We’re faced with a dichotomy in woodworking today, the clash of a growing movement towards traditional hand tool woodworking versus the rise in automation. Along with this comes a plethora of machines to speed woodworking processes. My perspective is that of a traditional woodworker increasingly exposed to an onslaught of technology in woodworking. Today, we are bombarded on two fronts in woodworking. Go traditional with hand tools, go modern with the latest in technology, or somehow combine the two. I describe how I resolved my own compromise and came to terms with the dilemma. The machinery I refer to is increasingly sophisticated to where an operator sitting alongside a CNC machine can rapidly create identical furniture components. At the hand tool end, the debate swirls around what constitutes traditional woodworking. Should wood be prepared and dimensioned by hand? Should this grunt work be performed by machines with the emphasis then shifting to hand tools? Should power tools coexist with hand tools in a truly traditional woodworking shop? Would our woodworking forefathers have embraced automation if it existed in their historical period? Interestingly, elements of this debate also occurred during the advent of the Industrial Age in the late 1800's. The reasons then to not embrace machinery were somewhat similar. Machines were thought to remove the human touch and craft component from furniture making. Skills which had been passed down through generations of woodworkers would be lost. Victory was achieved with the advent of the Arts & Crafts movement in 1900 or so, although this was short-lived. Eventually, use of machinery in woodworking won the battle resulting in the further distancing of woodworkers from their traditional craft. A hundred years of woodworking production advancements later and traditional woodworking is once again being embraced.
The reasons for this are similar to the repudiation of the Industrial Age. The only difference is today we are on the cusp of full automation in woodworking manufacturing. Developments to facilitate and expedite production are occurring at a faster pace than ever before. So, although it seems strange today to embrace traditional hand tool methods, it is more relevant in light of the possibility of forever losing a centuries old craft. Thumbs up to the many private schools dedicated to teaching traditional hand-oriented woodworking skills today. Traditional woodworking has effectively ceased to be taught in mainstream schools. Fewer and fewer parents immerse themselves in woodworking to pass down to children. Some have mentioned the traditional craft of woodworking is on its death bed. Woodworking taught in schools today tends to focus on automation and heavy use of machinery. In the big picture, the resurgence of traditional woodworking methods using hand tools could not occur at a better time in history!
I must admit that it can be confusing today of which path to follow for an entry level woodworker. Is the work intended to be batched out or instead created as one-offs? The larger issue becomes the process used to achieve this goal. The use of modern technology can be enticing, where visions of machines magically creating furniture components never ceases to amaze. Machinery manufacturers are constantly upgrading their offerings to where the learning curve of CNC is rapidly diminishing. At the traditional end, new and often improved versions of traditional hand tools are regularly released. High quality and precisely machined hand tools are widely available today. The single common and necessary component in the traditional hand tool equation is the need to manually push or pull a hand plane, saw or chisel. This in order to prepare wood, smooth wood or to create joinery. With hand tools, a large component of manual labor is involved.
A woodworker with several years of experience may have come to terms with the direction they pursue. In many cases, they have embraced a quieter, less hurried form of woodworking. Their woodworking passion is better served in the enjoyment of creating a piece rather than simply achieving the end goal. Instead, somebody just starting out will perhaps wonder why today they should be performing manual tasks such as hand planing, hand sawing boards and creating joinery by hand. After all, wasn't machinery designed to facilitate the processing of boards used in furniture making? Hasn't the trend in industry always been to make our jobs easier and more productive? This is the dilemma facing many woodworkers today, specifically new woodworkers. Hand tools coexisting with machines and automation becomes the question. I don't pretend to have a solution and can only form an opinion through many years of experience in both camps. As a former hi-tech person and convert to a quieter form of woodworking, I would much rather work with traditional, time-proven methods than embrace the latest in machinery and automation whose goal is to make my life easier. I too faced this dilemma and have been minimizing the use of machinery in my woodworking. In the process, I have learned to appreciate wood as a medium and not just use it as a means to an end. The machines I use today are effectively motorized hand tools, nothing sophisticated. This is where I draw the line.
In my studio practice, I prefer to be closer to the wood and work with its characteristics and inherent beauty. Today, I use machines to prepare wood in the initial stages and perhaps to dimension it. Afterwards, all processes in my furniture making incorporate hand tools. I will always seek a method to use a hand tool to perform a task before ever considering using a machine. So, this is how I have come to terms with the question of maintaining traditional methods in my own work. I find this to be the best compromise in coping with an ever-increasing fast-paced, technological and production-oriented world.