The Machine in the Workshop, Part 1


In 1938, The Woodworker magazine published a two page “conversation” between a handworker and machinist. It’s interesting and thoughtful. And so we are going to reproduce it here in short segments.

HANDWORKER: I think that one of the saddest aspects of the present age is the awful loss mankind has sustained in the almost entire disappearance of craftwork. Consider for a moment what this means. Take any craft at random – say that of the clockmaker. There are in London at the present time a few middle-aged and elderly men who could if required make a clock throughout by hand. Exactly how many I don’t know, but there cannot be many left who served an apprenticeship in a shop which was free of the machine, for even in the last century was heard the rumble of the distant drum.

When these men have passed on there will not be any man left with either the skill or the knowledge to carry out the countless skilled operations that go to the making of a clock. It will be as a great death. For centuries the trade is passed on, each man adding to it his measure of experience and handing it down to the young men who give as their contribution their zeal and enthusiasm.

Then one day the poisoned barb of the machine strikes it, and within thirty or forty years it lies stricken, a mere shadow of its former greatness.

Well, there is one of my arguments against the machine. It begins in a small way, apparently innocuous; then, one by one the various operations belonging to handwork go until the machine ousts handwork entirely. You cannot introduce one simple machine without running the risk of losing all. For where does one draw the line? Human nature, being what it is, seeks an easy way of doing a job, and, from using a machine to assist in heavy drudgery, it begins to alter the work so that it can be done by the machine, and there is the poison. The character of the work is sacrificed to the machine which makes it.

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20 Responses to The Machine in the Workshop, Part 1

  1. Jeff Hanna says:

    I was just thinking the other day while visiting a large Mennonite furniture shop that I do a lot of business with how even the machines that were in every wood shop 10-20 years ago are now obsolete. No tablesaws, no jointers; all CNC machines and a $150k planer/sander that can take rough glue ups to 120 grit 52″ wide in seconds.

    • nrhiller says:

      OK, not so fast! The basics you mention still hold their own in many a small professional shop. “Production” work is a different matter.

  2. Toys in 1930’s Germany were hella creepy.

  3. yrmh1 says:

    Yep, it all started when that first damn Neanderthal picked up a stick and used it to club his dinner, or mate, or something…

  4. What strikes me is not so much that changes wrought by machinery advances lost us so much, but that throughout history when you examine the operations of groups of maybe more than 100 people you witness a practical total failure to be able to make decisions consciously about what is done, what we innovate and then how we choose to implement these – don’t get me started on tech, and don’t try to dismiss the above through a simple binary ‘machines are good/bad’ mindset.

    I don’t understand why we made the market our God (I can imagine many reasons), or why we can’t collectively examine other organizational methods.

  5. Just wait until the day you can 3D print a Windsor chair.

  6. Lee B says:

    “For where does one draw the line?”

    I think about this a lot, and in my mind it comes down to what I think of as two definitions of the word “practical.”

    One definition is practical in terms of financial cost and/or convenience. For example, it’s more practical to buy a cheap X and replace it when it’s worn out or broken or whatever, ignoring whatever mind-boggling industrial system makes such a thing possible.

    The other definition is practical in the sense that it relies on the least possible amount of natural resources, energy and complex systems beyond the reach of individuals and self sustaining communities.

    By the first definition, it’s more practical to build clocks in a factory. By the second definition, it’s more practical to have skilled individuals who can build a clock with hand tools.

    Even back then, before they fully understood environmental impacts and what have you, there was clearly a sense that when you start relying on these massive and nebulous external systems to be able to make something, you’ve lost something.

    If I draw the line at that second definition of practicality, many things in my life are impractical, obviously. Yet, if there is to be any value in drawing a line, that’s where I think it ought to be drawn, so we can at least see how far overextended we’ve become.

    • drjohn1963 says:

      There is a difference between “short term practical” and “long term practical.” While it is short-term practical for me to cut tenons on the table saw due to speed issues, there is a long-term practicality to cutting some of those by hand, so that my hand tool skills improve. As my skill set improves, many of the cuts that were once “short-term practical” are no longer so, as I can do them as easily by hand, with the added benefit of peace, quiet and gentle exercise of skill. I guess my point is that the investment of practice should be considered in assessing the practicality, as over time, it changes the equation.

  7. Shel Sanders says:

    Lamenting the advent of machines is naive and sentimental. Good machinery represents productivity growth. That enables the average citizen to purchase items, let’s say furniture, of good quality. Something that was not possible before the industrial revolution. Machines can make junk, but so do crafts workers. We cannot dispense with machines. How many people can afford a Schwarz Welsh stick chair? Or something by Garret Hack? And Mike Flaim how many people pay you adequately for the custom furniture you make?

    The craftsman will survive, in small numbers and will sell to the rich and to,museums. The rest of us will buy goods made predominantly by machine. Some of our purchases will be shoddy, but a craftsman, aided by machines that do the heavy lifting, can provide us with affordable luxury.

    • In your criticism of the excerpt you don’t address the most interesting part — the notion that we alter our work (read design) in order to allow machines to assist. Whether or not this is true, or important to you or others, surely it deserves a moment of contemplation.

    • Salko Safic says:

      Machinery is the poison of modern civilisation, it is a product of human greed, impatience and the cause of much unemployment and poverty in the world. Have we stopped there, absolutely not.

