Machines in the Workshop, Part 3


Part 1 is here
Part 2 is here

HANDWORKER: Yes, I know the argument, and it is certainly plausible – in fact, it is its apparent soundness that makes it dan­gerous. It sounds a fine thing that a man is left free to do more skilful work. But you forget the lost skill that used to go to cutting out timber. Have you read The Village Carpenter or The Wheelwright’s Shop, in which the cut­ting out of boards and even veneers by hand is described? It was the patient, accurate, hard work of these men that gave them their skill. A slip meant that not only hours of their own time would be wasted, but that the time of others carrying out subsequent opera­tions would be spent unnecessarily. These men really understood the saw.

But that is not the worst part of it. The real trouble lies in the fact that once a man has installed a circular saw he doesn’t keep it just for ripping out. After a while he does his grooving on it; then his rebating; next he finds that he can work mouldings (of a sort); tenons follow as a matter of course; and, lastly, the saw belonging to his kit of hand tools is used merely for odd cuts here and there, and for any job where the circular saw is not conven­ient.

Herein lies the danger. A man soon loses his old skill; and the youngster, what of him? He will never have the opportunity of acquiring the skill. I doubt whether many boys to-day could cut a tenon accurately. I remember a job we had to do some thirty years ago. We had to make a large oak window frame about 15 ft. square with intersecting cross-rails and stiles. The parts were rebated at an angle and moulded, and all the joints were double tenoned. Every joint was cut by hand. Two men cut the tenons whilst others got on with the mortising. It fell to my lot to fit the joints, and I can still re­call the way those joints went together. The stuff was about 5 ins. in section, yet after cutting the shoulders and scribes the parts went together com­fortably hand tight with scarcely any fitting. Those men had used the saw since they were boys; and their skill was almost uncanny.

Now once you have a machine it will, in the long run, come to do practically every job, so that the man at home, instead of developing his skill and en­joying the exercise of it, soon merely feeds a machine and loses the entire value of his craft. I know that he may exercise ingenuity in the setting up of jigs and so on to carry out certain operations, but he will lose that won­derful combination of skilful hand and keen eye which is the great value of craftsmanship.

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to Machines in the Workshop, Part 3

  1. Mark Dennehy says:

    There’s a missing voice.

    CUSTOMER: It’s undeniably beautiful and skilfully made and desirable but I can’t afford the old master stuff yet, but this newer stuff, made by machine with hand work where needed, I afford that today. In a decade, when I’m making more money, I can afford something better, but the baby needs a cot today, not in ten years, and the wife and I can’t sleep and eat on the floor for a decade either and in today’s world I cannot just go to the woods, cut down a tree and make my own rough furniture to get by with.

  2. Salko Safic says:

    This same old song is monotonously sung, I can’t afford it, I need it now yet civilisations throughout the ages gave birth, grew and progressed without those you mentioned.

    Why is it that people in poorer nations seem to be more content in life. Did you know in Samoa people work for $60 a week and there isn’t a single homeless person living on the streets.

    Did you know in rural Vietnam the moral standards of what we call backward living far outweigh ours, in fact I can’t even say we have any.

    We’ve worked with our hand for tens of thousands of years, we’ve built structures that still stand firm and proud as the day it was built which modern marvels and his machinery cannot reproduce. We’ve used animal hide glue which I still use for 8000 years and worked pretty good up till now because modern marvel say’s it”s not as strong as PVA

    I just finished flattening an entire dining table top by hand, yes I could of used machinery but the day I do will be the day I regress and begin to throw away the years I spent earning these skills. I know the true worth of what I do and the way I do it and I ain’t giving it up for no marketer out there including modern society.

    Yes I’m an anarchist because I see the flaw modern society has produced.

    • tsstahl says:

      “…an entire dining table top by hand,…”

      Great. Now I need 10,000 units by mother’s day.

      • Salko Safic says:

        Lol. In a fantasy world how are you paying cash or card but in reality not one organisation would sell that many even in a twelve month period not even in two years nor three I doubt even in 10.

        I agree mass manufacturing enables people to own a lot but hey let’s put our hands in our pockets and share our profits by employing 20 people to do the work instead of having a single machine to take food away from 20 people. That makes common sense because in the long run you will enrich the lives of many and that money will be returned to you many times over.

