Why I Adore My Machines

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Circular logic. Is this cutting head the giant wheel of industrial oppression or the means to escape it? It depends.

Take your flashlight and pitchfork; the hand tools guy has a table saw.

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the November 2016 issue of Popular Woodworking

P.People react with shock and horror when they discover that I have electrical machinery in my Kentucky laboratory.

After all, I’ve been writing almost exclusively about manual work for nearly 20 years. Yet anyone more than an acquaintance knows that I love heavy iron and that I pamper my cars like prize French bulldogs. So, what is the problem?

I like all woodworking tools, from chisels to CNC milling machines. I want to get to know them all – inside and out – so I can do my best with the least amount of stupidity swirling around my shop. Here are two simple examples:

Stupid: make a jig to cut a compound corner on the table saw.

It’s not stupid: cut a line and cut the compound corner with a carcass saw.

Stupid: Process 200 feet of raw lumber wood with a jack plane.

It’s not stupid: use an electric jointer and a plane to get the job done in an afternoon.

Maybe I’m just trying to be efficient, but I don’t see it that way. I choose different tools or machines to always remain a furniture manufacturer. I don’t want to become a machinist where jigs, numbers and precision measuring instruments guide my work. And I don’t want to be a donkey, using the little time I have on this earth to do a senseless chore (plucking the maple 12/4) for a bit of affectation.

What is also part of this is that I refuse to recognize a difference between the use of hand tools and machines. For me, the tools are neutral. What infuses them with threat or joy is the way they are used.

When I was working in a door factory, the radial arm saw we used to cut struts and rails was the symbol of my submission there. I’ve been chained to that car all day, not afraid of losing a finger.

Conversely, my table saw at home puts food on the table. It allows me to work for myself, not in a factory, and to spend the day designing furniture, cutting dovetails and assembling pieces of wood instead of tearing, tearing and tearing again.

You might think this attitude would lead me to use machines for everything. Not like that. I constantly use airplanes. They touch every surface of my work. I don’t use them out of some respect for the past. I use them because they are faster than sanding (there is only one “grain” – done) and leave a superior surface.

But you can only see this trade-off if you know both sides intimately: both the drum sander and the planer sander.

So why do I write almost exclusively about manual work? This is easy. For the past 60 years, the use of woodworking machinery has been covered to death and perfection. We don’t need another book of router jigs, or tips for setting up a bandsaw, or Swiss army knife-like devices for the table saw.

The world of manual work is endless – you never know everything because there are more than 2,000 years of recorded history with these tools to explore. I’m just trying to balance the equation and help bring the handiwork back to its rightful place in the store.

But you can bet that if the pendulum swings too much, I’ll be happy to write about the unbridled joy that is possible from a spiral carbide cutting head.


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