Friday, February 9, 2018

Woodworking in 2018

I thought to write about the dichotomy occurring in present day woodworking. The clash between the growing movement towards traditional hand tool woodworking versus the rise in automation along with a plethora of machinery to expedite woodworking processes. This is from the perspective of a traditional woodworker wondering about how much current woodworking technology to embrace in his studio practice. I write this because we are bombarded on two fronts in woodworking today. Go traditional with hand tools or go modern with the latest in technology, or somehow combine the two. I lay out how I determined my own compromise and came to terms with the dilemma. The machinery I speak of is becoming increasingly sophisticated to where an operator sitting alongside a CNC machine can quickly create components for a piece of furniture. At the hand tool end, the debate swirls around what constitutes traditional woodworking. Should wood be prepared and dimensioned by hand? Should this grunt work be performed by machines with the emphasis then shifting to hand tools? Can the use of power tools be combined with hand tools in a truly traditional woodworking shop? Would our woodworking forefathers have embraced machinery if it had existed in their historical period?

Interestingly, elements of this debate also occurred during the advent of the Industrial Age in the late 1800's. The reasons then to not embrace machinery were somewhat similar. Machines were thought to remove the human touch and craft component from furniture. Skills which had been passed down through generations of woodworkers would be lost. Victory was achieved with the advent of the Arts & Crafts movement, although this was short-lived. Eventually, the use of machinery in woodworking won the battle resulting in the further distancing of woodworkers from their traditional craft. Over 100 years of woodworking production advancements later and traditional woodworking is once again being embraced.


The reasons are similar to the repudiation of the Industrial Age with the only difference being that we are today on the cusp of full automation in production woodworking manufacturing. Developments to facilitate and expedite production are occurring at a faster pace than ever before. So, although it seems strange today to embrace traditional hand tool methods, it is more relevant in light of the possibility of forever losing a centuries old craft. Thumbs up to the many private schools dedicated to teaching traditional hand-oriented woodworking skills today. Traditional woodworking has effectively ceased to be taught in mainstream schools, fewer and fewer parents immerse themselves in woodworking to pass down to children. Some have mentioned the traditional craft of woodworking is on its death bed. Woodworking taught in schools today tends to focus on automation and heavy use of machinery. In the big picture, the resurgence of traditional woodworking methods using hand tools could not occur at a better time in history!


I must admit that it can be confusing for an entry level woodworker of which path to follow today. Is their work intended to be batched out or instead created as one-offs? The larger issue becomes the processes used to achieve this goal. The use of modern technology can be enticing, where visions of machines magically create components for furniture never ceases to amaze. Machinery manufacturers are constantly upgrading their offerings to where the learning curve for CNC is rapidly diminishing. This would be at the extreme end of full automation. At the traditional end, new and often improved releases of traditional hand tools continue to occur. High quality and precisely machined hand tools are widely available today. The single most common and necessary component in the traditional, hand tool equation is the necessity to manually push or pull a hand plane, saw or chisel in order to prepare wood, smooth wood or to create joinery. So a large component of manual labor is involved.


A woodworker with many years of experience may have come to terms with the direction they wish to follow. In many cases, they embrace a quieter, less hurried form of woodworking. Their woodworking passion is better served in the enjoyment of creating a piece rather than simply achieving the end goal. Instead, somebody just starting out will perhaps wonder why today they should be performing manual tasks such as hand planing, hand sawing boards and creating joinery by hand. After all, isn't this why machinery was created, to facilitate the processing of boards used in furniture making? Hasn't the trend in industry always been to make our jobs easier and more productive? This is the dilemma facing many woodworkers today, specifically new woodworkers. I don't pretend to have a solution and can only form an opinion through many years of experience in both camps. As a former hi-tech person and convert to a quieter form of woodworking, I would much rather work with traditional, time-proven methods than to embrace the latest in machinery whose goal is to make my life easier. I too faced this dilemma and have been minimizing the use of machinery in my woodworking. In the process, I have since learned to appreciate wood as a medium and not just to use it as a means to an end. The machines I use today are effectively motorized hand tools, nothing sophisticated. This is where I draw the line.


In my studio practice, it is preferable for me to be closer to the wood and work with its characteristics and inherent beauty. Today, I use machines to prepare wood in the initial stages and perhaps to dimension it. Afterwards, all processes in my furniture making incorporate the use of hand tools. I will always seek a method to use a hand tool to perform a task before ever considering using a machine. So this is how I have come to terms with the question of maintaining traditional methods in my own work. I find this to be the best compromise in coping with an ever-increasing fast-paced, technological and production-oriented world.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Workbench accessories...(Pt. 2)

After completing and successfully testing the portable board jack in the previous post, I decided to continue on with workbench workholding accessories. At this point, two clamping attachments came to mind. The first, an edge dog, alternatively known as a bench puppy, was modelled after a College Of The Redwoods derived design. This particular design was gained from a Timothy Coleman article on this type of workholding device, also derived from a College Of The Redwoods design.


A good example of how an edge dog can be used to hold a board on edge can be seen in the following image. One end is held by a edge dog whereas the other end is an add-on to a twin-screw vise which I discuss next. Instead of clamping a board to the surface of a workbench, the edge dog is used to clamp the board along the workbench edge and therefore at a more reasonable and lower height suitable for handplaning. Having a pair of these edge dogs allows either side of the workbench to be used. The edge dogs are created with opposing configurations as shown above.

My current workbenches do not incorporate dedicated tail vises. In place, I use a Veritas Twin-screw vise which performs as a tail vise when clamping boards on their face. When it comes to clamping boards on edge, the twin-screw vise can also be used along with bench dogs. The edge of the work piece would be then sitting on the workbench top. However, this raises the height of the board considerably and is not very conducive to jointing an edge of a board or handplaning. Ideally, the edge of a board should be slightly higher than the workbench surface to effectively perform hand plane operations. With this in mind, I created this outboard add-on to the twin-screw vise which extends the width of the vise movable jaw past the edge of the workbench.


Shown above, this newly designed outboard add-on accessory is an addition to the twin-screw movable jaw. In effect, the twin screw vise now becomes an enhanced tail vise capable of clamping boards on edge along the side of a workbench. The clamping is done in conjunction with the previously mentioned edge dog. Images of a board being clamped between these two accessories are shown below.


In these photos I am jointing the edge of a white ash board. I was surprised at how tightly the board is clamped with minimal tension applied to the twin screw vise. The friction from the leather pads contribute to this as slightly more tension was necessary before applying the leather pads. The outboard extension to the twin-screw vise is removable and can be adapted to either side of the twin-screw vise. I am left-handed so having it located to the right of the vise as shown, is more practical. For right-handed use, the opposite edge of the workbench would be used for jointing. As an added bonus, there is no racking of the twin-screw vise regardless of the clamping pressure I apply to the outboard extension.