Balancing hand tool and machine perspectives

Finding the balance – a real perspective

Often times presentations depicting former lives of woodworkers famed for their work are represented factually in a way that might seem more to leave a confusion of who they were and what they did, rather than clarity and true and thoughtful insight. Often statements are made to in some way provoke a reaction and challenge the status quo. We should however always present a balanced well thought through perspective, especially if we are say leaders in our field, educational providers or teachers. So, whereas thought provoking ideas can indeed stimulate further thought, they should be balanced and researched factually.

I saw a recently made audiovisual presentation of woodworking at the Hancock Shaker Village that seemed to predominantly say that the Shakers at the village more eschewed hand tool methods for working wood. The presenter somehow is trying to tell us that some phenomenon has left “us with the thought that they somehow shunned technology” – that they rejected hand methods to work wood in favour of machine methods only. As the audiovisual runs you can hear the swoosh, swoosh of hand planes in the background as the presenter tells us that machines were in fact the order of the day and the nostalgic images, smells and sounds we might have of these earlier craftsmen is really, well, little more than a mere figment of our imagination; part of our penchant if you will for a less invasive, gentler time. It expresses once again that no one should feel bad if they use machines because, after all, rejecting machine woodworking was not the case with the Shakers. What the presentation failed to convey is that the Shakers at Hancock actually did use predominantly traditional hand methods for the vast percentage of their lifespan as a community and especially for the fine work they produced. Of course as machines evolved and became commercially available they started using them and even developing their own, but what they did have was well-balanced and effective strategy. Dimensioning wood in that day didn’t substitute for developed and developing skill, it aprehended the best of the past and united it with its present to complemented two hitherto diametrically opposed worlds. Most of us are not embarrassed that we use machines. They bring balance to what we do. The bandsaw for instance had its place at HSV and was purchased at the end of the 19th century, even though the community was actually a non commercial entity when it came to woodworking. Introducing this machine added balance and greater ease to the heavy workload a high demand community like the Shakers espoused the need of.

A self-sustaining culture

HSV artisans simply made furniture and joinery and a vast range of treen and other wooden bygones to meet the needs within the community itself, they didn’t so much sell their goods and wares as manufacturers to those outside the community, but used what they made, be it wagons and dumb waiters, doors and window frames and much more, which was the case say for the Mount Lebanon community factory just down the road. Hancock Shaker Village was indeed more about a sustainable culture providing from within itself as much as possible the essentials of life.

More balancing acts

According to records, the community at Hancock was formed or organised in 1790, so it’s more likely for a long period that the Shakers actually did use more hand tool methods for working wood than machines. Power-driven mechanized pieces were added at different points in time and so there were long periods, decades, when much of the work was in fact hand done. Also, as far as can be seen, no machine ever cut a dovetail at this village. Mouldings too were moulded by hand and mortise and tenons were either hand cut completely or by using a combination of a foot operated chopping mechanism with traditional hand tool methods. The thinly cut, bandsawn pieces for the moulded oval boxes were surface planed by hand in those formative and subsequent years of the community and so those sounds in the background presented to distort our actually accurate perspectives of early Shaker life would have been very much a real part of the worklife in the Hancock Shaker Village and machines more, as many of us woodworkers find today, a practical, convenient and balanced way to dimension our wood and take the donkey work out of woodworking. In actuality, the Daniels planer described in the presentation didn’t produce the kind of finished surface we might expect from a planing machine in today’s woodworking world. By accounts, the Daniels planer left a surface resembling (but not quite as coarse) that of a large circular saw. So this surface was not a finished surface as implied and would therefore have required further planing smooth using at that time and for a century before, wooden bodied hand planes. That’s the reason the surfaces on doors and cabinets still retain the marks of smoothing planes.

Balanced perspectives evidence in the work of the Shakers

I learned many things about the Shakers and the way they worked. Looking beyond the evidence of free standing, belt driven take-off machinery, I discovered a people of care for all that surrounded them. I discovered artisans that very much used hand tools. In fact, relied heavily on them. There were some wonderful secrets I discovered about how they created what they made and just what it took to be a Shaker furniture maker and woodworking artisan. My journal is filling with notes and drawings of those discoveries and we plan additional online broadcast to show you the techniques hidden just below the surfaces of hundreds of Shaker pieces at the HSV.

1 thought on “Balancing hand tool and machine perspectives”

  1. Looking forward to the broadcasts. The connection between the past techniques and design are not lost.

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