers and other boxy items can be joined together with either finger joints or dovetails. Of the two, dovetails are much more beautiful and much stronger. However, they are much harder to make. It takes a fair amount of practice to learn how to make good dovetail joints.
In both dovetail and finger joints, the key is accurate cutting. As you can see from the photos above, there is no gap between the two pieces of wood where they come together. This is essential for the strength of the project. You'll need to be extremely accurate in your marking and cutting to ensure that the parts fit together this well.
One key is to mark the tow pieces at the same time, using a very sharp pencil or scribe. A dovetail square is necessary for marking the dovetails, but a normal square is used for the finger joints.
Once marked, the lines are cut with a small stiff saw. Make sure that you are using a sharp saw, as that will help with the accuracy of your cuts. The bottom of the fingers is cut out with a chisel and mallet.
There's a good chance you're going to have to try fitting your parts together several times, when joining them together in this manner. Don't fret, even experienced woodworkers do that. It is better to cut your joints tight and then ease them open, than to cut them too large and not have any real friction holding the parts together. Although these joints are glued, it's best to have them tight enough that they can be handled without falling apart, before applying the glue.
So there you have it. With just a few extra hand tools and a bit of practice, you'll be able to do woodworking even without electrical power. That skill could serve you very well; not only for your family, but as a post-TEOTWAWKI business.Take some time to practice these techniques before you need them. Woodworking can be a very rewarding and enjoyable hobby, especially when you can point to something you are using in your home and say, "I made that." It's also fun to be able to give handmade gifts to family members, rather than giving them the same sort of junk that you don't like getting yourself.