The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Some woodworkers feel it necessary to speculate on why the craftsman of old did things the way they did. There are a lot of “ifs” and “what ifs” answered with a certain authority, and there are those that feel they can truly get in to the heads of these long dead fellows, who were working class lads at that, and speak for them as though they knew them. Ex Cathedra may be what I would call it, though the fellows they are speaking for never issued the order, being that they all died more than 150 years ago. I won’t try to speak for them. I will only speak as a person who worked in a production facility for more than 10 years from low man on the totem pole to lead man, and I will try to answer some of those “ifs” and “what ifs”…

If they had a biscuit jointer….
They would use it because the shop foreman would fire them if they didn’t

If they had a dovetailing jig….
They would use it because the shop foreman would fire them if they didn’t

If they had a random orbit sander….
They would use it because the shop foreman would fire them if they didn’t

If they had PVA….
They would use it because the shop foreman would fire them if they didn’t

If they had dowels….
They would use them because the shop foreman would fire them if they didn’t

If they had a table saw….
They would use it because the shop foreman would fire them if they didn’t (and question their intelligence for refusing to use the single most important woodworking power tool ever invented)

If they had a drill press….
They would use it because the shop foreman would fire them if they didn’t

If they had a chop saw….
They would use it because the shop foreman would fire them if they didn’t

Like others who have posed these questions, I am only speculating about the answers. But, I can say with some authority that I am probably more right than I am wrong. As I said earlier, I worked in a production printing facility for more than 10 years and I also worked at a production bakery for two summers if that means anything. I started off as a helper on a high-speed press and worked my way up to press operator, maintenance, and lead man. I had a foreman, several actually, and when it came to work we did what we were told. The average press could run between 170-500 sheets a minute depending on size and width. We also had small presses that were manually operated for tiny work; they ran at less than a tenth of the powered presses. I won’t lie, the print quality on the small presses was generally nicer because they ran much, much slower. I can also add that if we ran all of our work on the small presses we would have been out of business in about 2 months. I worked in the bakery pie department. The pies were good, don’t get me wrong. But hand-made pies were certainly better. Of course we could have switched to hand-made pies but we would have been out of business in about two months.

Now, being that I truly do like quality over quantity, I could have mentioned to my foreman that the slower, more traditional methods produced a higher quality product. My foreman probably would have even agreed with me. Then he would have told me that we need to produce a certain quota each day or we all won’t have jobs by the end of the month. Now, any one of these guys weren’t Harvard Business School graduates. They for the most part were people like me, tradesman whose higher education was in some sort of technical field, with some college classes thrown in for good measure. Certainly they weren’t geniuses with countless hours spent researching old woodworking texts, proudly flaunting their journalism or English Literature masters degrees. But they were smart enough to know how a production facility operates, a real production facility. And they knew that said production facility put a roof over their kids head and put food on their table(a table that a working man could afford because it was made in a production facility)

So, before you start pretending you know things you really don’t know, I would suggest working at a real production facility, maybe even one that produces furniture. Then you could tell all of the guys and gals working there that they are cheapening the craft because they aligned their glue up with biscuits or dowels. Then one of the guys or gals on the line can tell you that their daughter is in college or about to go, and the table top that just got aligned with biscuits or dowels, and in the process destroyed the craft, is helping her with the tuition, and putting food on the table, and providing health benefits for his or her family, and a roof over their heads. Then he can tell you that you can go home and woodwork there however you like, as traditionally as you like. But when you’re at your job you do what your boss tells you to do, or you don’t have a job anymore.



  1. Jay C. White Cloud says:

    Hi Bill,

    I wondered when you would get around to getting this out of your system; it was only a matter of time. I could almost hear the gears turning as you chewed on this one from some time ago; digesting what you wanted to write; now you’ve gone and done it. Chris needs to watch his P’s and Q’s around you.

    Now for its validity, that is mainly opinion on certain points but facts in others. I would stand behind much of your assessment for many different kinds of shops, printing, woodworking or otherwise. However, I could create the same list as you did, (“if they had…”) furniture shops I have seen and been part of, that would read much more like Chris’s than yours. It just is a different perspective on the item of “production.” If you had tried to use any of those tools in your list you would loose your job in a heartbeat, (and well paid job it was for a 18 year old man at the bottom making $25.00 an hour to start.)

    It is all perspective and goal for the finished product, so as a woodworker, academic and student of living history, I can say without a shadow of a doubt, “if they had it they would use it,” is udder bullshit just to justify an individual perspective, not a reality. For those realities are different depending on the eyes doing the viewing. In some shops, you by God better meet that quota or your job is nil, and in others, the method of production, quality, and time spent with the items is part of the quota. I know of frame shops, printers, weavers and the like that would also agree.

