Woodworking in 2018

I thought to write about the dichotomy occurring in present day woodworking. The clash between the growing movement towards traditional hand tool woodworking versus the rise in automation along with a plethora of machinery to expedite woodworking processes. This is from the perspective of a traditional woodworker wondering about how much current woodworking technology to embrace in his studio practice.  I write this because today we are bombarded on two fronts in woodworking. Go traditional with hand tools or go modern with the latest in technology or somehow combine the two. I lay out how I determined my own compromise and how I came to terms with the dilemma.

The machinery I speak of is becoming increasingly sophisticated to where an operator sitting alongside a CNC machine can quickly create components for a piece of furniture. 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? Can the use of power tools be combined with hand tools in a truly traditional woodworking shop? Would our woodworking forefathers have embraced machinery if it had 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. Skills which had been passed down through generations of woodworkers would be lost. Victory was achieved with the advent of the Arts & Crafts movement, but this was short-lived. Eventually, the use of machinery in woodworking won the battle resulting in the further distancing of woodworkers from their traditional craft. Over 100 years of woodworking production advancements later and traditional woodworking is once again being embraced. The reasons are similar to the repudiation of the Industrial Age with the only difference being that we are today on the cusp of full automation in production 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 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 for an entry level woodworker of which path to follow today. Is their work intended to be batched out or instead created as one-offs? The larger issue becomes the processes used to achieve this goal. The use of modern technology can be enticing, where visions of machines magically create components for furniture never ceases to amaze. Machinery manufacturers are constantly upgrading their offerings to where the learning curve for CNC is rapidly diminishing. This would be at the extreme end of full automation. At the traditional end, new and often improved releases of traditional hand tools continue to occur. High quality and precisely machined hand tools are widely available today. The single most common and necessary component in the traditional, hand tool equation is the necessity to manually push or pull a hand plane, saw or chisel in order to prepare wood, smooth wood or to create joinery. So a large component of manual labor is involved.

A woodworker with many years of experience may have come to terms with the direction they wish to follow. In many cases, they embrace 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, isn’t this why machinery was created, 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. 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 to embrace the latest in machinery 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 since learned to appreciate wood as a medium and not just to use it as a means to an end. The only machines I use today are effectively motorized hand tools, nothing sophisticated. This is where I draw the line.

In my studio practice, it is preferable for me 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 to dimension it. Afterwards, all processes in my furniture making incorporate the use of 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.

Workbench accessories… Pt. 2

After completing and successfully testing the portable board jack in the previous post, I decided to continue on with workbench workholding accessories. At this point, two clamping attachments came to mind. The first, an edge dog, alternatively known as a bench puppy, was modelled after a College Of The Redwoods derived design. This particular design was gained from a Timothy Coleman article on this type of workholding device, also derived from a College Of The Redwoods design.

The premise of the edge dog is to use both the edge of a workbench top and one dog hole to hold a board on edge. This is performed through a unique design that hangs off the edge of the workbench top. When used in conjunction with a tail-vise, the edge dog excels at clamping the free end of a long or wide board along the edge of a workbench for jointing or other bench operations.

The edge dogs are customized to the spacing of the dog holes on a workbench, this would be the distance from the edge of the workbench to the leading row of dog holes. The measurement I refer to can be seen in the following images. I applied a leather face to the edge dogs and also drove a reinforcing wedge into the 3/4 in. dowel. The edge dogs are a combination of beech and maple, essentially what I had lying around in these dimensions.

A good example of how an edge dog can be used to hold a board on edge can be seen in the following image. One end is held by a edge dog whereas the other end is an add-on to a twin-screw vise which I discuss next. Instead of clamping a board to the surface of a workbench, the edge dog is used to clamp the board along the workbench edge and therefore at a more reasonable and lower height suitable for handplaning. Having a pair of these edge dogs allows either side of the workbench to be used. The edge dogs are created with opposing configurations as shown above.

