Archive for the Category ◊ Ideas ◊

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• Friday, April 21st, 2017

perfection?

Perfection. We might think we want it in our woodworking, yet it does not exist. But for the craftsperson, concern with perfection, far from being a benign wish, has a dark side – it can distract you from understanding excellence.

Consider the example of a simple straight line, such as the straight edge on a board. You may think you are at least trying to plane that edge “perfectly” straight. Upon inevitably failing, you say, “OK, I’ll try again,” this time harder and more carefully.

But where is the end point? It certainly is not perfection. You have failed in that pursuit, and you always will. The perfect becomes the enemy of even the good as hesitancy, frustration, or obsessiveness creep in. Continuing this way will retard your growth in the craft.

There is a better way. It is to understand and pursue excellence. There is a range of excellence, and you ought to recognize when you achieving within it. It is also important to accept when you have fallen short – of excellence, not perfection – and then take realistic corrective action.

So, that straight edge is not, in fact, ever perfectly straight but instead has a trace of concavity along its length because you know any convexity would result, for example, in an inferior edge joint. Excellence in this case is understanding an appropriate range of camber, and being able to reliably produce and assess it.

The same principle can be applied to nearly every critical process in woodworking.

One of the worst manifestations of the perfection delusion is the “perfect every time” come-on used by tool marketers and, particularly regrettably, in some instructional materials. A woodworker who then inevitably achieves something less than perfect is apt to incorrectly suppose that he did something wrong, or doubt his capability.

Awaiting perfection, your work is never finished, or maybe never again attempted. Better to work toward excellence. Certainly, distinguish it from mediocre. That is the realistic and hard work required in the real world of craft.

Category: Ideas  | 2 Comments
Author:
• Saturday, April 01st, 2017

I was asked not long ago by a major software development company, whose product line includes architectural and design software, to consult on an exciting project that is now in the latter stages of development. Of course, I cannot name the company, which I will call “G, Inc.” (No, not them). However, I do not need to hide my excitement – this has the potential to change how we approach our woodworking.

It is a furniture genome project of sorts. G, Inc. has compiled an enormous data bank of the elements of style of countless pieces of furniture. This includes proportions, motifs, woods, hardware, characteristic curves, secondary materials, joinery, carvings, and much more.

I worked with two G, Inc. project leaders, an architect and a programmer, who explained that the data is drawn from sophisticated visually mapped analyses of furniture from numerous sources. The data exists as visual files with verbal tags such as “cabriole legs,” or “hand-hammered hardware,” and so forth. There are also broader categorizations such as “few curves,” or “carvings,” and so forth.

Here is how you interact with the software. Again, I think this is really exciting.

You start with a piece of furniture that you want to make such as a “tea table,” or, simply, a “small table.” Then, to move quickly in narrowing your preferences, you enter a style category such as American Queen Anne c. 1740, Arts and Crafts, or Nakashima.

But here is the really cool part. If you lack any appreciation for style, you can sift through displays of furniture elements, accepting those that appeal to you and rejecting those that do not. You do not have to conjure anything of your own. The software detects your style tendencies and through the magic of Artificial Intelligence decides what you really like. In short order, you will have your table design. All that remains is to build it.

And even for building, it coaches you through everything. You set a slider scale for joinery ranging from strictly traditional (e.g. mortise and tenon joints) to anything-goes modern, which might include pocket screws, for example. The result is a 3D CAD rendition of the table, plan and elevation drawings, and full-scale drawings of the joinery and details.

The developers are giddy that you will not have to use your imagination at all. After all, your job is to follow the Masters and this program makes it pleasantly easy to do just that. This way, you can be assured that you will spend your efforts making only real furniture – the tried-and-true good stuff. There is no need to work through your own ideas, which are probably inferior anyway.

As with all software, this currently contains a glitch, which is that it only seems to be operative on one calendar day of the year.

Today.

“You just have to try; you have to use your imagination.”

