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