Chris Schwarz's Blog

Woodworking in America: The Hand and the Machine

 “The machines need the numbers. We don’t need the numbers.”
 – Jim Tolpin

After attending almost two days of lectures at our Woodworking in America conference, my head is swimming with both big ideas about the craft and the fine details of joinery.

Each of the lectures I’ve attended reminds me of a snake eating a pig. I have taken in a huge amount of information, but it is going to take me weeks or months to digest it. I hope that we’ll be able to do this construction and design conference again in a future year because this is one of the coolest things I’ve ever attended.

Now until I can get that pig past my gallbladder, let me try to give you a taste of one of the interesting themes that have been running through the seminars.

Jim Tolpin: Measure Once or Not at All
Tolpin is one of my woodworking heroes. He’s been a professional cabinetmaker all his adult life and built his career on how to make a living making furniture. His approach was machine-centric. (Heck he wrote the “Table Saw Magic” book.)

But now Tolpin is going through an interesting transition. He’s given his power equipment away to his stepson and is working with and teaching others about hand tools almost exclusively (and he’s writing a new book about it).

Tolpin’s lecture explored the different furniture design approaches that result from working with machines vs. working with hand tools. Both have advantages and disadvantages. When working with machines, Tolpin contends that furniture design becomes constrained by the machines. You’ll create details and joinery that machines can produce. You will rely more on glue. And that changes or advances to a design cost a lot of money (new tooling; new tools).

“Your stuff tends to look like other people’s stuff because you have the same machines,” Tolpin said.

The advantage with the machine approach, he said, is that you can make a living at it.

When you work with hand tools, then sketches and mock-ups drive your design. You use graphic geometry instead of calculus. Scaled drawings and cutlists are unnecessary. And you can use an analog recording system, such as a story stick.

This approach, which Tolpin calls the “artisan” approach, is best suited for home woodworkers, studio furniture makers, prototype development and museum-grade reproductions. It is very difficult to make a living making furniture this way.

After he explained the woodworking world using these terms, he designed a stepstool on the whiteboard without using any measurements. Instead, he based the components off of the human body with the goal of creating something functional, durable and beautiful. He used the measurements of his hands, shoulders and feet to create the stool (at one point he pulled his shoe off and held it up on the board).

The result was really quite nice and really did meet the requirements of a human body instead of a machine. As we got up from our seats I started thinking about trying out the concepts on a future piece of furniture. I then had to head down to our computer lab to check up on the SketchUp clinic we’re running continuously there. And I wondered if Google could add a “draw foot” tool to its menu bar.

Probably not.

Next entry: Don Williams dispels the myths of the machines in the 19th century. This one kinda made my head explode.

– Christopher Schwarz

7 thoughts on “Woodworking in America: The Hand and the Machine

  1. Liam Thomas

    I see similarities between using sketchup and machine work. I used to do much of my design work with sketchup until I realised that it too places constraints on the pieces I was creating. Back to the pencil and sketch book I went, the ability to evolve a design on paper using thumbnail sketches is tremendous compared to sketchup and other 3D modeling programs. This was slowly and gratefully drilled into me by my drawing teacher at college. I still use sketchup but not until a design has been resolved on paper.

    Regards,

    Liam

  2. Jerry Palmer

    For a number of years as a machine head woodworker I struggled with trying to obtain tight joinery in furniture pieces using the methods I assumed were proper. I mean, why have a cutting list in the plan, other than to cut parts to those exacting measurements. I never became skillful at cutting out all of the parts and then joining them together. The introduction over the years of more and more micrometer accurate additions to wood working power tools along seemed to back up this idea of cutting everything to very exacting standards, then simply putting it all together.

    It wasn’t until I got interested in doing hand tool work that it dawned on me that, unlike metal and some other materials, wood was just not real amenable to the methods required to obtain this super accuracy. I found that the piece of wood that was to become a shelf, for instance, that seemed to measure out to be, say 3/4" thick, could be off the mark as much as the width of the line on my measuring device. And the dado I measured out at 3/4" would, likewise, be off by that same amount. And since Murphy seems to follow me everywhere I go, those little differences would naturally be added to each other, rather than canceling each other out.

    I understood that when working with hand tools I did not have the accuracy I believed I had with machines. For example, if I prepared the shelf with hand planes instead of a power planer, I knew that the 3/4" shelf was something a bit off of that nominal thickness. That was when I began using the actual pieces or clamped together partial assemblies to mark pieces for cutting or for marking a story stick. When I translated these methods to machine work, I found that suddenly my parts came together much easier without unsightly gaps.

  3. Jim Tolpin

    Michael: A very apt comment…fitting pieces instead of hoping they fit….Yes, in hand tool work you fit piece to piece–there is very little efficiency gain in precutting all the pieces as there is in the machine-centric approach.

    Giving this lecture was really fun for me, and having folks like Chris and Brian Boggs in the audience really made me think about what I was really trying to get to in comparing the artisan vs machinist approach to design. Brian brought up a similar comment to John Fox’s above…that the mindset has to be that the artisan, even when working with machines, has to be in control…he has to make the machines do what he wants them to and not be constrained by them. This is, of course, true….but that’s easy for a machinist of Brian’s caliber to say! You should see what he’s done with the blend of hand and power tools in his production shop!

  4. Bruce Jackson

    Another bulb exploded. Rasps and files. Can you use rasps and files kind of like drawknives?

  5. Bruce Jackson

    Gee, just for Tolpin’s lecture alone, I wash I were there. Light bulbs are going on in my head, too. Come to think of it, did Sam Maloof ever have a table saw? Every picture I saw of him working on his furniture showed him using a (big burly) band saw.

  6. Michael Dyer

    A light bulb comes on.
    As an engineer, I started learning woodworking on my own from a machine approach, and wondered why it was so difficult to make fine pieces. Small errors in measurements resulted in major problems, and complete, measured plans were essential.

    This did not relate well to my boyhood remembrances of my Dad and uncles making really nice things with hand tools from quick sketches or from memory, and doing it quickly.

    I have since embraced your mixed approach of using both machinery and hand tools, with improving results as my hand tool skills improve. Fitting pieces instead of hoping that they fit improves results and satisfaction enormously!

  7. John Fox

    This reminds me of a comment that Sam Maloof made in the video hosted on the woodworking channel to the effect that he uses power tools as much as possible. I gather that isn’t very much compared to the hours of hand sculpting that went into his signature chairs.

    Perhaps his comment and his work has relevance to those of us who use a combination of hand and power tools. Instead of the design being constrained by the machines, as Jim Tolpin says, the use of machines should be constrained by the design.

    Sam Maloof made a very good living running a production shop (He called it that, himself,) in which the vast majority of the hours spent were in hand work. I wonder if there’s anyone alive that could do the same.

    But that’s not really important to us hobbyists, who can take inspiration from Sam and not allow our imaginations to be limited by the machines.

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