    • gilgaron says:

      One thing I keep in mind, is that without modern manufacturing I could not afford the tools nor materials I use to make my own (other) tools, furniture, etc. Most of my hobbies are trades made obsolete by automation. I don’t need to grow and can my own food, make my own beer, woodwork, or smith. Before modern manufacturing could I afford and make time for all of those or would I be doing one as a living and the others would be lost to me?

      • Salko Safic says:

        I believe you would do the same as they once did in the 18th century, you’d pick a trade, learn it and work it and build your own tools as the need arose. The guild then were a wonderful thing and it worked. I did an article in my blog on the guild if you want to read more.

      • Lee B says:

        Obviously there are a lot of different places and times that qualify as preindustrial, but it seems clear to me that a lot of what falls into DIY hobby stuff today was more commonplace in the past. Take the home industry woodworkers described in Woodworking in Estonia for example. Little of that work was done by specialist woodworkers, with many people making their own furniture, and all sorts of other household goods. They might not have a beautiful array of hand planes and chisels, much less a band saw, but they had some very decent tools by the looks of things.

        I think modern manufacturing and supply chains have really changed our tastes more than anything else. We used to make a lot of stuff ourselves, it just wasn’t all that elaborate or fancy, usually. We used to eat different foods in different seasons, now we can eat fresh oranges from Australia in the middle of a cold winter. We used to mend our own clothes, then we repaired our own cars, now we don’t even have to program a VCR.

        I benefit from these things as much as the next guy, so hopefully I’m not coming off as some obnoxious holier than thou type person. Hypocrite is more warranted. But I really question a lot of what we do now in the name of convenience and variety. I sometimes offload shipping containers at work and today I was looking at about 800 cheap plastic brooms already falling apart and though, heck maybe we should just ship these directly to the landfill.

        I’m not sure what the right answer is, but I’m pretty sure it’s not this. At the very least we can all agree that old school high quality manufacturing is better than this giant garbage machine economy we have now. Ideally though, I’m definitely on the side of the handworker in this debate.

    • Mark Dennehy says:

      > This same old song is monotonously sung, I can’t afford it, I need it now

      Those aren’t the words; the words are “I can’t afford the best, I need something now, even if it’s not the best”.

      And it might be an old song, but that’s because it’s so true.

      • Salko Safic says:

        Sorry bro I didn’t mean to pee you off, I just feel strongly about it all. No we don’t have to charge what we charge and I really can’t put blame on the guy who completely works by hand, but those who do the milling with machine and the fine joinery by hand, well there should be a lee way in the pricing. All in all it all comes down to what you can afford and what you can’t. It was like that then in the 18th century and before and it’s still like that now. Quality furniture is for the rich and scraps are for the poor, not much has changed since.

        • Scott Taylor says:

          You seem to be a purist and true believer. I applaud that!! The next question is how far do you take your position? Do you eschew all modernity or just in select areas?

          • Salko Safic says:

            Working towards it. I’m not a purist but I can see I’m developing into one, I do have current eg. Lathe but I’m working towards being current free. I can’t explain the freedom and joy I get from all of it and the displeasure when I turn something on. Even technology pisses me off. If the world was headed in a better direction then maybe I wouldn’t be so turned off by all of this but I am. Machinery to me is the mark of mans greed, impatience and laziness. These are the things I’m aiming not to be.

            • Scott Taylor says:

              My question was not just regarding woodworking… To be a purist is just that. Do you use modern technologies for other things? (I know that is rhetorical since you are on the internet….). How about medicine? Dentistry? Transportation?

              If you are dedicated to your principles, and I hope you are, where do you make the distinctions?

              During the pre-industrial revolution age life was a lot shorter, far more brutish and full of pain, especially for women.

              • Salko Safic says:

                Lol try and get a divorce. Obviously I enjoy the comforts of modernisation but if it were up to me and if I had the means I would be living in the country side and use a horse and cart for transportation. Not that I’m too interested in venturing off to mingle with the crowd in the city. I’d be happy on my land but having said that, I’m a hand tool woodworker and I limit my passion and way of life to that only.

