The other day I was driving down the road and a bird shot in front of me and tried to outrun my truck. It was a majestic sight, the large wingspan, the sleek feathers capturing the air creating just the right amount of lift to keep it airborne, while maintaining just enough speed to keep ahead of me. On the radio Skynyrd belted out the chorus of Freebird and for a moment I thought I could fly free myself. (“I’m as free as a bird now… And this bird you can not change…”)
I had a terrible time getting all the pieces of that bird out of my truck’s radiator.
It just goes to show, what may seem like perfection may not be suited to every purpose. The light, hollow bones of that bird were perfect for flight. But they were useless in a collision with my grill.
So it is with woodworking. I’m always trying to find the perfect tool, the ideal machine capable of performing the most tasks. A table saw that can do it all with the proper jig additions. A router that can cut profiles, joinery, shapes and even signs. I spend so much time trying to squeeze every bit of function out of every tool that I sometimes forget that the perfect solution may found in many tools rather than in just one.
A block plane can smooth a surface, tune a tenon, fit a finger joint. But do I really need to make a jig for using that block plane to sharpen my pencils? That’s what I mean about the tendency we sometimes have to look for complicated solutions to simple problems.
Yesterday I saw a guy use a chainsaw to cut dovetails. They came out just as you’d expect. I sat there for a few moments as the gears in my head turned, a chainsaw dovetail jig design taking shape. Then it hit me, maybe the best tool for dovetails isn’t a chainsaw. I mean, just because it may be possible doesn’t mean it’s smart.
Some jigs make our work easier, faster, or more fun. Others make us wonder if doing something a new way is worth risking our fingers. I can flush trim a dowel joint with a circular saw, but is it worth taking the blade guard off to do it? When we design jigs, we have to remember that safety starts with the design process, and sometimes we have to step back and think of what could happen rather than what we expect will happen. Where will that blade be when you finish the cut? Make sure that’s not the place you will be holding the jig. What will happen if that work piece slips during the cut? Make sure you have a hold down to catch it.
We design a lot of jigs on episodes of Blue Collar Woodworking (which some say is the best woodworking show since the invention of wood). But we also try to make it the safest woodworking show since the invention of stitches. And that always starts with the design process.
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