Woodworking in 2017

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. It is from the perspective of a traditional woodworker wondering about how much current woodworking technology to embrace in his studio practice.  I wrote this because we are bombarded on two fronts in woodworking today. 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, components 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 therefore 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 pursue 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, 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 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 technological and production-oriented world.

The evolution…

Several years ago, 2006 to be exact, Michael Dresdner contacted me to ask about profiling my work and practice in an upcoming Woodworker’s Journal online publication. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity to talk about my woodworking and how I got to where I was at the time. I was transitioning from primarily being a box maker to furniture making and the reasons for this shift in direction were discussed in the interview.

In that period, I had completed a series of courses at a high-end furniture making school and began to use hand tools more in my work. I recall that the year 2006 was an important juncture in my woodworking. I had embraced the Krenov philosophy and his methods of work. Reading and attending the fine furniture making school inspired me to increase the complexity and scale of my woodworking. I also learned to slow down my woodworking and focus instead on each and every piece rather than applying myself to creating in batch mode ( multiples). So my direction changed dramatically in the years 2006-2008 to where I now design + build one-off furniture pieces exclusively.

The most important takeaway from the interview would likely be the last line: “If you are tired of your day job, Pirollo advises, do what I did. Pursue your passion instead.” I completely believe in this quote to this day. It is never to early to pursue your passion. Get a head start, so if unforeseen circumstances affect your livelihood (career), you will be prepared. Early on my hi-tech career, I pursued many woodworking courses at the college level, set up my own workshops and struggled and worked at learning woodworking. After experiencing a total of 3 downsizings, I gave up on my hi-tech career and moved on to a career in woodworking. This had been my Plan B all along 🙂 The important part is that I was well prepared to launch a second career. You never know where fate will lead you!

I’ll let you read the article.
Norman Pirollo: The Refined Edge of White Mountain

Hand Tool Class

– Hand Tool Class can be Downloaded or Streamed
– over 3.5 hours with extra $24.00 in plans
– 24 video lessons from workshop basics to critical hand tools skills
– lessons can be followed in any order and stopped and repeated at any time
– all lessons are included in single price
– printable reference material included
Dovetail Jig Plan + Tutorial ($12 value) included in purchase
– Shooting Board Plan + Tutorial ($12 value) included in purchase

The video lessons include step by step hand tool sequences. Each lesson guides you through the learning process to develop the hand tool skills you are seeking. This Hand Tool Class is derived from twenty years of woodworking and furniture making expertise. The class is based on skills developed and used in a fully functioning furniture making studio. The class features separate modules on the following topics:

– setting up a workshop for woodworking
– up to date information on workshop safety
– hand tool overview
– lessons on handplanes and chisels
– lessons on clamps, hammers and handsaws
– lessons on marking gauges, rulers and squares
– learn to create handmade dovetails using a dovetail jig
– learn to make and use a shooting board
– learn to make and use bench hooks
– dovetail jig plan + shooting board plan ($24 value)
– hand tools class covers everything you need to get going with hand tools

24 video lessons included with purchase of Hand Tool Class. 24 HD  High Resolution Video modules + Dovetail Jig Plan + Shooting Board Plan for $39.00

Hand Tool Class $39  (Download or Stream)
 

Norman maintains a blog of ongoing projects in his studio at Pirollo Design Blog as well as having written and published four books in the past year. Some of the books and magazines where authors furniture, work methods and philosophy have been featured:

The Wood Artist: Creating Art Through Wood (New Art Press)
From Hi-Tech to Lo-Tech: A Woodworker’s Journey (New Art Press)
Start Your Own Woodworking Business (New Art Press)
Rooted: Contemporary Studio Furniture (Schiffer Publishing)
IDS15 (Studio North)
Canadian Woodworking magazine Jan. 2015
Our Homes magazine Fall 2014
IDS14 (Studio North)
NICHE Magazine Winter 2013
Fine Woodworking Magazine  4 Bench Jigs for Handplanes  2009
Fine Woodworking Magazine  Essential Shopmade Jigs 2009
Woodwork magazine
Wood Art Today 2 (Schiffer Books)
500 Cabinets ( Lark Books)
Studio Furniture: Today’s Leading Woodworkers (Schiffer Books)
Canadian Interiors Design Source Guide
Ottawa Life magazine (Profile,work) 2012
Panoram Italia magazine
Our Homes magazine

Course Overview (short, lo-res) below.

Cabinet Build Class

I have recently compiled a series of 16 videos into an online class. The subject was a recent display cabinet. The design and build of the striking Krenov-inspired display cabinet seen above is discussed and demonstrated. The contemporary styled display cabinet features veneered sides and doors. The veneers selected are highly figured although they can be substituted with alternative veneers. The frame and panel back adheres to the Krenov principle of properly finishing the back of the cabinet. James Krenov is widely known for his classic cabinets on stand as well as the incredible attention to detail he brought to furniture making. He also brought a unique philosophy and vision to furniture making of which I heed and practice. A large part of this veneered display cabinet has been created using an assortment of hand tools although some machinery is used in the initial wood preparation stage. Follow me as I describe the steps involved in creating a masterpiece veneered cabinet on stand.

The following topics are covered in detail in this 16 part design and build class:

  1. Inspiration and design of the display cabinet
  2. An overview discussing components of the cabinet
  3. Wood selection and resawing veneers used in cabinet
  4. The advantages of using veneers over solid wood
  5. Detailed information on creating and using resawn veneers
  6. The process of applying veneers to the sides and doors
  7. Implementing bake-ins to create panels with hardwood edges
  8. Hardwood edging and the veneer press
  9. The veneer press and joinery used in the cabinet
  10. Card scrapers and the use of a shop-made drilling guide
  11. Dowel drilling guide in-depth
  12. The case construction process
  13. Frame and panel construction of the back panel
  14. Back panel detail and installation
  15. Final case assembly of the display cabinet
  16. Installation process of knife hinges for the doors

Each video segment addresses one aspect of the cabinet build. The design process as well as the methodology behind the build are addresses. This is not simply a class on how to build a cabinet on stand. The class will inform you of a similar design process that James Krenov used in his own work. Since I am an ardent follower of James Krenov, the practices I use in this cabinet build closely follow those of James Krenov. Discussions and demonstrations describe how the design of this display cabinet originated and the design considerations in its build. Information on wood selection and preparation as well as the joinery used in this cabinet is covered in detail. Tips and techniques acquired over several years of creating this style of cabinet are shared in this class. The process of creating and applying veneers is covered as well as information on the installation of knife hinges. More info in the Tutorials section.