Suspect Device

Machines ain’t the problem. Lazy people are the problem.

First you design for yourself, and use the machine to make the design. Then you start working out how to make the most of the machine, and eventually you’re not designing for people anymore – you’re designing for the machine.

But really, the machine’s designing for itself.

And you? You’re just a superfluous bag of carbon patting yourself on the back for your sleek new designs.

And about a week later, everything in your world looks like an ipod.

– Johnny Bode

During Schwarz’s blogging of the Roubo Project some comments brought up a common straw man. As one commenter put it:
“No escape finding it quite ironic, when the going gets tough prominent advocates of light and noiseless hand tools shamelessly and enthusiastically embrace noisy and o-so-very-heavy mastodonic machinery.”

As someone who most definitely advocates for the use of hand tools, I’d like to respond that only in a certain type of pigeonhole does enthusiasm for hand tools equate to eschewing machinery.

I know a few woodworkers who are completely devoted to hand-powered-only work for reasons of philosophy, history (though machines have been in woodworking shops for a very very long time), or just personal preference. I applaud those proud few their convictions, but I have zero interest in any of that.

What I care about is designing and making the best stuff I can. Period. Full-friggin-stop.

What started me on hand tools was that the furniture I wanted to make was essentially unmake-able with machines alone. When I started making planes, I ran into the same issue.

The issue is that nearly all machines are just tireless idiot savants. They do things like straight lines, flat planes, perfect circles, and smooth surfaces really well – but they do irregular curves and diverse textures incredibly poorly, and only under extreme pressure from jigs and workarounds. And the power source has nothing to do with that – what powers the tool is almost totally unimportant. What guides it, however, means everything.

I think that all craft involves design – which equates to human intent. And that intent is writ large on the object produced. The best objects have complex, diverse, and broad intentions and thinking wrapped up in their designs. Look in your local art museum and see how many perfect spheres, ideal triangles, and straight lines you see represented there. Heck, look in your local forest, or your backyard.

Now look in Wal-mart. Look around your office. Look at any strip mall.

I’ve got nothing (much) against offices and strip-malls – but when I can I’d rather spend my time and energy elsewhere.

The best furniture makers I know are ALL extremely capable with both hand and power tools. The tools don’t much matter to them – they learn whatever tools they need to get the results they ‘see’ in their heads. That’s what I aspire to. And most of what I see in my head is done much more easily with the hand than with the computer, and the fence, and the jig.

But when the computer, machine, and jig will do the job you can bet I’m using them. Leaves me more time for the bits I need to do myself…


  1. says

    This also a reason while I rarely make CAD Models anymore (despite being a CAD jockey for years). It’s just way too easy to take the easy way out with lines & arcs and miss an opportunity to sketch a more shapely line, in the name of design speed/efficiency. Of course CAD has it’s place, the same as a radial arm saw has it’s place; but if you let either dictate your projects, you’ve lost creative control.
    Excellent Post.

  2. says

    Saw an excerpt posted on another woodworker’s blog, this reminds me of a phenomenal book from David Pye, “The Nature and Art of Workmanship.” Excellent post.

  3. Jim Stuart says

    I absolutely agree. I’ve done a lot of remodeling jobs on craftsman style houses in and near Pasadena, CA. Naturally, the walls were originally made of lathe and plaster. Many of my clients want to remain true to the ideology of the original ways of construction. And many can afford to do so if that’s what they choose. But my opinion is that the original builders would have used drywall if it had been available. Craftsman style houses, in particular, were made with simplicity and austerity as standard design requirements. It’s just so easy to get caught up with new (or old) ways of doing things and quickly loose sight of small but obvious truths.

  4. says

    Very glad you are still alive, I am one of those suckers who knowingly followed along the Schwarz’s word, even my girlfriend was saddened by your “passing”
    Nice piece of writing here, I think you’ve summed up much of how many of us feel, thanks:)

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