–Sam Maloof

Category: Ideas  | 8 Comments
Author:
• Tuesday, February 28th, 2017

workbench

Who is learning? Who is a student of woodworking? All of us, I contend, are, or at least should be, and almost always.

Now, the healthy innocence of a student, not to be confused with a lack of confidence, is apparent when you start learning a new fundamental skill, such as paring with a long paring chisel. The same is true when you apply solid basic skills to a completely new task, such as using your layout, sawing, and chiseling skills to execute unfamiliar joinery, such as a multiple mortise and tenon.

However, the presence of a learning situation is not so apparent at other times. An example, might be when you use a skill set that you have long mastered, such as cutting a through dovetail joint, in a different circumstance. You are very good at making that joint but this time the wood is different, a bit harder perhaps, and your customary slope ratio creates problems. You discover that you must also adjust your tolerances, tooling, and expectations.

Thus, this too is a learning situation but you may not recognize it as such. You are, in effect, overconfident. Worse, you are mentally closed but you should be open.

I believe that an absolute requirement for learning is to first recognize and accept that I do not, right now, know. Experience and previous successes must not obscure this.

To learn – and learn, we must – we have to see the door, open the door, and walk through it.

The late, great basketball coach John Wooden: “It is what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

Category: Ideas  | 3 Comments
Author:
• Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017

cheap tool, great tool

The most crucial impediment to learning woodworking skills that I have observed when advising woodworkers is the use of cheap, inappropriate, or poorly prepared tools. It is amazing how often student woodworkers – and this really includes all of us to varying degrees – are baffled by poor results from bad tools. Worse yet, the worker blames himself.

Well, it’s not your fault.

Sure, you can saw a tenon with a home center backsaw meant for rough carpentry – “just practicing,” you say – but not well and not reliably. What’s more, you will restrict learning the skill. You can also make that hardware-store chisel, shown above, fairly sharp and chop dovetails with it, but the edge will not last long, so you almost certainly will end up doing much of the work when it is dull or chipped. More subtly, you will not appreciate the final paring cuts that produce an excellent fit because you just cannot do them with control.

Do not blame yourself.

Though a skilled worker might get by with modest tools that are artfully modified, there are thresholds in the quality and fitness of a tool below which good work becomes nearly impossible.

Here is what to do, and it’s simple. Obtain tools that are appropriate to the task, and properly prepare, tune, and maintain them. Get a few very good tools – core tools – start woodworking, and then gradually get additional very good tools.

This will impose some limitations on the projects that you attempt, at least for a while, but that is better than attempting more ambitious projects with inadequate tools that lead to discouraging results, hampered learning, and worst of all, blaming yourself. Remember, an excellent general use tool will perform better at a wide range of tasks than multiple, more specific but mediocre tools.

If you do take the wrong road and slog on with lousy tools, then that will be your fault.

Category: Ideas  | 4 Comments
Author:
• Sunday, December 18th, 2016

business card holders

You’re a woodworker. Alas, you have less money than you would if you were not a woodworker and thus expended your effort on more remunerative activity. And Christmas is around the corner.

The dilemma is apparent. The solution, of course, is the woodworker’s solution to everything: you can make things, so make something.

To happily fit the bill, I designed and made these business card holders. The rabbeted front section is edge joined to the back plate, 4 1/8″ wide. The angle of the base is 8°, which is also reflected in the top edges. The primary wood is curly Claro walnut, finished with an oil-varnish mix. The mountainous inlay banding (maple, ebony and sapele) is all face grain, available from Inlay Banding.

Merry Christmas, dear readers.

Category: Ideas  | 6 Comments
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• Thursday, November 24th, 2016
Thanksgiving

Wood
From trees,
Ideas
From a free mind,
Tools and a workshop
From our labor.

And hands to put these together
To make things.

Gratefulness builds happiness.

To make things
Ad majorem Dei gloriam.

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Author:
• Tuesday, October 04th, 2016

miscellaneous thoughts

Two nearly magical things in the woodshop are sharpness and good lighting. They are easily neglected, yet you are instantly a better woodworker when you attend to them.

