Tools and externalities

Following on my previous post: In trying to define a “traditional” tool I raised the issue of toolmaking. But the way a tool is made has implications for the maker of the tool as well as (if not more than) for the end user.

The low stages of my scales suggest a toolmaker who pursues a craft in a small shop: people who make wooden molding planes, for example. That may be a kind of ideal, but it isn’t always practical.

In the middle are small, semi-industrial operations in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, with relatively few workers, an emphasis on craft, and a working environment that is, for lack of a handier term, more or less flat, in that it minimizes the distance and distinction between labor and management workers being given latitude for authority and the owner is not only capable of doing some actual work but even now and then does it. That, at least, is the kind of working environment I would prefer for myself, whether as a worker or a manager ( I have been both).

At the high end of the scale, you have machine parts cranked out by machines wherever labor is cheapest for the profit of corporate shareholders.

If I value the way I work, surely I ought to try to extend that privilege to others? That’s merely the golden rule. So I might say, as a third principle, that “A tool (and its components) should be made by workers who work as the user would want to work and who are treated as the end user would want to be treated.”

There in my old-fashioned shop the new machinery had almost forced its way in—the thin end of the wedge of scientific engineering. And from the first day the machines began running, the use of axes and adzes disappeared from the well-known place, the saws and saw-pit became obsolete. We forgot what chips were like.... "The Men," thought still my friends, as I fancied, became machine 'hands.'...

Of course wages are higher—many a workman to-day receives a larger income than I was ever able to get as "profit" when I was an employer. But no higher wage, no income, will buy for men that satisfaction which of old—until machinery made drudges of them—streamed into their muscles all day long from close contact with iron, timber, clay, wind and wave, horse-strength. It tingles up in the niceties of touch, sight, scent. The very ears unawares received it, as when the plane went singing over the wood, or the exact chisel went tapping in (under the mallet) to the hard ash with gentle sound. But these intimacies are over. Although they have so much more leisure men can now taste little solace in life, of the sort that skilled hand-work used to yield to them.... The products of work are, to be sure, as important as ever... But it remains true that in modern conditions work is nothing like so tolerable as it was say thirty years ago; partly because there is more hurry in it, but largely because machinery has separated employers from employed and has robbed the latter of the sustaining delights which materials used to afford them. Work is less and less pleasant to do—unless, perhaps, for the engineer or the electrician.

—George Sturt, The Wheelwright's Shop (1923), 201–202.

The thin edge of the wedge of scientific engineering

Hand tools and “traditional woodworking”

When I asked recently “What is a ‘hand tool,’ anyway?” I considered two fairly literal definitions of a hand tool: a tool held and operated with the hands, and a tool powered exclusively by the hands (or possibly by other body parts). Neither was really satisfying. Here’s another, more complicated idea that comes up in conversations about hand tools: the idea of “traditional woodworking.” Continuing my list, I could say that

3. A hand tool reflects traditional woodworking practice.

But what do I mean by traditional?

Here we go again.

What is a “hand tool,” anyway?

When I describe my work I usually say that I do “hand-tool woodworking,” or that I work primarily or exclusively with hand tools. Nobody has ever asked me what I mean by “hand tools,” so presumably everyone has a clear idea in his or her head what I mean… or rather what they think I mean. What do I mean? What’s a hand tool, anyway? And why do I use them, as opposed to… whatever hand tools are opposed to?

Maybe this seems like a facile question. I don’t believe it is. Nor an unimportant one. If I’m only using the term for introductions at parties and taglines on business cards, then I suppose it doesn’t matter much what I mean, but if I’m trying to make serious decisions about work, then it matters a great deal. It matters in conversations with other woodworkers who use machines, and who are apt to see a hand-tool-first or hand-tool-only approach as stupidity or snobbery—opinions that I can’t refute if I can’t clearly define what I’m doing and why.

Most important, it matters in making decisions about what tool to use for a job. We all have standards by which we evaluate and adopt (or decline to adopt) technology, but few of us actually know what they are — or have considered what they should be.

But it’s also the kind of question a guy with advanced degrees who has written cultural history starts thinking about while he’s in his second hour of sawing and planing 8/4 oak. Not just why don’t I buy a freaking bandsaw? but no, really, why don’t I? This need to define my terms was made rather more urgent, if ironically also more quixotic, by my experience teaching homeschool environmental science last spring. When my daughter suggested writing her final paper on means of reducing or eliminating single-use plastics, I told her she had better start by defining what a “single-use plastic” was. She spent three months, wrote nearly five thousand words, and still never quite managed a precise definition, but by the end she knew a hell of a lot more about what she didn’t know. She grew wisely ignorant, you might say, as opposed to being merely a clever fool. Which I believe to be an improvement.

So let me see if I can become at least more wisely ignorant. This will take awhile to suss out; I’ll only get started today, and I’ll post new ideas as I think of them, revising my thinking as I go. Consider this an invitation to think along with me.

I can think of several qualities that might qualify a tool as a “hand tool,” but none of them is sufficient as a definition. Let’s start with two.