      Now with Uber on the scene, the beginning of the demise of the entire transport industry. As the seed to driverless cars has already been planted, it’s about dissolving the industry of drivers and collecting 100% of the profits.
      Software engineers have already invented a software that can repair itself, dissolving the need for software engineers in the future. Another online automated bookkeeping service for as low as $29 does all the bookkeeping for you, again rendering bookkeepers out of work in the near future.

      No machinery has been no aid but a disservice to mankind.

      I ask one simple question when machinery completely takes over our workforce and renders us all jobless, who will buy their products when people are jobless and penniless. This our governments know too well but those corrupt mongrels are dictated by corporations and will be looked after while you and I and billions of people worldwide will have nothing. No this isn’t an exaggeration, only a blind fool doesn’t see it happening.

      So no, hand work is not just about skill and quality goods or everyone owning a dining set but about employment. Putting food on the table, paying the bills, it’s about living and not scavenging which is what the future brings.

      • tsstahl says:

        “No machinery has been no aid but a disservice to mankind.”
        I can’t agree as that is absurd on the face of it. The fishing pole? Modern tractors? Mechanization is allowing us to feed the billions of souls on this planet.

        Historically the machine opened new avenues of employment as it displaced others. Short term, bad, long term, mostly worked out.

        What we are seeing on the horizon is that instead of opening avenues of employment, the machines will expand and gobble them up. The only room for people will be when something unexpected happens. Of course this is a vast simplification, and others still argue that undreamed of employment opportunities will present themselves. My only answer to that is what makes you think they can’t also be automated?

        OK, now I’m too far off the beaten path, and the soapbox is going to give out under my weight.


      • jayedcoins says:

        Alternatively, improved productivity in many sectors of the economy has allowed many folks — including myself, and I guess most LAP readers — to have the quality of life (read: free time) to pursue interests that they might not otherwise be able to put food on the table with, like woodworking.

        Neither approach is a cure-all, that’s for sure. But minimizing the need to manually harvest in the fields has surely both “taken jobs” and created opportunity. Not everyone that was ever a joiner or cabinet maker wanted to be so, and not everyone that writes software today necessarily wants to do so. But I think I can say with confidence that the software developer of today with an interest in working wood is more likely to find leisure time to pursue that interest than the joiner of yesterday would’ve had to pursue his or her non-life-sustaining interests.

        • Salko Safic says:

          I understand what the both of you are saying but having met many people in various business sectors are all saying the same and one thing. When various people not associated with one at various times say the same thing then there is a serious concern that needs to be addressed at government levels. Since this is not going to happen the future is some what vague.

          I don’t know what life is like in the states but I do know what’s happening here in Australia and the sad fact is that many are living in denial, yet in my own home town an additional 6000 families have been rendered homeless due to high rent and low income. The ones that are doing well are the high end executives and drug pushers.

          Computerised cabinet shops are making a killing yet they have the audacity to complain about paying high wages. While they live lofty lives and only employ a handful of people, their so called paying high wages is just borderline below the living standards. Australia is an expensive country, very expensive. Our government is ruled by capitalist pigs of multi corporations whose aim is to lower the wages by creating less employment and therefore higher demand for jobs so your backs against the wall and they can dictate the terms of an unjust and unfair pay and working conditions. If you don’t like it there’s always the next bloke who will take your position.

          So machinery may have improved living standards of owning furniture in your home but this is only temporary as the true colours of industrialisation is coming to light.

          I’m not a purist but am slowly developing into one as the more I continue to work by hand the more benefit I see in it both physically and mentally. I can rip a board on the bandsaw but I choose to rip by hand for at the end of it I feel a sense of accomplishment, my body becomes alive. I’m sure you all understand what I’m trying to get at without trying to sound like a sales pitch from YouTube to get followers.

          • jayedcoins says:

            I do understand what you mean and no hard feelings at all — the fact that the LAP fans that like to comment here are generally pretty civil even in such a contentious topic is a very great thing.

            Of course, to your point about the US, it has a much larger population than AU and thus probably more social diversity all over its varied communities, and so maybe is tough to compare the two. But certainly you’re right that we have a similar debate raging here about why so much wealth and income continue to accrue to the top 1% — or really even the top 0.1% — of already rich individuals, meanwhile we (as a society) continually fail to do seemingly basic things that other modern societies do, like keep people out of emergency rooms and keep lead out of the drinking water.

            Where you and I disagree some — which is fine and even great since we are having a legitimate conversation here — is that I don’t totally buy that a decrease in handcraft-as-a-living is definitively a *cause* of these problems. In fact, to flesh out my prior argument a bit, I’d say that if as societies we aimed to take better care of each other from top to bottom, we’d open up more opportunities for folks with an interest in handcrafts to pursue those not just as “hobbies” but as professions, even if they weren’t a boon financially unto themselves.

            Anyhow, I do appreciate the points of view and my mind isn’t made up. Appreciate the thoughts.

            • Salko Safic says:

              You hit the nail on the head when you said that if we as a society looked after one another but we don’t while poorer nations do. Contentment of the heart is more important than an accumulation of mass wealth and that’s what we in the west don’t have.

      • Scott Taylor says:

        In the pre industrial revolution world regular people (just about everyone) owned almost nothing, they could not afford it because it was all made by hand. Machines have allowed a very high standard of living for almost all of humanity.

        And if that is not enough to convince you I have two words that describe how the modern age is so much better… dental care…

  8. nrhiller says:

    This pair of posts is wonderful, and the illustrations are just to die for. I want a fox for my dining table (preferably a live one; tame would also be good).

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