Traditional Woodworking Methods and do they Matter?

Even if your only brush with wood working was at school, chances are you have worked with wood at least once in your life. Working this amazing material with your hands is a constant challenge but also brings with it great pleasure. Just the smell is enough to begin a lifelong love of wood working; from the aromatic red cedar to the more medicinally pungent camphor, woodwork is a sensory experience.

Stepping into a workshop that manufactures wooden products by hand will reveal a seemingly endless selection of complicated looking tools. Chisels, hand planes and saws will adorn every available wall surface. The tell-tale signs of careful planing will lie scattered on the floor in the form of tiny spirals of wood.

Preparing a wooden blank                                                                                  Image Credit: – Jordan Hill School D&T Department

The results of these traditional wood working methods can be spectacular. Handmade kayaks, a bespoke kitchen counter top or even a simple handmade chair will speak the same story; lovingly applied care and attention to detail, using techniques that have been around for centuries to create a totally unique piece.

The alternative to this one off approach is the ever present mass production of wooden products. Here you will see the antithesis of the traditional approach. Care and attention to detail will be overshadowed by the need for efficiency, profit margins and low waste. While this will often turn out a perfectly acceptable product you lose the bespoke feeling of the end result. However, that end result will often be available at a substantially lower cost to the end user, compared to a handmade alternative.

Having explored these two, chalk and cheese, methods of wooden product manufacture, let us turn our attention how they influence the wooden items in your home.

For your Kitchen

Here you will find such a staggering array of choice and costs that it can be hard to pick your way thought the maze of options. If you were expecting a simple rule of thumb, that custom kitchens are expensive and mass produced units are low cost, then I’m afraid you’ll need to rethink. Kitchens are about material, appliances and fitting. Some high end mass produced brands are more expensive than custom handmade products of a lower cost material.

Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) as a cabinet material and a laminate worktop will lower costs substantially but the finished effect won’t come close to using real wood. Mass production methods are most evident in the “ready to assemble” cabinet market. Here standard sized units are delivered direct to your home, and you put them together. This do-it-yourself approach might lower the cost but the quality won’t be high.

hand crafted Iroko wood wall rack                                                                                                              Image Credit: – Bordercraft

With your Furniture

Commissioning handmade furniture can be expensive. The time and effort required in the cutting and joinery is often very high and you will pay dearly for this care and attention. Rather than commissioning your own pieces a more likely route is picking up pieces as hand-me-downs from family or browsing antique stores. Needless to say it doesn’t take an expert eye to determine the difference in quality between a mass produced modern dining chair and a 19th century handmade chair. The same cannot be said for reproductions of that same 19th century chair, some of which can be surprisingly good.

On your Floors

While handmade wooden flooring is still available from some craftsmen, it may only be appropriate for period houses where mass produced floor boards do not suit the style. The range of standard sized board with pre-cut tongue-and-groove is very large. These mass produced offerings will lack bespoke charm and character but can be shaped and fitted on site without the need for specialist training. With so many products available the main issue might just making that final choice.

Contrasting wooden floor and worktops                                                                                                            Image Credit: – Bordercraft


Your path to handmade products for flooring may lie in reclaimed wood. Demolished or heavily renovated properties often sell their removed wooden floorboards, to either reclamation companies or to specialist period outfitters. This option might only really appeal if you already have a period property that has missing features that were previously removed.

So, do Traditional Methods Matter?

There is often a gulf in quality between handmade and mass made products, and often it is worth the price difference. The fine detail and little custom touches in a handmade product will add a truly unique feel to the spaces in your home. The craftsman will hand pick the pieces so that the dovetail is an absolutely perfect match and when joining two sections of wood together the grain will meet to produce a better join.

Wood is a stunning and timeless material and the techniques that were used hundreds of years ago are bring out the natural detail and feel of wood in a way that a mass produced product simply can’t emulate. It might cost more, but traditional woodworking methods will always bring out the best in wood.

About the Author: Jon Buck has been managing director at Bordercraft since 1996. Bordercraft are a family owned business and have been producing fine hardwood furniture from their workshops in the Welsh borders since 1972. All of the timbers they use are sourced from sustainable managed forests and everything they sell is made by their experienced craftsmen in the UK.


Erin Emanuel