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 existed in their historical period.
Interestingly, components of this debate also occurred during the advent of the Industrial Age and 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, 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!
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.