The following is excerpted from “Shaker Inspiration,” by Christian Becksvoort.
There is a misconception among some woodworkers that working with hand tools only is better, or downright holy, while power tools are pedestrian, not real woodworking, and should be avoided. Not so. It depends on what your aim is. Is this a hobby, or are you doing this for a living? (More on this in Chapter 8.) I think that the British craftsman, professor and philosopher David Pye best puts it in more understandable terms. There is a sharp distinction between what he calls the “manufacture of risk” and the “manufacture of certainty.” The manufacture of risk means that a tool, guided by hand, whether powered or not, introduces risk. It is totally dependent on the skill of the user. On the other hand, the manufacture of certainty guarantees an identical outcome each time. When I carve cherry chair seats, I use an electric grinder with carbide cutters. The depth, proportion, shape and symmetry of the seat are determined by my hand-eye coordination. One slip and the seat is toast. Using a scorp is also the manufacture of risk, only slower, with less chance of making a major mistake.
To all you smug woodworkers out there: Not all hand-tool work involves risk. Some actually involves the manufacture of certainty; the results are guaranteed to be identical, each time. When using a straightedge and knife to make a cut, the cut will be straight every time (unless you let go of the straightedge). There are even folks making hand-cut dovetails and using clamp-on, magnetic dovetail guides. Come on, who are you fooling? Each cut is pre-determined and will be identical. Where is the fun and skill in that? Freehand is cheaper – no jigs, templates or gadgets. That’s where skill and practice lead to craftsmanship. Dovetail jigs are merely a crutch.
I think that one of the best examples is carving. There are still lots of carvers who use traditional carving chisels. All hand work – the manufacture of risk. However, more and more carvers, especially in the competitive world of bird carving, are using electric hand carvers, wheels, burrs and diamond bits. It’s still hand guided, and one slip results in disaster – also clearly the manufacture of risk. The source of power, be it muscle or electric, is inconsequential. I couldn’t run my business without my jointer, planer, drill press, lathe (although I used to turn knobs on the drill press before I acquired a lathe), mortiser or table saw. Ripping 40′ (12.2m) of cherry moulding with a handsaw is not my idea of a good time, therapy or craftsmanship. To me, that’s monkey work. If you get off on that, more power to you.
So what makes craftsmanship special? I maintain that it is evidence of the human hand. Yes, there will be mistakes. No one is 100-percent perfect (that’s why I own a SawStop). The Navajos professed that there is no such thing as perfect work, and all their rugs and pottery had an asymmetrical error of one sort or another. I’ve never turned out a perfect piece, yet I strive for perfection each time I come into the shop. What constitutes evidence of the human hand? Small mistakes, certainly. But they have to be nearly invisible. Large mistakes are just another growth and learning opportunity. They need to be fixed, rectified or replaced. Examples of the human hand? Hand-carved letters will never be as perfect as routed ones, but they are by far more elegant. Chair spindles, tapered with block plane or spokeshave, reveal minute facets but appear round. Chair seats, carved with grinder or scorp, will always have slight irregularities. Hopefully, they’re not noticeable, but they are present. Pins or through-tenons that are trimmed with a chisel are not perfect. I’ve even had the surprising pleasure of restoring a Shaker desk only to discover that the tenons were slightly chamfered, hidden inside of a mortise. That, ladies and gentlemen, is craftsmanship.
A few random thoughts on tools in general. Buy the best, and buy only once. Early in my career, I had a set of those blue-handled chisels, six for $39. When I started working full-time, banging dovetails all day, I discovered that I had to re-sharpen at least once or twice a day. At the end of a few weeks, that’s four to five wasted hours (I got to be really good at freehand sharpening, though). Even at a reliably low per hour shop rate, at the end of two weeks I could save enough to afford a set of Lie-Nielsen Toolworks chisels. Now I can do two or three large cherry case pieces before having to pull out the waterstones. What about used and antique tools? Those can be a real find and a real bargain. On the other hand, if it takes two or three days of shop time to fix, restore and tune a bargain plane to get the rust pits out, it might be better time-wise to buy new. If you enjoy fixing tools that’s one thing, but if you’d rather spend time working wood, then choose the other option.
It has also been my observation that a skilled craftsman with minimal and humble tools can do a much better job than someone with no or minimal skills and great tools. It’s all in how your implements are used. I recall that when Brian Boggs started making chairs, he cut his mortises with a sharpened screwdriver. His chairs were, and still are, masterpieces. Incidentally, he’s the only woodworker I’ve bought furniture from. His chairs are the perfect combination of thoughtful design, ergonomics and meticulous craftsmanship.
CNC & 3D Printing
It seems that our world is awash in consumer glut. Gadgets, products and devices that were once considered luxuries are today available to the masses. Decades ago, portable phones were naught but a pipe dream. Now, two-thirds of the population on this planet use and enjoy them. And in two years, they will be obsolete and need replacement. Mass production, on a scale never imaginable, has made it all possible. I agree that every human should be able to live a satisfying life, but where does it end? Walk into a big box store, and most everything you see there will be in the landfill in about five years. Is that sustainable?
Where exactly does craftsmanship end and mass production start? Anything perfectly reproducible, be it one, 10 or a million copies, is mass production. That’s where I see 3D printers. Some schools used to have craft areas, but now the latest is a “maker space.” Many of these don’t actually let you make anything; instead gadgets can be re-built or re-purposed, and the latest widgets are spit out by a 3D printer. Granted, the future of 3D printing is unfathomable, especially in science, medicine and machinery. But in crafts? Yes, coding and programming are skills, but you are not making an object. Press a button and the machine makes the object. Is that craft? The same can be said for CNC production. Every piece perfect. Every piece identical. It’s the ultimate manufacture of certainty. It’s just the ticket if you’re making kitchen cabinets, or have a line of furniture that you want to sell, but not make. Every piece identical, with no sign of the human hand. Just mass-produced. Is that why we are woodworkers? Is that what craft is evolving into? I suppose the same gripe was aired when Linotype machines cast lead letters as you typed. Who remembers Linotype? We’ll see where it all leads us.
One place that it’s led us: The word “custom” is now completely meaningless. You order your new Mercedes, in that beautiful metallic pearl color, with the engine size you specify, the sound system that you desire and a few other trendy options. That’s custom, right? Yup – there are 2,384 cars identical to your baby out on the road. In a world of increasing conformity, however, I think there will always be a perceptive and discriminating few who will in fact value the individually handcrafted piece. In my business at least, I know most of my clients value having something handmade, by me, that no one else has. They appreciate the finer things: art and craft. Let’s face it – only one person (or institution) can have the original “Mona Lisa,” but anyone can have a print. What’s the difference? You decide.
Please note that I’m not bad-mouthing mass-production. All of humanity needs a place to sit, a table to eat at and a bed to sleep in. Individually built furniture will never fill that need. The axe I’m grinding concerns those folks who buy pre-turned chair legs, pre-turned spindles, have their chair seats CNC-carved, then have the whole thing assembled by a minimum-wage employee, and sell the finished product as a “handcrafted” chair. Does that pass your straight face test? Is that your definition of craftsmanship?
In the long run, you decide what type of business you’ll operate, and exactly how you’ll make it work. And consumers will decide what they want to purchase: a big screen TV or a hand-made cabinet.