I think most of us have an inner Jobs – the idea guy who will not be bound by conventional limitations – and an inner Woz – the engineer guy who sweats the details to get things done in the real world. It is best to listen to both of those inner voices for meaningful, creative projects to get done.

It is just a matter of personal preference, but I keep my shop neat out of necessity since it is rather small but more so because the orderliness helps keep my mind clear while working.

What should you build next? May I suggest this: that which you really, really want to build; what powerfully compels you; what will have lasting meaning to you. And I bet that is not another box for your chisels – so skip that.

When you make a mistake, what you do afterward is probably going to have the greater effect on the project. Is this a bump in the road or a catastrophe? Pause and assess.

Parasitic vermin who rip off blog content to populate their bogus websites are thieves, plain and simple. Please do not patronize their sites.

Don’t get me wrong, I love hand tools, but I bet very big machines were used to fell the tree, saw the log, and so forth. Our essential reasons for using hand tools are largely different from those of woodworkers in the 18th century. My point is simply to keep things practical and avoid purism. We can improve on the 18th century.

Brace yourself, here is a Beatles-style song created with artificial intelligence. Yes, it is awful, because it is a conglomeration of formulaic snippets with no consequential cohesive structure, no grande ligne, and hence, no impact. That is a powerful aspect we humans can bring to a creative work. Don’t be artificial.

Being cognizant of whether you are shaping wood (e.g. squaring, flattening, cutting a joint or curve) versus smoothing the surface of wood, or both at once, is a simple habit of mental clarity that makes woodworking processes more directed and reliable.

I just do not get tired of wood; I love it. This too:

White Mts.

Category: Ideas  | One Comment
Author:
• Sunday, July 31st, 2016

in the shop

I was listening to a Pandora station in the shop today and it got me to thinking.

Pandora is a wonderful music app that characterizes each song or track of recorded music using “hundreds of musical details . . . melody, harmony, instrumentation, rhythm, vocals, lyrics . . . and more” based on the analyses of Pandora’s team of expert musicians.

With this information, Pandora plays songs that it figures you will like based on “stations” that you set up. The play lists of your stations get refined as you tell Pandora more of your preferences via your continuing “like” and “don’t like” inputs, which the app remembers.

Among my stations (Motown, SRV, etc.), one of my favorites during exacting hand tool work is solo classical guitar music. I’ve guided that station to play lots of J. S. Bach’s unaccompanied violin, cello, and lute music transcribed for guitar. Having just given a thumbs-up to a few tracks of Bach, Pandora then presented some similar sounding tracks, which made perfect sense based on the music’s objectified elements.

But I thought the tracks, analyzed to be similar to Bach, were pretty crappy. Yet Pandora’s system is very sophisticated and this is no knock on Pandora; I highly recommend it.

Thinking theoretically, if you took every detail of Bach’s music, every element, every nuance, everything, well, then I suppose you would have Bach – and nothing else. But wait; Bach already did that, as only he could. That’s why his name is on the music.

OK, you’ve stayed with me this far but “Rob,” you say, “what the heck does this have to do with woodworking?”

The things you make are not defined by how well you fit dovetails, or how nice your well-tuned planes produce surfaces, or even the woods you choose. Your pieces are not fully definable by style, even your style. Each piece you make is ultimately definable only by itself – all of it, and all of it together, as it exists. Just like the music, there are limits to how much you can characterize or analyze it before you essentially reconstruct it.

That’s the word: construct. You do that when you design and build something. Just like the music tracks, it has innumerable characteristics but cannot be truly described except by the whole of it – what you built.

How grateful we should be, to make something – and sign it.

Category: Ideas  | 2 Comments
Author:
• Friday, April 01st, 2016

Good news for hand tool woodworkers has arrived from the West coast. As we all know, it is very difficult to sell high quality craft work at a price commensurate with the skills and dedication imbued by the craftsperson, particularly when a great deal of handwork is involved. Woodworkers are particularly troubled by this.

