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By Jeff Danner Jeff has worked in both the chemical and biotech industries and is the veteran of thousands of science debates at cocktail parties and holiday dinners across the nation. In his Common Science blog, Jeff aims to make technological and scientific concepts accessible to all.

In Which I Reveal Myself to be a Luddite, at Least Partly

By Jeff Danner Posted January 20, 2013 at 9:52 pm

“Hello my name is Jeff and I use hand tools . . . “
 

Long time readers will know that from time to time I write a column like this which is more personal than technical.  I have a confession to make.  For someone who makes a living in and also writes about technology, there is one area in which I harbor some rather Luddite feelings and habits.  I like hand tools and often think they are a more efficient option than their powered alternates.  And, as long as this is a confession, using them does make give me the satisfied feeling of a purist.

This is a long term trend for me. The first car my wife and I owned was a used, two-toned 1980 Buick Skylark which was held together with duct tape and wire. (I loved that car, even though I had to keep spare sections of axle in the trunk to replace the ones the faulty transmission kept destroying.)  By1992 we had the means and need to buy our first new car, a Mazda Protégé.  I gave the saleswoman quite a shock when I asked for one without either electric windows or power door locks, as these, in my opinion, added unnecessarily to the price of the car and represented expensive maintenance costs down the road when they inevitably failed.  I punctuated the discussion with a demonstration that my arm actually still functioned and that I could roll the windows up and down and open the doors with a key. (If memory serves, I found this a bit more amusing that my poor suffering wife.) This may have been the last car purchased in America with traditional roll up windows. (However, to this day I still only by cars with manual transmissions.)
 
As I am an engineer, it should not surprise you that I am rather “handy”.  I have made some of our furniture, I do nearly all of our home repairs, and I also operate a small farm in Orange County. Over the years, given these hobbies and interests, I have accumulated a large inventory of tools and machines.  I find that as time passes I have been choosing hand tools over power tools in more and more situations. Let me give you some examples.
 
Like nearly every other handyman in the country, I purchased a series of cordless electric drills when they first came out.  They seemed great at first, but problems soon arose.  The batteries did not have the capacity for larger projects and they became weaker and weaker with every charge-and-drain cycle.  When the time came to buy replacement batteries, they were often more expensive than what I originally paid for the drill.  These days, I keep an electric drill with a power cord at home for big jobs. At the farm, which is off the grid, I use the old-style hand drill pictured above.  I can drill holes with it nearly as fast as with a power drill and it never runs out of batteries or needs and extension cord.
 
When I started working on the farm I needed to clear some brush and small trees, so I bought a chainsaw. While the chainsaw is great at cutting logs which are lying down, as a tool for felling trees, I found it to be nearly useless. With a chain saw, it’s very difficult to cut the tree off at ground level and, unless you select the perfect angle, you end up pinching the chain with the tree, which either stops it or pops it off its track.  If you add to these shortcomings the time and hassle of keeping the cutters on the chain sharp, adding chain oil, and filling it with gas, I find the chain saw to be inferior to my axe (shown above) for clearing trees.  With the proper technique I can cut a tree with a diameter of less than 12 inches much faster with my axe than with my chain saw, and I can do it at ground level, eliminating the difficult follow-up task of grinding down the stump.  For smaller branches, the curved hand saw shown in the picture above cuts through in just several strokes.
 
Lest I give you the impression that I am about to head out to live in an off-the-grid shack in the forest (however tempting that may be), it is not my intention to impugn technology in general.  What I suggest we do consider is whether all tasks in our daily lives require a power cord or a gas tank.  For example, with the noise, the fuel consumption, and the pollution, do leaf blowers really make the world a better place, or would we be better off with our trusty old rakes.  I know what I think.
 
Have a comment, question, or favorite hand tool?  Use the interface below or send me an e-mail to commonscience@chapelboro.com.

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