Chris Schwarz's Blog

‘I Want my Micrometer…’

Charles Hayward, the dean of woodworking writers, once wrote a column about the continued industrialization of the woodworking craft. All hand work was being set aside and forgotten. People who were once craftsmen were become machine minders.

In the end, Hayward noted, it will be only the engineers who will ever find real joy in work.

So I kid the engineers. Whenever I begin a class I ask all the engineers (and retired engineers) to raise their hands. I have had classes where 80 percent of the students are engineers. A typical class is about 40 to 50 percent engineers.

I warn the engineers that if they use a micrometer during the class I will go all Sister Slobenitz on their knuckles with a Stanley folding rule.

I mess with their heads when I insist that they make 3 micron-thick shavings with their handplanes. When they ask how much pressure to use when burnishing a scraper, I reply: 7.42 Newtons.

But the truth is, Hayward was right. Engineers are the people who build the modern world, whether it’s software or submarines. Engineers are the echo of the world of the pre-Industrial craftsman. They do find joy in work. In building instead of servicing or repairing or deep-frying.

Today was the second day of my “By Hammer and Hand” class at the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking in Manchester, Conn. This morning we built shooting boards, tuned up our Moxon double-screw vises and learned (too much) about sawing technology.

Then the afternoon was spent learning to saw, tuning up the shooting boards and learning to shoot end grain.

The sawing and shooting part of a class is one of my favorite things to teach. At the beginning of the exercise, the sawing sounds, stances and results are terrible. But within a couple hours of work, almost all of the students are able to saw square and vertical without any pencil lines to guide them. They are able to start a saw smoothly and advance quickly into the work. They are ready to cut some tenons and dovetails.

Which is a good thing because tomorrow is going to be a long day of dovetails.

— Christopher Schwarz

• Read yesterday’s entry from the class: Video: Build a Moxon Double-screw Vise

• Want to learn to saw? Pick up a DVD of “Build a Sawbench,” where we filmed a weekend class of me teaching a bunch of students how to saw and build a … wait for it… sawbench.

14 thoughts on “‘I Want my Micrometer…’

  1. tpobrienjr

    If it fits, it fits, no matter what a micrometer says. And I don’t care a fig for a Newton.

  2. john.snyder

    “They do find joy in work. In building instead of servicing or repairing or deep-frying.”

    May I recommend “Shop Class as Soulcraft: an Inquiry into the Value of Work” by Matthew Crawford? He’s a PoliSci PhD holder who quit his job to open a motorcycle repair shop. Mr. Crawford argues that diagnostic jobs (servicing and repairing) are perhaps the most satisfying. I highly recommend the book. By the way, his next book is about traditional organ makers in Virginia…I’m looking forward to it.

    And yeah, I’m an engineer.


  3. fletcherj

    3 micron shavings would be .000118″ thick. Are you able to set a plane to take those?

    Also the metric pressure units are Pascals not Newtons. Just remember Newton in a one metre square is Pascal.

      1. fletcherj

        I’m a high school science teacher. Correct units is a pet peeve from my day job. Although I have encourage several young people to consider engineering.

  4. billlattpa

    I have a question: Why is it that on most of the videos shot at woodworking schools the students are all sawing with tiny little nibbling strokes that use around 3 saw teeth? I’m not trying to nitpick because I am a newbee woodworker myself but everybody has sawed through a few 2×4’s haven’t they? If my dad saw me sawing like that he probably would have yelled at me. It’s just an observation. I hope we are all improving with our sawing skills!

    1. Megan FitzpatrickMegan Fitzpatrick

      In case Chris doesn’t see this in the midst of all his teaching…one of the first lessons he taught me: “You paid for the entire saw – why aren’t you using all of it?!” (Hence his congrats to the student actually doing so in the video!).

      1. billlattpa

        the funny thing is that I do nibble when I cut dovetails, but that is usually the first 2 or 3 saw strokes. If I continued to saw the entire joint with those little strokes I would soon invest in a dovetail jig…

        1. Dean

          As Chris’ shows in his video and says in his article, the nibbling is just for the first few strokes to establish the kerf between the two corners (“front to back”). After you’ve established the kerf corner-to-corner, you go to full saw strokes, and then pick up speed and “dive to the baseline”.

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