                • Scott Taylor says:

                  I like your blog, interesting and very nice work! Funny you mention that to live the “old way” requires means… I have a lot of spent time in third world nations that are pretty much non-mechanized, I will skip that. Only folks looking at it from the perspective of a modern existence romanticize that way of life.

                  • Scott, I agree that many may be “romanticizing” the simpler ;life styles found in history, and the 2nd – 3rd world cultures today without ever having lived in them…Nevertheless I would suggest the pragmatic reality that these can be very romantic, and the notion that modern life is better than a more simplistic and organic life is false notion held by those that have never fully embraced a more simplistic life.

                    I can’t agree at all that, “Only folks looking at it from the perspective of a modern existence romanticize that way of life.”

                    That simply is not true or those like me would not live the way we do. I know of tribal members around the globe that have left to learn the ways of “modern humans” (some obtaining even advanced academic degrees) only to return to what most would call a more primitive existence. That is not romantic at all..but simple pragmatism…as modern is not better at all…its just modern.

                    I still don’t have a cell phone, and probably never will. Modern technology has taken hold of our current global modern first world cultures and slaved humans to it. Few “use it” as the tool it is, and have become addicted to it, and the consumer culture attached to it.

                    I am not suggesting we move back to the Dark Ages, or give up the many gifts that technology has given us…(including my Festool, Chain Mortiser, Lap top and CAD software)…but…I am saying DO NOT let it become a crutch or excuse to forget a more organic, wholesome and simplistic existence that could serve human kind (and the planet) so much better

                    • Scott Taylor says:

                      Those who return to a simple way of life are exercising options that the well off have. I have spent enough time in the third world to know that the people that do not have the choice would never see it that way. Without cell phones most of the continent of Africa would still be without communication. You could say that we are slaves to modern technologies… maybe. But those in the more primitive places without options are most certainly slaves to the poverty the lack of modernity places them in.

                      Oddly I refuse to use any type f computer added design, CAD, Sketchup, etc… I see them as a crutch, a way of avoiding learning to use pencil and drawing board. And I am pretty bad at drawing!! Funny what matters to each of us.

  3. ikustwood says:

    Oups !!!?

    Le 5 janv. 2017 ? 06:02, Lost Art Press <> a ?crit :

    Lost Art Press posted: ” Part 1 is here Part 2 is here HANDWORKER: Yes, I know the argument, and it is certainly plausible – in fact, it is its apparent soundness that makes it dangerous. It sounds a fine thing that a man is left free to do more skilful work. But you forget t”

  4. jayedcoins says:

    This argument is more profound to me than the handworker’s opening shot.

    I had made the argument prior that there is something to be said for the ability of machines to allow leisure time for amateurs to actually get involved in a craft like hand tool woodworking because the machines in the other aspects of their lives increase productivity and thus yield higher living standards, which essentially equals more free time.

    But on this argument, I credit the handworker for doing a better job of making the point that there is also a certainty that by eliminating the prevalence of handwork, or really the necessity of knowing at least its basics for even household jobs, you inadvertently close off potential opportunities of someone discovering handwork. In other words, if you no longer need to teach kids how to use their backsaw to saw to a line in either orientation, or how to safely and proficiently (in the basic sense) wield a general socketed, bevel edged chisel, just as a fundamental life skill, you are also thus not exposing them to something they may enjoy tremendously.

    So it goes something like the common arguments about the changing landscapes of schooling, and the focus on STEM vs. arts vs. “skilled trades.” We live in a mechanized and computerized world, and while there’s plenty to embrace, we should not forget our past and we should make a point to give kids the opportunity to learn how to saw to that line or pare down groove or rebate by hand. They might hate it and think they never want to do it again. Which is fine! But how would they know without the exposure? Same goes for the ideas behind music and visual arts education in schools.

  5. carpenterman says:

    “A slip meant that not only hours of their own time would be wasted, but that the time of others carrying out subsequent opera­tions would be spent unnecessarily.

    once a man has installed a circular saw he doesn’t keep it just for ripping out. After a while he does his grooving on it; then his rebating; next he finds that he can work mouldings (of a sort); tenons follow as a matter of course; and, lastly, the saw belonging to his kit of hand tools is used merely for odd cuts here and there, and for any job where the circular saw is not conven­ient.”