My current workbenches do not incorporate dedicated tail vises. In place, I use a Veritas Twin-screw vise which performs as a tail vise when clamping boards on their face. When it comes to clamping boards on edge, the twin-screw vise can also be used along with bench dogs. The edge of the workpiece would be then sitting on the workbench top. However, this raises the height of the board considerably and is not very conducive to handplaning or jointing an edge of a board. Ideally, the edge of a board should be slightly higher than the workbench surface to effectively perform handplane operations. With this in mind, I created this outboard add-on to the twin-screw vise which extends the width of the vise movable jaw past the edge of the workbench.

Shown above, this newly designed outboard add-on accessory is an addition to the twin-screw movable jaw. In effect, the vise now becomes an enhanced tail vise capable of clamping boards on edge along the side of a workbench. The clamping is done in conjunction with the previously mentioned edge dog. Images of a board being clamped between these two accessories are shown below.

In these photos I am jointing the edge of a white ash board. I was surprised at how tightly the board is clamped with minimal tension applied to the twin screw vise. The friction from the leather pads contribute to this as slightly more tension was necessary before applying the leather pads. The outboard extension to the twin-screw vise is removable and can be adapted to either side of the twin-screw vise. I am left-handed so having it located to the right of the vise as shown, is more practical. For right-handed use, the opposite edge of the workbench would be used for jointing. As an added bonus, there is no racking of the twin-screw vise regardless of the clamping pressure I apply to the outboard extension.

Workbench accessories… Pt. 1

Soon after completing the Moxon Vise project and creating the illustrated drawings, build steps, images, video… I decided to work on a few other workbench accessories.

Workbench accessories – any workbench add-ons that facilitate the holding and clamping of boards or panels. Boards or panels can be mounted on their edge and along their length. You get the idea…

Workbenches can be large in size, massive in weight and beautiful looking but their ability to hold and clamp boards is one of their most important criteria. So holding or clamping a long, wide board along its length can be a challenging tasks of a workbench. In an earlier workbench I incorporated a sliding board jack that worked in conjunction with the face vise. This has and continues to work well since I had built this workbench from the ground up and allowed for the addition of the sliding board jack. With two of my newer slab-type workbenches, adding a sliding board jack was much more of a challenge. I did not want to modify the workbenches or drill screw holes through the tops. Adding an apron or skirt with dog holes along the length of the workbench top was an option, but this involved modifying the workbench itself.

Enter the portable board jack. I designed it to easily attach to the underside of a slab-type workbench top where it serves to support the free end of a long plank or board. It can either be left attached to the workbench or removed when no longer necessary. It can also be moved across the length of the workbench, relocated to the opposite side of a workbench, or moved to another workbench. The nice part is no modifications are necessary to the workbench.

After a period of testing, I was pleasantly surprised at how well it works. It is completely unobtrusive and designed to accept standard 3/4 inch or 20 mm accessories such as surface clamps, bench dogs and shop-made planing stops. The portable board jack can be adapted to any slab-type workbench top without an existing apron or skirt as can be seen in the images. A face vise at one end keeps the board securely clamped on edge. Jointing the edge of long boards has become so much easier and second nature to me now.

The hole arrangement on the portable board jack is optimized for the work I do but can be modified if necessary. I no longer give any thought to attaching or clamping a long board on edge and along its length to my workbenches. Often, I simply need a peg to be able to rest the free end of a board on. This allows me to quickly and easily flip the board around to work both long edges.

Now, I just selected my most-often used side of a workbench to work on and leave the portable board jack attached. In the future, I will possibly be creating another board jack for my other, similar workbench. This adds to the versatility since it will no longer be necessary to move the board jack from bench to bench.

Next up in the forthcoming installment or Part 2, a couple of cool bench accessories  that continue with the theme of attaching and clamping long boards to a workbench. These are boards that are too long to simply clamp to a face vise. It just makes it so much more pleasant to perform handplaning or hand tool tasks once a board or panel is securely clamped. I like for this to be straightforward so I can focus on the task I need to perform instead of spending needless time on securely attaching and clamping a board to a workbench.