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People change with handwork

Reflecting on yesterday and the class, I was reminded of the simple importance of being childlike in learning. The ones that gain the most in anything in life are the ones that acknowledge a lack (that’s to themselves and not some public demonstration) and you can see the ones who do. There is something about honest introspection that somehow, in the self-acknowledging admission of it, opens a door to transformation from not being to being, from not knowing to knowing. There’s something in the raw innocence of openness that somehow enables us to learn, train and master. I have seen that over the past two days. Confidence levels have increased markedly. None of them now pick up the plane with hesitancy, buy turn to is as needed with confidence even though they themselves would most likely be the last admit it. I watched William yesterday from my bench and saw the exactness of positioning his plane as he rounded over the edges of the base of his box. Yes, it’s true that the stubbornness of grain sometimes, even often, trips them up, but they unwaveringly renegotiate its course and swipe off the rebellion. Sometimes the plane and wood unite in perfect harmony and the energy this infuses in the plane user doesn’t want to stop planing and then the walls of the box end up thinner than they should be, but oh, what joy!

The boxes were all glued up and the bottoms in place before we closed the doors and made our way home. The workshop had a harmony about it as students shared a commonality of woodworking that always transcends gender, age, prejudices and so on. New friendships are being formed at the workbench and I feel that I am in a realm few people find. It’s as if we somehow managed to take down barriers we didn’t know were there on the first day. There’s more laughter, more, well, realness that’s not kept in and hidden but shared with openness. I see this consistently in classes just like this. Struggles and weaknesses were overcome and in that overcoming there was a unitedness that no one can explain. You see, herein lies the difference between learning to master skills and using machines. Even a badly made hand-cut dovetail beats a perfectly made machine cut one hands down any day and anyway you slice it. Moreover, none of their dovetails were poorly cut dovetails and for every student here, I think that this is true, these are their first hand cut dovetailed boxes. Perhaps I will post some of them tonight if they agree and I have time.

Let me ask you a question before I go. If I cut a dovetail with a Dewalt router, a Leigh dovetail jig that totally guides and controls the router and Bosch dovetail router bit, would you be impressed if I posted pictures of it? Or, if I used the same router, a different bit and formed a roundover with that equipment wouldn’t you say, “So what?” Now I will ask you is it true that a machine is a tool and a tool a machine? I emphatically say that they are not tools but machines designed for mass construction and mass destruction of skill. The difference then is that some are willing to develop real skill, risk failure and overcome in order to become true artisans skilled with their hands. A machine is not and never will be a tool but a very boring machine.

Off to class now. Catch the post later!


  1. Brent on 18 April 2012 at 4:38 pm

    As a past student, I could not agree more that hand cut joinery is far superior to machine cut joints. One has only demonstrated their ability to set up a machine. The machine cuts the joints, not the woodworker.
    I have recently read through your new book Paul. I thoroughly enjoyed it. This work of yours is unique in the woodworking realm. You write just as you have taught and I feel anyone who reads this book will greatly benefit from your instruction withIn. I have been unsuccessful obtaining some of your earlier written work, so I am very happy your new book is available. Thank you and God bless.

    Stonewall, Louisiana

  2. bgall on 18 April 2012 at 10:04 pm

    Machines As Tools (or not)…

    Hi Paul, I won’t reprise the opinions I’ve made before after your question about routers and dovetail jigs, but since you raise the issue, let me leave you this to consider.
    You may have heard of Karl Holtey. He makes (in my and and the opinion of others) the most exquisitely beautiful planes in the world. Each one is individually made to the very apex of precision, from brass, stainless steel and beautiful exotic woods.

    He uses(amongst other things) milling machines and CNC equipment. To quote him: ‘I am not a manufacturer and something a little bit more than a maker. Contrary to some opinion these planes are as near to handmade as will ever get with this kind of finish and precision’.
    Are the instruments he uses tools or very  boring machines?

  3. Jbecwar on 19 April 2012 at 4:24 am

    I would love to see some of the students boxes!

  4. Kevin de Silva on 21 April 2012 at 6:56 pm

    I think that bgall has missed the point  .
    I am going to use names in my comment something I dont usually like doing . I am doing this to illustrate my point and not to criticise the chaps in any way. 
    Whilst Karl Hortley makes nice looking planes you only have to look at the picture on his  home page and you see a man standing watching a machine doing the work ! If you look at the home page picture of say Bill Carter another fine plane maker , you see a man doing the work of  shaping metal with his own hand and judgement.
    Whilst there is undoubted skill in setting up a machine. Once it starts, it is without a doubt boring and can produce many identical objects , until the the operator gets fed up or fails to supervise it properly.
    Karl Hortley may say that he is not a manufacturer but he could be if he wanted and a machine made item is not and can never be “handmade” and  “as close to” does not cut it for me.. His planes are not ” individually” made but  in batches and hand assembled  he says so on his website.
    Personally I find machine made items boring and bland . Where as hand made items have character and Individuality.
    I think the machine against hand debate is reflective of the a greater problem in society and that is the question of consequence . When you work by hand you are fully aware of the consequence of you actions and are responsable for them and can personally affect the outcome. The use of machinery allows you to pass on the resposibility to a inaminate object ! .
    I believe that if we bring back handmaking in schools then society would be all the better for it.


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