Introducing “David Walbert Hand Tool Woodworking”

I have a history (too embarrassing to repeat here) of inventing clever names for projects that go nowhere. But when I decided to apply for a couple of craft markets and started sketching out ideas for signage, I just doodled my name and a blunt description of what I do. And it seemed to be enough.

After a few more sketches I produced a more careful drawing…

original drawing of my logo

…and then happened across a font that was awfully close to my hand lettering, and decided to make a fully digital version instead.

business logo

(If you look very closely, you may see that the handsaw is a Disston. In fact it is a Disston crosscut saw that I restored a couple of years ago, with the handle I made for it, redrawn as line art. The leaf flourishes below the text echo the traditional carving on a saw handle. That is for you antique tool nerds.)

I even have business cards and made a little box that doubles as a display tray:

business card display box

So it sure looks like I have a real live business.

More to come.

The ecosystem of the kitchen

Following on my previous post thinking about the workshop as an ecosystem, here’s an example perhaps familiar to more people: baking.

If you bake, you may have run across traditional formulas for cakes. A pound cake is made from a pound of flour, a pound of sugar, a pound of butter and a pound of eggs. A 1-2-3-4 cake has 1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour, and 4 eggs. Both are easy to remember, and neither depends heavily on exact measurements. If your scale is a little off, your pound cake will just be a little bigger or smaller. Any old cup will do for a 1-2-3-4 cake; you may have to adjust the eggs a bit, but since eggs vary in size (at least if your chickens are as traditional as your teacups), you’d have to do that anyway. No special instructions, no special tools required — only skill, which costs only time and bears ample fruit.

Now along comes this newfangled magical thing called baking powder, which is supposed to ensure a consistent result, no matter your skill level. Wonderful! Baking made easy! Ah, but baking powder is measured in teaspoons, and has a big impact on the final product, so that an error of half a teaspoon either way may yield a very different cake. Now you need, not just any old teaspoon, but a modern factory-made industrially calibrated teaspoon, which you have to buy from, say, Sears-Roebuck. And your teaspoons have to be calibrated to your cups, as well, so it’s back to the mail-order catalog for measuring cups. The first chemical leaveners came into use by about 1790, and their successors were widely used by the mid-nineteenth century, but only after about 1880 did they really become respectable, because only then did they become really reliable — because only then did the first calibrated measuring cups and spoons appear to measure them reliably. And then, within a generation, it became almost unthinkable to bake a cake without baking powder.

But now instead of eyeballing, which always worked well enough before, you have to learn to do level measurements. And you can’t easily experiment with the proportions of your cake, because you’ll throw off those tiny little measurements, and you’re relying now on processes you don’t fully understand. You’ve yoked yourself to a whole system of store-bought tools, which are not only made by industrially precise processes but demand new, industrially precise methods of work — and to a system of set, test-kitchen approved recipes which had better be followed with equal precision. Your whole approach to baking a cake has changed. The skilled baker now becomes just another factory worker, a kind of subsidiary of the industrial system that made the baking powder and the measuring cups. All because of one little ingredient!

There’s a book in that story, and my two-paragraph history oversimplifies things, but you get the idea, I hope. The workshop of the kitchen is also a kind of ecosystem, in which tools, ingredients, techniques, tastes all have to mesh. Cooking evolves, the kitchen changes — but not all changes are gradual or benign. Every once in a while, an invasive species can show up and cause a mass extinction. And it can be hard to know what little changes will turn into cataclysms before they’ve done it.

Workshop Update: March 2021

With intermittent shop time and a lull between bigger projects, I have been finessing some designs for stools. I have had a thing for stools for a long time; it’s a simple form open to endless variations in which small details have a big impact. A stool is also something I can make relatively quickly and sell for relatively little money (relative to, say, a chest of drawers), so I want to have some designs in the bag.

First was a short, four-legged stool small enough for a toddler to sit on, sturdy enough for an adult to stand on, and pretty enough to set out by the hearth. Because I used the prototype for putting on my socks, I called it my “shoes-and-socks stool.”

The underside of the seat has an arching bevel carved with a drawknife. This version uses some lovely walnut I picked up last spring with white oak legs and a natural oil finish.

Next was a carved-three-legged milking stool with a carved-edge seat. Instead of trying to cut and polish a perfect circle, I draw a perfect circle, saw close to the line, and carve the rest with a drawknife. The jauntily uneven, playfully faceted surface is accentuated by a two-layered milk paint finish, in this case black over red. I call this — wait for it — my carved-edge milking stool.

I also made a four-legged version with stretchers, because I hadn’t made anything with stretchers recently and wanted a bit of practice. While a stool this height does not need stretchers, I’m considering this a prototype for a taller stool suitable for painting or playing guitar.

Meanwhile, in odd hours, I also finished a batch of spreaders and a batch of stir-fry spoons (or, if you are from Louisiana, roux spoons), both in various woods.

All of this is for sale, hopefully at a craft market this spring or summer.

