Lost in the Supermarket


I was in the local Orange Behemoth not long ago, and saw some woodworking magazine with the phrase ‘CNC magic’ on the cover. The picture was a geometric bowlish object – one of those things that looks like it was made with the 3D equivalent of a spirograph. I made an involuntary noise. ‘Bless you’ chimed the woman at the nearest register.

I don’t begrudge anyone their hobbies. And I know that there’s a lot of mental skill involved in programming one of those bowls into the machine. But for the life of me I can’t see how those skills have much to do with woodworking, anymore than I think playing ‘annoying birds’ is like learning physics. Maybe I’m kidding myself, but to my thinking CNC bowls are to woodworking as Big Macs are to beef. Technically speaking, they may be part of the same general category, but that doesn’t make the insinuation any less offensive to a ribeye.

Me? I’ve gotten very clear that I’m at my best when I spend my time and money on skills rather than on machines. It’s not the smart move. The smart move is to get an MBA and pay some ‘skilled laborer’ to make my stuff for me.

But personally I am pretty comfortable with having traded any possibility of a McLaren in for the chance to make things with my hands.

I try not to sob in public.

This week my hands made up a screen and ceiling shade for a client’s kitchen. This is the sound of speed.








  1. Jay says

    Hi Raney,
    Great post. It reminded me of a TED talk given by Richard Seymour a couple of years ago (http://www.ted.com/talks/richard_seymour_how_beauty_feels.html). He talked about our perceptions of beauty relying on a story, or something that makes us feel a connection. Given that standard, I suppose the CNC itself, or maybe the process of using it, could be a thing of beauty, but it’s difficult to make that connection to the object it produces. Definitely useful and interesting on its own terms, but I agree that CNC is like the woodworking equivalent of using the Watercolor filter in Photoshop and calling it “painting.”

    I’m sorry for the loss of your future McLaren, but the screen and shade look great!

  2. Ed says

    Beautiful screens!

    I’m that guy that sent you a photo of kumiko-esq parts cut on a CNC machine. For me, the machine expands on what is possible. I still do lots of things by hand, including using planes, saws, chisels, etc. But the mill allows me to invent more freely. For me, this work is all about the design. And getting beyond what has already been done means new tools.

    I go both ways with photography as well. I still shoot and develop black and white film, while also using state of the art digital cameras and scanners.

    Still, I respect how you work and how you think and I thank you for the inspiration you have been to me.

    • says


      I’m hoping to do a detailed posting about this, but for now I really wanted to say that there is nothing about what I was trying to point out here that I would apply to the beautiful work you sent me photos of. Also, I completely agree with what i think your comment was pointing out about design and “tools” . Like you, i think that design is a profound part of what I do – and any/all methods are fair game when it comes to bringing a design to manifestation. And I think that computer and jigged guidance is a totally valid and useful category of tools that can dramatically enhance the range of designs we can bring into the world.

      To the extent that I may have implied otherwise, I think my post missed its intended mark.

      What I was trying to get at here was the notion that not everything that involves a piece of wood and an idea is equivalent. While I think the sort of CNC work I was discussing can be great( or poor, as the case may be), I still think it’s somehow out of place to refer to it as “woodwork” in the sense that I think of it. If the bowl were called 3D pattern work, bowl design, or Wood printing it wouldn’t be something I’d have any comment on at all. I have no illusions that what I do is anything more than a single art form among a million others, and I absolutely do not subscribe to the idea that what I make has any special claim to worth based on the amount of hand work involved.

      But I do think that work like carvewright signs, or 3d “printed” bowls, or laser carved photo reproduction are of a totally different category than woodwork such as bowl turning or furniture making or carving or the sort of screen work you sent me. And I do think that making clear distinctions of the reasons they are so different is worthwhile.

      This is intricate stuff, and unpacking our own biases from legitimate differences can be tricky. There may be some apparent contradictions in what I’ve said, but I’ll try to be a bit clearer in additional posts if you’ll bear with me a bit.



  3. JJ Stenzoski says

    I’m the recipient of the beautiful kitchen screens shown. What a joy to work with Raney–I don’t need to point out that he’s a rare breed, indeed. More power to him and his marvelous craft. My world is a better place for having encountered him and his artistry.

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