The Machine in the Workshop, Part 2


Part 1 is here.

MACHINIST: Are you not painting altogether too gloomy a picture? That the machine has largely taken the place of handwork is true so far as the trade is concerned. There are not many shops left where handwork is practicable at all (though I know of several good woodwork shops where it still holds its own). But it is not of the trade I am thinking. I have in mind that body of men which the WOODWORKER represents; men who do woodwork in their own homes, and who do it purely for the love of the thing. To them handwork is as alive to-day as ever it was.

Perhaps, however, I had better make my position quite clear. I have no desire to see the home workshop completely mechanised, but I believe that there are advantages in the use of certain machines without any corresponding drawbacks, providing you use them for their legitimate purpose. In no circumstances would I alter either the design or construction of a job merely to enable a machine to be used. But where a machine would do a job equally as well as handwork (or possibly better) I would not hesitate to use it.

After all, remember that every woodworker does this to an extent in any case – unless he buys a tree, cuts it up himself, and waits a few years for it to season, etc. If he is purist enough to buy his wood un­planed he has at least allowed the machine to cut it into boards for him. Now where is the difference in allow­ing the machine to saw up his boards and in cutting it to size on a small power saw? I for one never did care about the back-aching job of ripping out tim­ber, and I fail to see how my work has lost anything since I invested in a small circular saw. I can in a way admire the purist spirit that prompts a man to rip out, say, some 2-inch oak, but I do not see what he has gained. Ripping out is an uninteresting job at best, and the machine does it equally well – possibly better.

I say, therefore, that a small circu­lar saw is a justifiable and useful addi­tion to the workshop in that it does just as well in a quarter the time a job which is donkey work in any case, leav­ing a man free to do other work which requires more skill and which is in­finitely more interesting.

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24 Responses to The Machine in the Workshop, Part 2

  1. Salko Safic says:

    Ripping is not in any way less of a skill than any other operation, one must rip straight and true which takes a lot of practice, strength and stamina. I admit I am not a fan of ripping anything more than an inch but I aint going to shy from it either. Who cares that it takes longer, learn to rip faster I say. If our ancestors could do it then what makes us so weak not too.

    • tsstahl says:

      Well, we all have shoes. The two way hills have been mostly flattened. Rampant victim hood resolves us of any responsibility. Forcing children to finish an unpleasant task is abuse. Just over half the country believes that spending more than earned is a legitimate strategy to run a civilization. And the coup de grace? Showing any kind of skill not sanctioned by a corporation, or independent thought, will get you on someone’s secret list, off of which you can never be, nor challenge.

  2. Ah – those were the days, when you could smoke your pipe indoors and nobody worried about their necktie becoming wrapped around the drill chuck…

    • mjstauss says:

      …and if it did get wrapped up, “murdered by his own machine” they’d say, “should’ve stuck to the brace and bit.” 😉

  3. Thank you for posting this conversation, Chris. I look forward to the rest of the back and forth. As you know, this is a topic I think a lot about. I’ll hold my two cents until the rest is published.

    – Joshua

  4. yrmh1 says:

    What a handsome woodworker! Too bad he’s not wearing his safeties though…

    • stevevoigt says:

      He doesn’t need safety glasses–he uses his pipe like a light sabre, swatting away any stray wood chips that shoot toward his face. Feel the force, Luke.

  5. ptross says:

    the argument that “the machine is better so why not use it?” is not an argument.(Perhaps when this was written the average home workshop machine was not so much better). The machine will improve until there is nothing better remaining for the human to do. Handwork will not survive because it’s results are better than the things a machine can do, It endures because of the ways it improves the woodworker.
    Maybe even the consumer too.

    • tsstahl says:

      Eh, machines thrive on perfect symmetry. People strive for it, but can never achieve perfect symmetry. And wood moves. I believe hand work will survive, diminished, but still alive.

  6. pinusmuricata says:

    Guy looks clueless, in no position to do anything on the drill press.

  7. jayedcoins says:

    I’m surprised, after the opening salvo from the hand worker, I thought the machine worker would have a much hotter take than this!

    One thing I thought was interesting, having just watched one of Chris’s recent appearances on Roy’s show… you guys joking about rip cutting being too much like work (and Roy of course saying he loves it)…

    “I for one never did care about the back-aching job of ripping out tim­ber, and I fail to see how my work has lost anything since I invested in a small circular saw. I can in a way admire the purist spirit that prompts a man to rip out, say, some 2-inch oak, but I do not see what he has gained. Ripping out is an uninteresting job at best, and the machine does it equally well – possibly better.”

  8. jayedcoins says:

    Chris, I dearly hope you do not come to regret posting this series. We’re already getting existential in the comments. 🙂

  9. Tico Vogt says:

    I still don’t and can’t effectively chop mortices by hand, I thank Tage Frid for his books which gave me a start in woodworking using machines and hand tools and got me making professional cabinetry quickly and effectively. Planes, chisels, hand saws, scrapers- I use them all, too, but I don’t beat myself up over choosing routers instead of molding planes or plunge routers instead of mortice chisels. Watch Drew Langsner’s video of an old Swiss cooper making a milk bucket and you will see, high in the Alps, a skilled craftsman making traditional products using a knife, augur, and plane alongside jointer, planer, circular saw, etc. Oh, and he has electric lights on, too.

    • jayedcoins says:

      I love this take.