  6. jtohlen says:

    Thanks for sharing this. Very thought-provoking so far, definitely prompting a lot of self-reflection—both in my personal work in beginning woodworking and in pondering about today’s state of work in the big picture of society and culture.

  7. toolnut says:

    Using his tenon example, I wonder if the author would be upset that the skill of creating a tenon with a handsaw replaced the skill of creating a tenon with a chisel? A skill that also incorporated the skill of choosing the proper riven piece of wood that would split fairly predictably when the chisel was applied by the craftsman? The former replaced the latter for efficiency and probably the fact that sawn lumber replaced riven lumber and sawn lumber wouldn’t split as predictably. But none the less, the old skill was lost (except for a certain bird watching joiner who sometimes contributes here and a few others as well ) and replaced by a new set of skills. However, the underlying skills used in creating the joint, regardless of method, remained: layout and execution. The cutting of the joint, be it chisel, handsaw or circular saw is just a method and each method comes with its own skill set. Who is to say one is better than the other? Personally, I draw the line at CNC and 3D printing, that’s more coding than woodworking but I’m also not in a position where I need to make money off of what I create. ( Nor do I want to be in that position.).

    Also, his last statement makes me wonder, “What makes someone a craftsman, what he/she creates, or how it was created.”

  8. But how much quality time was devoted to family? Developing tools to better do our jobs and learning how to use those tools is a skill. Which by the way frees the craftsman up to work on more important skills, family and all its values. Just saying.

    • error4 says:

      Many more people used to work alongside their families. Sadly the whole question of the quality of life is contingent on the dead being around to assess the present.

      What I like about this conversation is that Hayward is basically making public a discussion he’s having with himself — using himself as an example of the kind of attention we could all afford to pay in asking ourselves where our own values lie, what do we want to pass on to the future, and how do we try to live and resolve our own contradictions as well as those in the world around us? We wouldn’t all be reviving these lost arts without without a frustration with the technology thats keeping alive our interest in these lost arts as way of dealing with that very frustration!

  9. jleko says:

    Point 1. There is a common misconception that hand tools are slow, and that machines save time. With the rare exception of a dining table and set of chairs, most woodworkers make only a single piece at a time. Under these circumstances, there is no appreciable time savings, and in certain situations hand tools actually require less time than machines!

    Point 2. In her recent appearance at the Maloof Symposium in September, Wendy Maruyama related one frustration she observes when teaching. Students insist that their design projects can only be fabricated with a CNC. Closer examination, reveals that the CNC is the only tool they know. Therefore, it is the first they reach for despite the fact that a hand tool might be faster at the same task!

    Summary: If the only tool in your toolbox is a hammer, everything in the world looks like a nail…

    • Well said jleko. I have had races with younger guys doing one offfs on site , all starting at the van and finish with clear up . Them with power tools and me with hand , I have yet to be beaten ! Most of them have no idea what half the tools in my tool box can do !!!

  10. Well…this has been three very interesting LAP posts, and I scanned most of what was posted about it…

    I LOVED!!! the Saw trestle and it brings back fond memories of my very first built and used…

    The views in general, I find very indicative of a First World people, living in a post IR (industrial Revolution) culture, with little thought, regard or understanding of 2nd and 3rd world perspectives of living (though I think a few here have a real good handle on them perhaps.) As such, many wood cultures from China to Madagascar and all areas between are still working wood with hand tools for functional day to day items. Bespoke craftsmanship is coming back and there very much is a 1st world culture out there that appreciates it (if they didn’t I would not be making a living and sitting here typing this post) and no it does not have to break the bank at all for them to afford it. With skill comes being cost competitive…

    So the…”CUSTOMER”…is very much part of this conversation indirectly and can afford the work…and does pay for it. Anyone that doesn’t believe these customers exist do not make a living from wood…traditional or otherwise…

    Why can’t someone go…”to the woods, cut down a tree and make…”…whatever the want. Be it their own furniture, or even a house. I have students do exactly that, and there are some great ones out there posting there work online as they learn it. Many of us have for our entire lives made what we need or gone without. “Cannot”…(to me) reflects either laziness, a lack of dedication to learning, or just self limitation for the most part, as I have seen self motivated folks do it from inner city to country side…IF…the desire is there, and they actually want to.