  2. billlattpa says:

    I hope that this post doesn’t read as “angry” because I’m not angry at CS in the least. It was simply a rebuttal that I decided to write after reading a post of his the other day in which he writes about and grandfather who built a tool chest with his grandson. When the grandfather mentions that he prepared the stock with a surface planer he has too add (BOO! HISS!) next to it to show his disdain for any tool made after 1870.
    I am a fan of history, in particular American History. CS seems to be a big fan of English furniture makers circa 1700-1850. There is certainly nothing wrong with that because just from their furniture legacy alone it’s easy to see that they did some beautiful work. I can hardly say that I am an expert on England’s history during that time frame. I’m sure that CS has read much about furniture styles and construction techniques used, but if he’s read anything about what life was really like for a working man then he hasn’t said much about it. I can say that with almost absolute certainty that if somehow, magically, a furniture shop owner in 1820 somehow purchased a Delta Unisaw for his shop that his employees were going to use it, simply because they were told to. They may not have liked it for whatever reason, but that was hardly the concern of the shop master.
    Schwarz spoke with a lot of authority when he wrote that particular entry. If he had prefaced his entry by saying that some of the journeyman in the shop might not have liked using a biscuit jointer, but as I said, if the shop master purchased one for use in the shop it would have been used, no ifs, ands, or buts.
    Like you said, I’m sure there are some shops, then and now, that may not want to use power tools, or at least not use a lot of them. Scwharz didn’t say that. He seemed, in my opinion, to be speaking for entire generations of furniture makers, whom he never met by 150 years. It’s clear to me that CS never worked in a production environment, at least not for real. Because in that situation you are going to do what you are told, especially if you are one of the workers and not in management. And from what I understand, during CS’s woodworking “dream” era the shop foremen were under an even greater pressure than the actual journeymen and apprentices to churn out furniture.
    In rural America circa 1800 things may have been a bit different. Most of those who owned small furniture shops were also generally land owners with small family farms. These farms grew food for consumption and the furniture shop was the farmers “business”. Down south probably a similar situation except that mainly slaves would have tilled the fields. In the larger city shops the conditions were probably similar to the situation in London. Though the prospects of being unemployed in London circa 1800 were much scarier than in America at the same time. So I cannot imagine for the life of me any shop owner from that era rejecting table saws and surface planers, which can prep stock at twenty times the rate that they were able. And I cannot imagine any journeyman of the era refusing to do what his boss asked.

  3. Jay C. White Cloud says:

    Morn’n Bill,

    Don’t worry about sound’n angry, (you didn’t by the way,) it’s your blog and you have the right to rant, it’s half the reason I check on you everyday. As you grow and develop as a woodworker, (and writer,) you will have a well written history of your maturation. If someone, (like me,) takes the time to “poke” you, the writing (and craft,) become better. As a teacher, when I stumble onto someone like you, I know that the “wood spirits that be,” mean for me to stop and take note. You are one of our CS’s of the future.

    Table saws were already getting a good foothold in mass production shops by 1820, so a lot of your assessment was correct. CS, when he makes one of his comments, from what I can glean, is doing it “tong and cheek,” and knows full well the reality of woodworking in America. Nevertheless, CS is correct in his assessment that, if a sharp edge is cutting into wood, somewhere in the world to create something, it has been, is today and probably will be for sometime to come, held in the hand of a human, and not pushed by electrons. I read him as having several missions, one being to remind us of the craft, it’s history and what one can achieve with muscle and skill alone; often faster than a machine can do.

    You seem to focus on industrialized production shops as your calibrator for the way woodworking, (and the products there of,) should be, or would be made. Those industrialized entities are capable of producing a lot of wood “something,” but do not rule as the main source of what is made in wood; you, I, and millions of others do. It has been and will continue to be that way, for some time to come. The barons of industry, and manic shop foremen do not set the theme of our craft; they only try to copy and mass-produce what the master woodworker makes.

  4. billlattpa says:

    Beiieve it or not, I am pretty much a traditional woodworker, much closer to Chris Schwarz than I am to Norm Abram. And I truly like much of what CS stands for as a woodworker and a writer. But to me, when he demeans production woodworking, he demeans the people who earn their livings doing it. I have to assume that when he talks about the craftsman of yore he is speaking about production woodworkers, because even the smallest shops were production shops at that time. As far as I can tell, there were precious few “hobbyist” woodworkers then using today’s definition of the word. Tools and wood for that matter were simply too expensive for the average person to purchase, especially in England.
    When Schwarz belittles production furniture he seems to forget, or not understand, that there are still many, many thousands of working people who make their living selling what he calls “junk” because it wasn’t made according to his methods. I will be the last to argue that some production furniture is little more than junk. But there are also some companies right here in Pennsylvania that make extremely nice and well made production furniture. I actually got to see one personally. The people that work there take pride in their jobs and their work and provide food and shelter for their families.Is what they do any less valuable because they used a biscuit jointer to glue their table tops? Does using a biscuit jointer automatically make the furniture worthless garbage?

