Clearing up ambiguities

Controlling our working world

There are a few of responses to posts recently that may lead people to see me in the wrong context. One is that I live an “idyllic life” (and I know what they mean) when in fact I simply strive to make the most of the one I’ve been given. For instance, I’ve made conscious choices others would or did not make about living a life set against fashionable trends induced by media that depicts an artificial life as being of real value. For decades we allowed adverts on TVs to tell us and our children that smoking was cool and then spent decades fighting the cancer they produced in the lives of those who smoked directly and those passive smokers sitting in the same room day in day out. Industry’s machines, all be they scaled down versions, and despite dust extraction, confine us in a cancer-producing lung we call the workshop.

In this picture below a professional salesman (novice woodworker) projects his image of safe woodworking by not wearing any safety equipment during a real live demo. He does this day in day out at shows and his is a common practice among sales personnel.

For two hours after the machine is switched off, and probably much longer, depending on our activities, especially in winter when the workshop doors are closed, we breath the finings into our lungs and we who work full time in that environment get megadoses of it for a lifetime without realising it to late. Was it necessary? In most cases it was not. Now I do not care how much you tell me how good your dust extraction system is. Finings and dust escape constantly and charge the surrounding air in which you and others are working. That’s the fact.

I have spent at least half of my woodworking life working diligently striving to help others to simply reverse some of the effects of industry and education that compels them to live 24/7 in realms of industrial processes as well as realms of austerity they can indeed counter for much larger portions of their day.
I find ways for others to adopt hand work using inexpensive, safe, effective methods that really enhance wellbeing in producing high-quality work and I work at these things for long days because I think that it’s important. I don’t do it to be famous, or set standards impossible for others to achieve. I do it because IT MATTERS!

I strive to be independent of any commercial enterprise that would use me as a wallpaper to make them look good so that I can operate independently to help others find what they really need rather than be controlled by others telling them what they need so they can buy their goods. So far it’s working. I owe no man anything except one thing—to care about my fellow man (in my case woodworkers) and invest in the lives of others as best I can. At least in our home workshops we can take control these things and indeed develop a more enjoyable working environment to be creative in.

Using machines to work wood

This is another area that people may misunderstand in that they think I am anti machine and in fact don’t use them. Of course I do use machines. I own a full complement of quality older machines including a mortise machine, jointer, planer, bandsaw, chopsaw, tablesaw, drill press and lathes. This is not heresy but a practical. I am on record as saying “there is nothing wrong with machines or machine methods of working wood” as long as you realise that machine woodworking takes almost zero skill and machines substitute very poorly for truly skilled work. My resolve is purely practical. Am I going to dig a six-foot deep pit and slab an oak tree into boards? Of course not. Time and skill prevents me. Am I going to cut the stock for sixteen students to make sixteen boxes next month using splitting and riving methods? Again, the answer is of course no. I will use machines. You see it’s all about finding the balance. I can make a choice machine woodworkers cannot. Though I own a mortise machine in my machine shop, I haven’t used it in about year. That’s the case for me and I like it that way. So, to sum up, I use machines for dimensioning my stock and then cut all of my joints by hand in general. These joints include the three most important joints; the housing dado, the dovetail (any type), and the mortise and tenon. I use moulding planes for much of my molded stock because it’s often faster and cleaner than using a router, and by clean I mean nearer to perfection than routed stock. It also leaves my working area cleaner and dust free too. When others wear dust masks, eye protection and ear defenders all day, and concern themselves constantly with health safety issues, I simply make wood work.

Grinders versus sharpening plates

Some one asked this question and I am glad they did. If I don’t use grinders to grind cutting edges what happens if I have a “large nick” in one of them? Well, here again, I have no problem with using a grinder when necessary, I just don’t find them necessary for the bulk of my work. Even when I sharpen ten or more sets of class chisels I still use the diamond plates and strop, but there would be nothing wrong with using a grinder if it would give me the same results I get with hand methods which they actually don’t. If I hit something in would that fractures the edge badly or drop a chisel on concrete then I use a grinder. If a bevel has been sadly distorted by a student after a week of trying then will grind it back to shape and refine it to a convex bevel on the diamond plates. You see it’s all about choices and I, because I have developed skills, choose how I work so that I work efficiently with the minimum amount of invasion by machines, all be they miniaturised industrial versions to fit in my garage and misnamed calculatedly “power tools.”

In closing

Most of you have been offered only machine methods of working wood. If you go into mainline stores the staff will usually, not always, steer you to a machine method first. Almost all sales staff at these stores have head knowledge of hand tools but no working knowledge from an artisan background. They have machining knowledge because machines need no skill as such, they were invented and developed to minimise the need of skill so goods could be mass made by unskilled labour. You on the other hand have time you want to spend working wood in real ways that will ultimately give you the substantive skills of craftsmen past. I know that and you know that. If machine manufacturers put electric before the name machine and tried to sell ‘electric machines’, they would be ordinary. Using new terms, ie, a term adopted 25 years ago, like “power tools,” launches us into the new dimension of power woodworking. Those “power tool” woodworkers on TV channels are equally responsible for damage caused to people wanting to find and do real woodworking as TV advertisers did with their pro-smoking campaigns. It may not be as pervasive, but pro-rata, with so few people now using hand methods to work wood, it may well be.