The ecosystem of the workshop

As I have spent more time in the workshop the past couple of years I have been thinking more and more about what I do and why I do what I do — that is, work wood with what are commonly called “hand tools.” Certain tasks (like cutting dovetails) take all my concentration, some (ripping 8/4 stock for chair legs) take enough bodily energy that I can’t sustain a complicated conversation with myself, but others (sanding, carving spoons) leave good space for thought, and in that space I find myself asking questions that I am not always able to answer. Questions like: what is a “hand tool,” anyway?

I want to use this blog, in part, to explore those questions, if not necessarily to answer them to anybody’s satisfaction. Rather than starting with what seems like an easy one — what is a hand tool? — I’m going to start in media res, with something I was mulling yesterday: the interconnectedness of tools, materials, methods of work, and the broader economy and culture — what I think of as the “ecosystem” of the workshop. That means starting deep “in the weeds” of the craft and working my way out again. I’ll try to write in a way that gives non-specialists the gist of things without boring woodworkers. That’s a narrow target; forgive me if I don’t quite hit it in a blog post.

So, to begin, a bit of background.

I don’t like your style

This summer my stepson worked for his uncle, who makes mailboxes in what I guess is a mid-century modern style. I say “I guess” because “mid-century modern” can mean so many things that I would hesitate to apply it to anything I actually liked. In a conversation over dinner one night, I said something to that end, and added that I really did not like mid-century modern style.

Then, almost immediately, I had to backtrack.

As a first-order approximation, it’s true; I don’t like mid-century modern. If you line up a hundred random pieces of furniture built between 1950 and 1970, inherited from your grandparents or purchased at “vintage” or “antique” shops, chances are I’ll dislike ninety-five of them. It’s dull and boxy with occasional forays into weirdness. Much of it looks like it was designed by committee. In particular, I cannot abide unornamented rectangles with upside-down cones for legs. When I see them I think “firewood.”

But.

Just that month, in trying to design a coffee table and an ottoman, I’d looked hard at several examples by pioneering Danish designers working circa 1960. They weren’t exactly what I wanted; I had no interest in copying them—but I appreciated their efforts to make furniture with a spare kind of elegance not out of place in, but also not capitulating to, an industrial age. Not to mention there’s Sam Maloof, whose work I generally like a great deal, and respect even on those occasions when it doesn’t speak to me.

I also had, in a rotating stack of junk mail I keep for irritainment, a catalog of “Shaker” furniture that might have been constructed from 4×4s and planks, slathered in something intended to look like milk paint. It was boxy, boring, and just plain ugly. (Also, a nightstand with a drawer cost a thousand bucks, so it was expensive ugly.) The best actually Shaker-made furniture is a testament to the beauty of minimalism (what I said above about the aspirations of Danish modern could perhaps apply to 19th-century Shakers as well), and Christian Becksvoort has done beautiful work extending that style. But based on most of what’s marketed as “Shaker,” I don’t like Shaker style either.

In fact, based on most of what’s marketed as any style, I don’t like it. Arts and Crafts is boxy, heavy, dark, and depressing. The Jacobean style it half-imitated was all that, partially hidden by as much turning and carving as the buyer could afford. Chippendale makes me think of women with birdcages in their coiffures. Hepplewhite is going to fall over any minute now, I’m sure of it. Empire, bless it’s heart, wants to be everything at once. And so on. The older the style, the more bad examples have long since been turned into firewood. But there are always reproductions.

Do I really mean that? Yes, and no. Within each style—at its root—are examples that are thoughtfully, well, and beautifully made. The idea behind each style, considered in its historical and cultural context, is valid and interesting. It’s the knockoffs and elaborations that suck. The cheap imitations by people who meant well but didn’t grasp that core idea. The versions designed not for personal use but for mass production. The orgies of ornamentation, the bad reproductions, the pieces made for people with more money than taste.

Unornamented does not have to mean uninteresting; interesting does not have to mean off-putting. In any era, in any style, good craftsmen have been at work. Some eras take more digging than others, but they’re there, finding new ways to solve old problems and solving the new ones that every generation invents. At the heart of things there’s always good design, good work, and good furniture.

Once it becomes a style? You can keep it.

Building a splay-legged table with hand tools

This is not a project blog, meaning that I don’t want to write a lot of photo-heavy step-by-step posts about how to build things. There are enough of those out there already. Some of them are very good. It isn’t my thing, and the bases, mostly, are covered.

Occasionally, though, a project requires my working through a process that I have not seen explained elsewhere, and I’d like to write it down for my own understanding and reference… and if I’m going to do that much, I figure someone else may benefit from my experience.

This table is one such project:

coffee table

While there are some good articles available on building a table with splayed legs, they’re written for machine work. Since I work almost entirely with hand tools—I don’t own a drill press or table saw—most of the advice, and indeed even the process, in such articles is useless to me. Here, then, are ten things I learned from designing and building a splay-legged coffee table.

First, I am assuming that you can build a basic four-legged square table with straight aprons. I’m not going to explain mortise and tenon joints. Nor did I photo-document every stage of the process; I was too busy trying to build the thing. If Fine Woodworking wants to pay me to build it again and write it up (ha!) we’ll talk.

Ready? Here we go.