    I love the Schwarz’s idea of many people being talented woodworkers, working at home making their own furniture and owning their own tools. The country and the world would probably be better for it. I’m sure that he realizes that this won’t happen in a broad sense for many reasons. This doesn’t make it a bad idea. My problem with it is that CS is speaking as a woodworker, an idealist, and a little bit as a dreamer. He knows he is being a dreamer sometimes; there are more than a few who read his blog who don’t. They take every word he says as gospel truth and twist his words how they see fit. So when he decides to call production furniture junk because it was made with power tools, even if he may not mean it, his fans take it to the extreme and turn woodworking into a battleground, and attempt to turn a hobby that anybody with the will to give it a try should be able to enjoy into an exclusive country club. These are the people at the woodworking shows that I would like to knock out cold. Schwarz is at least partially responsible for perpetuating this behaviour, among others. If for no other reason than he doesn’t always tell his fans when he is being tongue in cheek, and it seems that quite a few of them can’t see it for themselves.

    • Jay C. White Cloud says:

      You have some valid perspectives, but only if you except the normative culture that grew out of the industrial revolution. You keep referencing “production shops,” as if they have to be different than “production shops,” that only use hand tools, (or very limited power.)

      CS is trying very hard to realign that corrupted normative cultural view: that fast is always superior to anything that may be slower, (or perceived as such.) I can’t name one production shop, (by the way there was quite a few of them in Gettysburg where I lived for over ten years,) that paid as well or had as pleasant a work environment than the shops that stressed hand work over power tools and speed.

      I could be wrong, but it would seem that you have really bought into that corporate business viewpoint of what society should be like. Which only makes there bank accounts fatter, ours slimmer and the products but a shadow of what it use to be and could be again, if we only change our normative culture back to honor of craft and not corporate greed. You also reference the “working guy.” I am a working guy from generation of working guys and I wish we had the culture shift back to what it was, form what it is now. On the reservation, we truly do try to take care of one another, (“be your brother/sisters keeper.) The corporate modality that has taken such a deep hold on outside society has made that virtually impossible. Geese, no I’m ranting, sorry about that.

  5. billlattpa says:

    I think that a “production” shop circa 1820 that used only hand tools was probably a much worse working environment than anything seen today. And I don’t mean in the loud, noisy, and dirty sense. But back then if you missed a day because you were sick you more than likely may not have a job. The shop overseers had much more power and control over an employee than many can imagine today.The pay was not great. The hours worked were extremely long, from what I understand 72 hrs, which is long anywhere, and on that I can speak from experience. Now, I only know what I read on this topic, but so does Schwarz because he’s only a few years older than me.

    Schwarz seems to believe in using any kind of power tool in woodworking a sin. He’s come close to saying it, his “followers” already say it. He says this as he types on his laptop and submits his articles on the internet slaying electrons, as he likes to say, with reckless abandon. What does one have to do with the other? I would think that if he took the time to carefully handwrite his articles and blogs and books, like they did in the old days, that his writing would improve from it, as many scholars believe. He would have to prepare rough drafts, of course watch his penmanship, carefully watch his paragraph structure, remember there is no cut and paste here.
    Even in his woodworking he uses sketch up for all of his builds, at least the final drawing. If he planned projects like the craftsman of old his mechanical drawing and shop drawing skills would improve immensely. So technology is bad in woodworking but nothing else, which he’s come close to saying as well.
    My point is that if you want to be an “anarchist” you can’t pick and choose your anarchy, sometimes it picks you. “I reject power tools because they make me less of a woodworker” But all of the other areas of your life where you embrace technology, like writing, don’t make you any less proficient? That is complete bull shit. It has been proven, if you accept academic science and psychology, that the people of 150 years ago were better writers than today. Many feel it’s because people don’t actually “write” anymore. They type. Does this make Schwarz a liar? Not at all, he’s a capitalist like everybody else, otherwise he would still be at PW.
    I’m not going to listen to anybody who tells me that I’m less of a woodworker because I use a table saw. At least Schwarz has some credentials, he’s a professional woodworker and writer on woodworking. But his zombie like fans, who feel that they have to speak for him in every blog, are a different story. I like Schwarz’s blog, and I like to add a comment every so often, sometimes jokingly, sometimes on the topic. I don’t see the need for one of his little fan suck ups having to continue to put in their two cents on EVERY comment that they feel HE doesn’t like. Let the man speak for himself. He’s a grown up, and a writer, I’m sure he knows how.
    I would absolutely love it if every woodworking shop went to the old ways of doing it. It isn’t going to happen. I try to make it happen in my own home shop. I only know a few professional woodworkers. One is Chuck Bender, I’ve taken classes at his shop. He is considered one of the very best in the country. He uses a table saw, and there ain’t no way that Schwarz is running down his work, because he’s done stuff that Schwarz hasn’t dreamed about yet( and he’s only in his 40s so Schwarz can’t call the “he’s been doing it longer” trump card). I have to think that if it’s good enough for Chuck then it’s good enough for me.

  6. Jay C. White Cloud says:

    Hay Bill,

    Didn’t want you to think I had let this one go yet, I have to raise a frame tomorrow and when you get into one of your ramblers, like above, my old brain doesn’t digest it so quickly. I’ll catch up in a few. Till then, keep it all going.

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