6 thoughts on “Clearing up ambiguities”

  1. Ralph J Boumenot

    I see your blog entry as a sensible approach. Especially the point about pit sawing an oak log. If you want to do all power tool woodworking do so. If you want to do all hand tool woodworking, again do so. I am trying to do all the bull work with machines and the assembly woodworking by hand. I find it quieter, safer, less dusty, and satisfying. And I don’t have to punch a time clock so I can take as much time as I need to. You have opened up many new avenues in my woodworking since I have watched your artisan series.

    1. Trying to bring balance to a totally biased woodworking world governed by machine only advertisers has been to struggle against the tide, but I do see now that that sterile world of mass-making methodology can be slowly but steadily turned if people better understand what the problems are. because all machines are inherently dangerous and no number of guards can give absolute protection to people working with them, woodworking has become an adults-only occupation. I may well now turn to the world of media to help stem some of the damage done and instead of presenting woodworking as a time’s-past concept. as many gurus have done, or “power world” of woodworking that has dumbed down the art and craft of work, present it as the way forward for new-genre woodworkers to become masters in the field.

      1. Paul Moldovanos

        There are few master woodworkers as generous as you Paul. Those people giving you a hard time are just jealous and unhappy within themselves. Never mind sales people, experienced woodworkers have steered me away from hand tools because “it would take a lifetime to acquire those skills.” But you have shown us otherwise. So thank you for your help & guidance. It is appreciated. Paul-S. Africa

  2. David Kirtley

    I do agree that one if the biggest problems is the salesmanship of the power tool vendors. many times they are a solution in search of a problem. It becomes a matter of appropriate technology. Often the amount of time actually saved by much of the power tool usage is minimal and even immaterial. If you are making a one-off, the time it takes to get the machines set and either bring the machine to the work or the work to the machine counterbalances the speed of the action. In the overall lifetime of a project, the actual cutting is a small part in the whole process. Design, planning, and finishing dominate.

  3. Paul, it makes me a bit sad for our profession/hobby/etc… that you have to defend and explain your methods of woodworking. I have been trying to explain to my friends/family that I’m not abandoning the tools that I’ve bought and used in the past, I’m simply becoming a “Hybrid Woodworker”. (My term for combining powered tools and skilled hand methods.)

    As for the idyllic life comment, I have this issue at work where I’ve had to tell the younger guys that I’m in my upper 40’s they will get there someday… if they play their cards right and keep their focus on goals.

    I’ve always been a novice and it has become painfully clear why as I have followed the “Working Wood” series. In industrial arts, wood class, and metal shop classes in high school we were taught to use motorized mini-industrial tools. I’ve recently had this conversation with my girl friend and told her that schools really dropped the ball in their methods of teaching us. We never began with the basics or how they could be applied. I am assuming this is because they were preparing us to become the unskilled work force that has been replaced by unskilled laborers in countries other than our own.

    Your methods are working and helping us find our way back to methods that work. I’m beginning with your series in a way that I find practical, sharpening station. I bought three diamond stones and I’m recessing them in a piece of scrap 3/4″ plywood that I had laying around. I’ve got the first recess completed with nothing but a knife, chisel, and hammer and it is tight to the diamond plate. My first attempt at using your techniques with no power tools. I didn’t have to buid a jig for a router, or breathe dust in the air… just nice heavy carving chips.

    Never give up the good fight! I appreciate, as do many others, the skills that you are keeping alive in so many woodworking hands.

  4. I completely agree with everything you said. I’ve learned a lot since watching your series too and I’ve been amazed at how efficient and accurate hand tools can be. I have the assortment of power tools in my garage workshop too and sometimes the wife needs a project done “NOW!” I don’t really enjoy that process as I’m covered all up in ear muffs and eye glasses that fog. Sometimes, handtools are even faster. It takes me less time to just grab a handsaw and cut a piece to length then it does to whip out the miter saw, find the extension cord, set up the miter saw, etc. The bottom line is, if time were never an issue and stamina weren’t an issue, I’d never use a power tool. They def have their place in my shop but the more I learn hand tool techniques and the more efficient I get with them, I find myself using power tools less and less. In fact the more I use them, the more I think I could do completely without my table saw, even though that will probably be the last tool to go. I could make do perfectly fine without a router. I bought a router table when I first started in woodworking and then soon learned hand tools and their methods and I haven’t used it since. My table saw is more of an assembly bench than anything these days.

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