Chris Schwarz's Blog

Woodworking in America: The Don Williams Mind Bender

Don Williams is like a shark in a clown suit. He’ll bite you in half while you are laughing.

During his presentation at Woodworking in America last weekend, I am quite sure that he destroyed the assumptions about pre-industrial woodworking of many of us in the room. And he did it with jokes, amazing slides and a smooth delivery.

His talk was far-ranging, and in the end it was like a Freakanomics lecture. He convinced me that 19th-century public health efforts are what ultimately led to the near-complete domination of machines in woodworking. But for me to explain that point would take more words than a blog entry should deliver. So let me just give you a taste.

One of the assumptions of many moderns is that powered woodworking machinery was an invention of the Industrial Revolution in the late 19th century. That before that point, there were no machines and that woodworkers would go off to their shops and “commune with the wood” while they slowly crafted their masterpieces with hand tools, Williams said.

The truth, he said, is much different.

The first powered saw, a reciprocating up-and-down saw powered by water, appears in Augsburg, German in 1337. He showed us a photo of a reconstructed version of the machine, which they called a water-powered sash saw.

Gang saws that slice an entire tree into slabs in one pass appear in the 1750s. Circular saws were not invented by the Shakers, Williams said. He has evidence that circular saws were in use circa 1575, probably in Holland and drived by windmills. And circular saws were widely in use by the 1750s. (He showed us a Spear and Jackson catalog from 1791 that was offering circular saws.)

And Williams then took us on a tour of all the other major woodworking machines and their appearance in the historical record, including planers, jointers, drill presses, dovetailing machines, double-tenoners and on and on. All were pretty much up and running by the 18th century.

This small bit of his lecture was extremely helpful to me as a furniture maker. I’m making a reproduction of a Shaker side table from the White Water, Ohio, community and was completely vexed by the top of the table. I inspected the table completely for tool marks to try to suss out how the table was made. But some tool marks on the underside of the top led me to think that the top was a replacement. But the rest of the tool marks on the top suggested to me that the top was original and the joinery to attach it was done with a saw and rabbeting plane.

With Williams’s scholarship, I think it’s OK for me to reproduce the table as it is now. There’s a good possibility that the lumber could have been sawn and planed by machinery.

And that was worth the price of admission.

– Christopher Schwarz, photo by Narayan Nayar

10 thoughts on “Woodworking in America: The Don Williams Mind Bender

  1. An Interested Subscriber

    Without delving too far into existentialism, I think we can intuit the class (power or hand) of a tool very, very easily. I look at my router, and my router plane, and I don’t have to think about it, I just know which is which. I think we should not lose sight of one important point: tools are all machines, whether powered by human, falling water, or splitting atoms. Perhaps this is what confuses people into positing, say, that bandsaws are hand tools.

  2. Ross Manning

    Facinating discussion & I wish I was there also.

    Chris, were the lectures video taped? I was hoping that you might release a DVD of the conference lectures for all of us that were unable to attend (& it might also help the frustration levels of the speakers as mentioned by Don.)

  3. Rob Porcaro

    Hi all,

    This topic always makes for an interesting discussion!

    I think the most important matter is whether a tool, "power" or "hand," transmits the craftsman’s intentions. To be very precise, this is usually a range of intentions since there is almost always some workmanship of risk (Pye) in a process with consequent variation in the results. We like to minimize any restrictions that our tools place on our intentions, so we seek out the right tools to realize our designs and refinements.

    This is true for a chainsaw harvesting a tree, a tablesaw ripping a straight edge, a spokeshave refining a curve, and a smoothing plane creating a surface. The curious and wonderful thing is that our human hands, eyes, and minds are capable of such imagination, creativity, and subtlety, that many woodworkers, like most of us who share this forum, feel that our work is at its best when those capabilites (tools, if you will) have a decisive influence in the process.

    So, for me, I use machines, but hand tools make the key difference in my work – they make the product personal.

