Precision Woodworking

When I started out in woodworking every project was laid out in full scale on MDF on the floor on my hands and knees. I had a giant (shop-made) t-square, a good set of knee pads and a box of colored pencils (different color for each layer). These layouts were critical to my process. Having taken three years of drafting in school I was fairly proficient with drawing instruments and prided myself in being accurate. Every minute detail was worked in these layouts – from complex joinery to use of hardware and even some of the aesthetic decisions. Every project meant a new piece of MDF to be placed in my storage bin – after a while my storage bin would begin to bulge so from time to time I would have to perform a selective purging. This system served me well and I was quite content with it. But change was on the way. And as change often is, it came in small incremental pieces.
The first step in that change came while I was working at a large high-end commercial shop. At this shop there were nearly 100 employees on the floor – most of whom loved to buy tools – which we often did in bulk to get a good price. One time we purchased vernier calipers – not because we had a need for them but because it sounded like a really neat idea. So we had nearly one hundred woodworkers with calipers: and nothing to measure. After some discussion it was decided that all work coming out of the mill department (where I worked) would be subject to a standard of .005. Soon 1/32” seemed like a large number! This was great stuff and we all became a bit drunk with it – it was not long before someone bought a dial indicator (on magnetic base) to set the slip (suicide) knives on the shaper and not long after that we were setting the knives on the jointer with a dial indicator as well.
Working with calipers and dial indicators soon became a part of how I did things – it greatly increased my accuracy – especially with things such as intricate joinery. But change does not come easy for some. A few of the older guys did not buy calipers – in fact they took every opportunity to chastise us for using the new technology and speaking in thousandths. At one point I made a rather embarrassing mistake on a project. It was a ripe opportunity for one of these old guys to level his most damning insult at me – and I could see it coming as he walked over to me and said “I bet you own a calculator – don’t you! “.
A few years later I found myself back at HLD (Harry Lundstead Design) – a shop I had worked at years earlier building custom conference tables. I described my new position as “fireman”. Since I had left the company, they took my old job and divided it up amongst several people – no-one knew the entire process anymore. So I was hired back on swing shift – and my job, since I knew the entire process was to step in at any point and “put out the fire”.
Since I had left a CNC router had become a part of the process – so I learned how to operate it. This was not the CNC machines of today – this thing operated in DOS, which often meant entering coordinates and programming it myself.
This was another step in changing the way I approached woodworking. The opportunities the CNC opened up were immediately apparent. For instance – no more giant router trammels that stretched all the way across the shop and took several people to manage. It was now possible to run a 360” radius followed by a 360.0625” radius with extreme precision in a matter of 5 minutes verses several hours the old way!
The technology bug had now bitten me in a very big way. I was actively seeking new technologies and not waiting for them to bite me first.
Learning CAD was high on my list. But I had spent many years with the t-square and was quite efficient with it. So it was considerable time before I was faster with CAD and could fully retire my drawing instruments. CAD opened up a whole new world and was probably the biggest move forward of them all. Complex joinery and compound angles became much easier. I could draw a curved part from a chair and rotate that part so that it would fit into the smallest rectangle possible thus making the most efficient use of material. Within that rectangle the joinery could be placed within .001 “. With my Incra precision marking tools I could layout the joinery on a piece of wood to within 0.015625” (1/64”) – which would serve as the “rough layout”. With my Multi-router (an incredibly accurate machine) I could make a rough test cut. With my calipers I could then measure the cut and adjust the multi-router to within a couple of thousandths with my dial indicator.
A fundamental premise of woodworking had changed. Instead of fitting each part to the next I could, for the most part, make individual parts with a high degree of certainty that things would either fit on the first try with little or no fussing.
The combination of CAD and CNC has also dramatically changed the way I approach jig and template making. Jigs are easily made to hold odd and curved shapes while complex joinery is performed. A would-be tricky operation such as a pierced tsuba is now a simple matter.

But these new technologies have their limitations. If everything were done by machine with absolute precision – then everything would be rather lifeless and sterile. There must be some sign of the human hand in our work – there must be a little imperfection. What gives a person’s face character is the fact that one side is slightly different than the other. I let technology do what it does best – precision measuring and machining, but the pillowed ends of finger joints and ebony plugs are all shaped by hand – they are all just slightly different than the next piece. The same is true with my “straps” – final shaping is by hand and all are slightly irregular. The final sanding of a rounded edge is always done by hand.
Precision woodworking does not make new things possible it just makes things done the old way dramatically easier, thus greatly reducing the labor required and ultimately making things more affordable.
So embrace new technologies and let them do what they do best but let a little imperfection and character show in your work as well.

Design DNA

When contemplating a new design, I try to visualize the piece as having DNA. In other words it is a part of the organic world and the design elements are a product of its’ DNA.
When filtering a design through this lens there are a few questions to be asked:
How do the individual elements interact with one another? Do they look like they came from the same master plan?
What is the perceived structural role of the various elements and are those elements performing their duty?
These are not questions for the intellect – we must call on our emotional nature for the answer – we must close our eyes and let our imagination and intuition play out the scenario.

To illustrate the point, let’s take the leg indent detail from the Greene & Greene Blacker House living room furniture.
In my vision the indent detail has a perceived structural role to play in the design – it is a device used to visually anchor the design to the ground (just as many other classic bottom- of -leg details). The “indent” pushes down and transfers the visual weight of the piece to the very bottom of the leg. That bottom portion of the leg (below the indent) is thus receiving the entire weight of the piece. There must also be a sufficient amount of mass below the indent to visually support the given weight. The slight round-over/ taper below the supporting mass serves to visually contain the weight and not let it dissipate.
In nature everything is there for a purpose. When a design possesses DNA there is an economy in its details – nothing is superfluous.