To remedy this injustice, a bill was introduced last week in the California state legislature to ensure fairness in the pricing of handmade crafts. It is the product of much research and planning among legislators and leaders in the crafts community, and all are excited that handwork artisans will finally get their fair share.

The rationale cited by those supporting the pending legislation is quite compelling. First, handcraft is an important part of American culture and must be preserved and encouraged. Advocates claim precedence for this by noting the Japanese government’s role in the preservation of traditional crafts.

Second, of economic concern, small shop artisans are not receiving a fair living wage for their efforts and talents. If you’ll excuse the metaphorical pun, the failure of the invisible hand of the market will be corrected by the fist of government justice.

Finally, of environmental concern, handwork produces a smaller carbon footprint than machine work and reduces landfill waste because the products last much longer.

Everyone wins.

Sources in the legislature say the administration of the law would be remarkably simple and work as follows. If a craft article is produced with at least 79% of the labor done by hand, on a time basis, the article must be priced to yield an effective hourly rate of at least $19.37 for the maker. (The hourly rate is still being vigorously debated.) If it cannot be sold for this price, the state will make up the difference directly to the maker if the price is set or adjusted by the maker, or to the purchaser in the form of a rebate if the maker accepts only the state-mandated price and the purchaser can demonstrate financial burden.

Each craftsperson in the program would have to be certified as a hand maker by a new state agency, tentatively titled the Handmade March to Equality Restitution (HAMMER), staffed with experts in the fields of business and craftwork. Certification will be granted after a detailed inspection of the maker’s shop along with video documentation of the maker at work, and be renewed biannually. Of course, only high-end craftspeople who are consistently offering work that is deemed to be a significant contribution to society will be accepted.

Advocates are currently trying to include special considerations for crafts sourced from indigenous peoples and other select groups.

Bids for the development of an appropriate logo for the program have already been solicited. How about something like this?

The bill was introduced in the state House by Rep. Ino Beternyu, while a companion bill in the Senate was introduced by Sen. Duwut Itelia. Though many details remain to be ironed out, the crafts community and the public at large have been reassured that the best experts are working on every imaginable detail and the roll out will be unbelievably smooth.

 

. . . Once again, the government is here to help, and as Milton Friedman rolls over in his grave and takes note of the date of this post, I ask: Seriously, did I have you going for just a little while?

Category: Ideas  | 9 Comments
Author:
• Thursday, March 10th, 2016

blog

Every once in a long while on this blog, your devoted scribe sweeps off the sawdust to see how this little blog is doing. According to the stats counter program, Heartwood has, since its inception, received about 2.5 million legitimate visits (i.e. humans, not crawlers, robots, and so forth) and more than 7 million page views.

The main message here is: thank you, dear readers. Special thanks to those who have posted comments. I will not be shy about encouraging comments – they add interest for all readers, and give me a sense of connection with woodworkers out there. I also enjoy the many woodworking questions emailed by readers, though when appropriate, I suggest present the inquiry as a comment on the blog so the information can be shared among readers.

Content on Heartwood now includes almost 160,000 words, which is the length of two to three non-fiction books, and more than 800 original photographs. Remember to check the Series Topics tab (under the header photo) for groups of posts on single topics. In the past year, I’ve posted about one-third less than usual, due to less available time, but not due to running out of things to say. I’m going to try to pick it up soon. As always, I’ll offer real-deal content “from the sawdust and shavings of my shop,” not armchair woodworking.

Blogging (by the way, I’ve never liked that word; it sounds like something you do uncontrollably when you’re ill), including woodworking blogging, is certainly not as vibrant as several years ago. Other media, particularly social media and video posting have taken their shares of the communications universe. Still, I think a good blog is a useful and enjoyable medium to share woodworking information and ideas, and interest on this one does not seem to have waned.

Thus, again, thank you, readers.

Coming up is a series on edge-to-edge joints. Happy woodworking.

A.M.D.G.

Category: Ideas  | 8 Comments