    Sure wish I was able to attend WIA!

    Rob Porcaro

  4. Derek Lyons

    Jim, you make a good point.

    I’ve often said that short of loading a random piece of wood into a CNC machine and blindly running a program downloaded off the ‘net – there’s almost always some component of artisanship and craftsmanship involved. The motives (to borrow Don’s phrase) are always human, even it’s at the minimum level of selecting a well figured piece of wood for the CNC machine or choosing where to cut a piece of wood on a tablesaw for maximum decorative or mechanical effect. To try and draw a sharp line between them is futile. To try and define a fuzzy grey area between them, only slightly less so. It’s a smooth continuum.

    But we can make a lot of brewers, distillers, and coffee growers happy trying! 🙂

    I suspect a more subtle point Don’s lecture is that a production carpenter is always a production carpenter. He’s got a living to make, payroll to meet, etc… etc… and if a machine makes that easier, then shove that workbench out into the stable to make room!

    The ever increasing costs of capital, time, and labor only serve to accelerate the process. You can see the same effect studying the history of farm production.

    I’ve found the same thing in my culinary research – fast food and take away goes back at least as far as Roman empire. The four great mother sauces of French cuisine are nothing less than a (successful) attempt to define bases that can be prepared in advance and then enhanced into hundreds of more specific sauces at need. Little wonder that they were codified by a restaurant chef!

  5. Don Williams

    Jim (and by extension Brian)

    An excellent postulation. Perhaps we could re-word the concepts to say at one end is extreme craftsmanship wherein the tool is powered by the human body AND controlled entirely by the human body, while at the other extreme end is a workpiece/tool powered by motives outside the human body (ignition, gravity, or wind) AND controlled precisely (?) by fixtures or similar rather than the human body. A great lathe would fall somewhere in the middle, as might a freehand cut with a hand held jig saw. And Maloof sorta defies description, causing the phenomenon to redefine the noumenon.

    Don

    PS One of the frustrating things about the conference (for the speakers) is that we are kept so busy we don’t always get to hear some of the other talks! I missed both Jim and Brian, but caught pieces of some of the others.

  6. Jim Tolpin

    In Don’s lecture, he defined hand tools as those powered with the energy of the body, not forces outside of the body such as gravity or electric motors etc. But then I had a long talk with Brian Boggs and got to thinking: If you are hand-guiding a powered tool, that puts the work into the workmanship of risk…which for me puts it into the realm of artisanship rather than mechanization (the workmanship of certainty). So would the router than become a handtool by definition? How bout the bandsaw as you hand guide a board through it (ala Maloof)? Or are we just sinking in the quicksand of a semantic swamp?

  7. John Griffin-Wiesner

    It was a very inspiring and thought-provoking conference.

    I was amazed to hear one speaker emphatically say that steam-bent is stronger, and another that bent-lamination is stronger. In another talk the speaker said that new furniture will last longer built from plywood, and another speaker talked of wanting only to use solid air-dried wood.

    I appreciate that you toss all this out there for us to figure out along with you instead of deciding for us and pushing a certain philosophy or agenda.

  8. Jeff

    The necessary balance between machinery and hand tools is well described by Krenov in "A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook". One would never accuse Krenov of letting machines constrain design.

  9. Rob, The Tattooed Woodworker

    Maybe not the best place to say this, but it looks like Don Williams’ speech affirms my theory on what makes a True Purist. Not the adherence to the use of hand tools, but continuing the tradition of innovation and using whatever it takes to get the job done- whether it’s hand or machine.

  10. Eric Paisley

    I think it’s OK to use electrically powered woodworking machines as long as you feel very, very guilty afterward. After milling stock with my power joiner, I often will weep quietly while I ofter small, perfectly cut, 1 mil shavings from my 18th century coffin smoothing plane to an alter adorned with pictures of Adam Cherubini and Roy Underhill.

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