    Old song or not…it is not true for 2nd and 3rd world cultures (or those of us dedicated to traditional arts)…Money has little to do with it at all, since I grew up extremely poor, and if I wanted something…be it a box, desk, chair, table, spoon, or as my skills grew…even a timber frame cabin…I MADE IT…but then again I love to make things and spent more time looking for those still alive to teach me how instead of complaining that I don’t know how…or can’t do it..or can’t afford it.

    I’m not saying one has to be a purest between power tools and hand tools, however I am saying (if you have learned the necessary skills)… that power tools are not essential or absolutely mandatory to make a living from wood if one dedicates themselves to the art of it, and carves themselves a niche within the many wood disciplines available….Even if only to perhaps subsidize an income to begin with. Will this be the way of it if everyone tried to do it? Of course not. No market would endure everyone trying to do the same thing professionally. However, it is possible to make (as one example shared already) a table to sell. A Harvest Table for market sale with only (or almost only perhaps at times) from just hand tools is more than a viable example…I know, I have made such plenty of times. Mater of fact…hand made…traditional Harvest Tables are a hot item that can be made really fast and sell almost quicker than they are made…BUT…one has to have the skills in traditional woodworking to do so…without that its seems more a dream or spoof…than a simple practiced wood craft of reality even today…

  11. will says:

    It is a good conversation. Someone mentioned 10,000 units of tables, I think we are missing a bit part of the picture which is that it’s probably unhealthy for 10,000 of the same table to ever be made. A table has the potential to be a cultural expression, to contain an organic language, and to be specific to its end use and location. We, in making the economical 10,000, we negate that potential. The cheaper tables have a cost, it’s just cultural and not economic. There is an old idea that value, like energy, cannot be created or destroyed, only cleverly manipulated. I think that’s quite true. We’ve just been prioritizing financial value the past while because it is more flexible, and we have been paying the price.

  12. @ Scott Taylor

    Hello Scott, et al

    I think there is a big difference between “traveling” in different culture (aka 2nd and 3rd world cultures) and “living” or identifying with those same cultures, and there belief systems. I too often have folks most emphatically inform me about a…cultural reality…for example the Native America culture (as just one example) or other indigenous races because they lived near or visited a country or a region that held those cultural groups. So again, I would suggest that…spending time…is different than…being something…or…living a certain way as a lifestyle.

    “… Without cell phones most of the continent of Africa would still be without communication…”

    That is pure Anglo European hubris reflected in that statement. African cultures are perhaps the oldest in the world and have had the ability to communicate literally for millenia past most other cultures on this planet. To suggest that cell phones have saved them or done some great service is ludicrous. Cell phones can expedite communication and learning, which can be a plus…Yet it can also shifts in an indigenous culture to be more Euro-homogeneous, as well as…making marketing a consumerist culture much easier for large industry to take advantage of…Which it is.

    I am not saying that technology can’t serve human kind. It most certainly can. We do have to ask at what cost? We also have to ask is something always a healthy change or just a way to create more mechanisms of consumerism, and political influence. Not to even go down the road of those that believe they have the right to change the belief systems of a different culture.

    “…those in the more primitive places without options are most certainly slaves to the poverty the lack of modernity places them in…”

    I love it when those from 1st world country’s (and usually Anglo Cultural heritage) start speaking about…”primitive places.” Like my own culture, Africans of all tribal orientation, survived nicely and intact for millenia without the arrogance and dogmatic wisdom of outsiders. When one culture thinks it knows what is better or worse for another culture (or their belief system) that becomes a red flag of concern. Who set up America, or any outside group to decide what is a “primitive place” (aka primitive culture) or what is better for that culture?

    So I find it strange that CAD is to be avoided as a tool to enhance the ability to communicate in 3D, but cell phones for a primitive culture is a good thing…?? There is a disconnect there in my view. Further, I don’t know of a single person that uses CAD that does not first sketch out their ideas on paper, and then build from…yep…hand rendered drawings. Every Timberwright I know professionally or armature that use CAD all cut there timbers from hand drawn notes/drawings and layout systems….

    This conversation could turn into..”If they had machines they would use them.”..Well, I can tell you from first hand personal and cultural experience…that is not always the case..nor is the advent of technology always a good thing…or a better thing…

Comments are closed.