      I’m guessing that it wouldn’t even be out to sea to say that if it weren’t for your plunge router/drill press/benchtop mortiser, you might be less likely to have pursued and refined the hand skills that you have working with your planes, hand saws, paring chisels, and scrapers (and I’m sure others, just saying what you mentioned)!

      I’m sure some will feel there’s a problem with society today and our need for instant gratification. But I think there’s some truth to the human nature that certain things can be tough to stick with if progress is hard to identify. If you were stuck in a rut years ago just trying to perfect your hand mortising technique, am I crazy to think it might have been a bit discouraging, and had the potential to discourage you from moving onto honing (pun intended) your other hand tool skills?

      It’s funny. There’s no single answer to the discussion, but it sure is interesting. One thing that I take from it, regardless, and I hope others do, too, is that we can at least say that the passion for hand tool woodworking is still alive and well, and while I’m relatively new to it, it certainly seems that 2017 is poised to be as big/important/progressive/productive of a year for hand tool woodworkers as there has been in a long time.

  10. Derek Long says:

    My two cents: doesn’t matter a bit what other people think; do what makes you happy in the craft. I enjoy hand tools immeasurably more than using a table saw, jointer and planer, router and the works. But don’t take my drill press. And I sure wish my miter saw sitting in the corner had the capacity to cut that 10″ wide piece of 8/4 oak I had to square on a shooting board the other day. Take what works for you, leave the rest.

    • Here, here. I have some machines in my shop as well that are invaluable for saving time/work performing some tasks that I consider drudgery, or I am simply not good at. I am in a position to meet with hundreds of local woodworkers every week, and know that pure handwork (if any) is rarely practiced. To my mind, handwork has become more of an art form because it is no longer a necessity. 300 years ago, to flatten a board you needed hand planes because that’s all there was. As machines took over, and advanced to where we are today, they have become the common method. Most folks don’t have hand tools because there are other, far easier, ways to do the work. I doubt the guy who used a bow lathe would hesitate for a second if someone offered him a treadle lathe. For most folks it’s about getting the job done, and in a timely manner that doesn’t interfere with our 40 hour work week and family obligations.

      For the rest of us, there are other reasons we use hand tools. Some are practical (I joint by hand because I can’t afford a jointer, don’t have room for one, and often work with boards wider than one can work with). Other reasons are aesthetic. We appreciate the journey as much as the destination. The appreciation of what our forebears went through to create a beautiful piece is worth as much to us as the piece itself.

  11. Eric R says:

    I have to start dressing better in the shop if I want to compete with these guys…
    And, I love the way the writing is.
    It is much more enjoyable to read than most of today’s’ offerings.

    To the point of the series, I must say, that both cases have merit.
    I really enjoy Lost Art Press in many different ways.

    Thank you
    central Florida

  12. jleko says:

    One of the disappointments I have with the majority of machinists is they fail to see past the machine to the nature of the material they aware machining. If Play-Doh, or steel were substituted for wood, their methods wouldn’t change. Hand tool users, in my experience, have a fundamental understanding of their processes, and can even transfer these to machine operations.

    Hand tools cultivate skills. Anyone can set a fence to a measurement, and flip a switch…

    • Tico Vogt says:

      jleko, I think to use machines well you have to cultivate skill. In fact, your safety demands that you do. Regardless of whether a cutting edge is human powered or by other means, the user has to pay attention and learn to use it. I have witnessed scores of hand tool users who work with dull edges to their chisels, plane irons, and other cutting tools who marvel when shown what the tools are capable of when properly honed. It all comes down to whether people pay attention or don’t pay attention to what is going on when they pick up or turn on a tool, not whether it is plugged in or not.

  13. That is a wild picture.

    I started my original trade as a lithographer in the 1970’s and found it funny when I’d be alongside the “gentlemen press operators” wearing ties. Just THINKING about high speed rollers and ties is enough to make ralph

    And yes, having a cigarette in the shop never raised an eyebrow. Never saw a pipe though.


  14. whoops – I left out “me” between make and ralph – if you accept the post would you mind making that change and deleting this post – thank you – Howard Rosenberg

  15. Lee B says:

    I think the point the woodworker was making was that there is societal and cultural value in the extremely advanced skills of, for example, making a clock by hand. Those types of skills are (or were) the province of specialized professional craftsmen. Home woodworkers are never going to become expert clockmakers; at least not to the level of people who learned it as a trade, handed down for generations, and spent their career mastering it.

    So the machinist’s argument that hand tools are alive and well in home woodworking is not really even addressing the question. Rather, he seems to be attacking a strawman argument that no one will ever use hand tools, as well as arguing that machines can do certain jobs just as well, which was never really in doubt. However, he ignores the main argument that there is cultural value embedded in the advanced skills to which the woodworker was referring.

  16. Luke Maddux says:

    The table saw, jointer, bandsaw, and thickness planer are, and will always be, the first part of any project I make. The roughing out of stock prior to hand work saves literally days on a project, which saves years of time over the course of a woodworker’s life. I would much rather be on my death bed looking back on a hundred extra pieces of furniture being enjoyed by a hundred more people than give myself a monumental pat on the back for ripping boards by hand and honing the camber on my scrub plane (both of which I have done ad nauseum).

    The skills learned from the roughing process are intuitive and obvious when you know how to hold a saw, handle a plane, sharpen tools, and mark out, and all of those skills are learned a hundred times over when mastering the finer forms of woodwork. Introducing (or proliferating) the basic machinery into hobbyist woodworking culture is not destroying anything, it’s only facilitating the making of more furniture.

    Routers, machinery jigs, and CNC are, of course, a different story altogether.

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