“But lo! Men have become the tools of their tools.”
– Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), “Walden”
When I started building furniture on my back porch after college, I was sure of only one thing: I didn’t want to use a radial-arm saw.
My aversion to the machine had nothing to do with safety, accuracy, philosophy or shop space. Instead, I despised the radial-arm saw because I spent one long hot summer as a slave to that machine at the Therma-Tru door factory in Arkansas.
I worked on the assembly line that built the fire doors. It was my job to crosscut the internal rails and stiles that were then skinned with the exterior metal (in a pleasing Colonial look!). The radial-arm saw was right next to the furnace that baked on some sort of coating (you know, I never asked what that stuff was).
No matter how fast I cut, I could never keep up. And the workers on the line were always reaching for the stile I had just put down. After a few weeks of this, the radial-arm saw and I became enemies and we remain so to this day.
For me, woodworking is about balancing the role of the hand and the machine. But there is more than one balancing point. And that’s the theme of Issue 9 of Woodworking Magazine, which we are beginning to work on. The cover project is an adaptation of the Gustav Stickley No. 603 tabouret shown in Robert W. Lang’s “Shop Drawings for Craftsman Furniture.”
I picked an Arts & Crafts project for the issue because the best examples of this furniture style incorporate both machine- and hand-work. Right now I’m building two of these tables. One table is being built with machines carrying most of the load, including joinery. With the other table, hand tools will have the upper hand.
This isn’t just about substituting a tenon saw for a 40-tooth flat-tooth rip blade. There are differences in the way you lay out your work and move through the construction process. The resulting tables should look identical, though you can be the judge of that (assuming you purchase the issue).
I have other aversions in addition to the radial-arm saw, including broasted chicken, glazed doughnuts and bagging ice. All those aversions were the result of a hot summer working in a gas station. But those stories are for another kind of blog.
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