Tuesday, December 28, 2010

10% off

For some, the future of woodworking is high tech. Use your computer to control an automated router as shown in the illustration on the cover of the latest Rockler Catalog. It suggests "Take 10% off." For some of us, the idea of sitting at a keyboard while machines respond to data,  is already a bit more than 10% off from what we think woodworking is best... the opportunity to express skill and wisdom through our own hands. The image of grandpa at the keyboard while the machine does the work for him is a thing Rockler knows will appeal to some and sell, sell, sell. If we make things faster that require less skill, Rockler will sell more hardware, more wood, more supplies, more designs that the computer and automated tools can execute for you, hence requiring even more hardware and supplies. If it can get easier, more people will do it, right? But if it gets too easy, how much meaning will be found in it?

 What are your thoughts on the subject? I am reminded of a gift my mother gave me. It was a walnut pencil cup with a laser engraved sailing ship on it. She had bought it at the thrift store for 75 cents. Is the skill invested in the object a source of its value? And how is the value of the object to be measured? Is its value something apart from the man or woman who made it?

Today, I am assembling the cherry cabinet I've been working on for days. A bit of routing, a bit of sanding, and then glue and clamps. Lots of clamps, as you can see in the photo above.

Make, fix and create.

8 comments:

John Grossbohlin said...

Owning something like this is of no interest to me. I like the challenge that the risk of failure presents in woodworking. Here the risk is all but eliminated once the programming is done (assuming competent programming and tool design). Also, this technology march we are on assumes that the computerized power tools allow you to actually perform the woodworking task as you wish. For example, you'd be hard pressed to cut dovetails with a CNC machine that are as fine as can be cut with a handsaw--the router bit shank diameter constrains the fineness far more than does a handsaw's kerf thickness. One could argue that the constraints of power tools cannot be ignored in creativity whereas those same constraints are preferred in a production environment. In the latter workers are expected to act as machines in carrying out their duties.

Chris Sagnella said...

Doug-

Rockler should sell toasters to go along with this contraption. To me there is no substitute for hand work. But I guess it's up to the individual. The main thing that I love about woodworking is that it offers me the freedom to create things on my own terms- using my own imagination. This kind of freedom of the mind is priceless. I don't think that there is any shortcut to achieving this, although Rockler may argue! My grandfather was a carpenter and was referred to maestro on the job. My father tells me that he used to tell him that any carpenter can do a good job when the conditions are in their favor, however, the good ones can fix a mistake and make something good of an imperfect scenario. These machines don't allow for this kind of experience, they disconnect our imaginations from the job at hand, and I find this in opposition to what we are striving for by doing such work to begin with.

Thanks again for a great posting.

All the best-

Chris Sagnella

Doug Stowe said...

I have a friend who uses a computer driven router to do interesting abstract graphic designs on his cabinetry. I know part of the appeal to him is that it gives an interesting effect that makes you wonder how it was done. YOu might even jump to the false conclusion that it was difficult, as it certainly is visually complex. And yet, I'm not sure he would do it if he didn't have the machine to make it easy. So one factor is that the machine becomes inordinately important in the design... the technology drives the design rather than the design driving the technology. It is kind of like hat John describes in that machines cannot make a hand-cut dovetail. But none of this is to say technology is a bad thing.

Anonymous said...

We use a CNC router where I teach high school woodwork to add carving to students' work. My dad was a carver (and sold his work) so I can appreciate the skill involved in hand carving and, also, the distinct appearance of it. However, no high school student has the time to master this skill and so the machine allows us to approximate this effect.

Reading this post made me return to David Pye's The Nature And Art Of Workmanship mainly to review the difference between the workmanship of risk and the workmanship of certainty. Absolutely the CNC router represents the workmanship of certainty and, as such, risks the aesthetic sin of reduced diversity that Pye identifies. Not only are the cuts and shapes too uniform, the actual designs risk being generic because of the cut and paste functions of the design software.

However, the CNC router is just another tool like the jointer, planer and table saw that we use for most of our work. Its not the machines that produce good work, its the craftsman who has (if you'll forgive me) wise hands.

Nick Sluyter

Anonymous said...

The pencil cup's value comes from it having been a gift from your mother. The laser-driven router seems like one of those "look at me" toys that will be used a few times and then go back in the box. I'd much rather end up with a piece that will go to the burn pile at my friend's cabin (which my sons and I helped build) as my latest spice rack did.

Mario

Doug Stowe said...

Nick and Mario, I have watched a number of school wood shops acquire CNC routing equipment. The rationale is to give students a bit of on the job real world manufacturing experience. No, as a high school student you would not be expected to master carving. The 10,000 hour rule applies.

I am worried that many CNC tools in high schools are much like the laser crafted pencil cup. They can give an immediate buzz of curiosity and perhaps amazement, but then what happens? Has the hand been engaged in shaping the material, exploring its grain and density? Have you become a passive observer of technological wonders rather than a participant in creation?

David Pye's writings have been instructive in my own work. The variabilities of hand work give it interest, and inform that a real human being was engaged in the making.

There is a school on the east coast where every graduating senior carves his or her own wall plaque that joins all the others on permanent display carved by other students over the years. Some show greater or lesser indications of potential mastery.

Anonymous said...

What happens when all of the machines go away some day?
Nothing lasts forever...
If we forget how to build with our hands and let the machines do all of the work, basic skills will be lost over future generations. It is hard to program a machine to make something when you don't know how to do it yourself first.

Doug Stowe said...

We have denigrated hand work to the point the nearly everyone is convinced that it should be avoided at all costs, and yet there are those in the crafts community who know how wonderful it can be to make real things.

I was listening to a program in which graphic artists who spend all their time at computers described their daydreams about making real things, or illustrations with real paint. A few years back, I watched as young men and women did amazing things on the computer, their fingers moving at lightning speed. If the machines go away, all those of the computer generation will watch a new generation arising to relearn and demonstrate lightning speed in the making of things.

Learning is much of what life is all about, and I guess if we have forgotten a few things, there will be that much more room for discovery. So here am I, learning sketchup and working each day in the wood shop. There can be a reasonable balance, but that balance is much, much better when things of the mind are grounded in actual reality.

I am reminded of a few years ago when a student asked me what video games I liked. I told him, photoshop, word, and Quicken.