I believe it was Bob Dylan who said, “The times, they are a-changing”. I tend to agree for two reasons: First, anyone who can become a musical icon without the ability to sing has to be a genius. But more importantly because, in my reasonably short time on this earth, I’ve noticed the “a-changing” first hand. Since I spend most of my time in the workshop, it’s natural that I’ve seen a great deal of changes in there. I used to think of the shop as a safe haven from the advance of civilization, but like the cold air through the cracks around the windows and doors, the outside world has managed to seep in. Joy came to work last week wearing “skinny jeans”, a trend among the young and, well… skinny. She is neither. Randy got his ears pierced. He doesn’t wearing rings in them, he just got the holes. Classic Randy.
Not all “progress” has been bad. We have a television in the shop, even cable. Now I can watch Roy Underhill cut himself while I cut myself. With wireless internet I can check one of the bazillion woodworking sites for advice at any point in a project. (My favorite is stumpynubs.com) My iPad is a digital library of woodworking books and magazines, all at my fingertips. My laptop can control two of the cameras we use to film in the shop, and my smart phone can control another. I have a little Bluetooth headset I can put on when I’d rather listen to music than hear what people are saying to me.
And the wonders of technology have made their way into our tools too. SawStop already made a table saw that won’t cut fingers and they’re said to be developing a miter saw, even a band saw for all your hotdog cutting needs. Rockler made a compact CNC machine for the small shop, and now they have a computer operated router fence. Even the truly “traditional” tools have been upgraded. Veritas and Lee Nielson have revolutionized hand planes while Hock and IBC have brought cryogenic technology to our tool steel. Lathe speeds are digitally controlled and the tools are carbide tipped. Sharpening is done with diamonds and specially designed honing films. And most of this has happened in the past decade!
It’s undeniable that technology has invaded our workshops. The only question is whether it’s a good thing. To me, there’s a lot of pleasure to be found in the old tools and techniques. A properly sharpened hand plane cutting a tissue thin shaving is one of the greatest joys in the woodworking world. But if advanced tool steel can keep that plane sharp longer, I’m all for it. If a table saw can cut with an amazing level of precision, while keeping my fingers off the shop floor, that’s a win-win situation. I’ve always been a technology junkie, I make a living on the internet, for goodness sake. But there are limits, even for me, and especially when it comes to woodworking.
CNC woodworking is a good example. I have absolute no problem with it, don’t get me wrong. But as these machines get more advanced, at what point does it become something other than a craft? If a computer cuts all the parts for you, are you really woodworking, or are you just assembling a puzzle? Sure, you still have to design the project, and prepare the stock which may involve table saws and planers and various other woodworking tools. But how long will it be before we’re just downloading the project from the internet, throwing some MDF on the table and letting the computer do it all?
That’s the future of furniture manufacturing, there’s no doubt in my mind. Companies like Ikea will be selling completely computer manufactured pieces, untouched by human hands until the consumer opens the box, some assembly required. It may be made out of wood, but it won’t be woodworking. Technology will have completly taken over the craft and turned it into the equivalent of microwaving a TV dinner and calling it cooking. A generation of kids raised on their I-pads will have little use for woodworking when they grow up. Why make it when they can buy it, sit on it, and play video games? The “modern” workshop will become a rarity and cookie cutter furniture will be the norm in all but the wealthiest homes. With new 3-D printing technology, and the growing environmental movement, even wood will become obsolete. Enjoy your oak cabinets while you can, soon they will be spit out of a print head as one big piece of composite material. Woodworking icons like Abram and Underhill… and Nubs… will be a forgotten memory.
Then again, maybe not. Maybe people will get sick of the cookie cutter furniture and our natural human instinct to create will overcome our kids’ instinct to stare at LCD screens. Maybe the trend that’s leading us farther and farther from traditional woodworking tools and techniques will reverse. Technology is here to stay, no doubt about it. But maybe, just maybe it won’t take us too far away from those tissue thin shavings. Maybe our workshop walls will hold it at bay, allowing just the right amount to seep through the cracks, just enough to improve the craft without destroying it.
Or maybe robots will take over the earth and we’ll all be doomed. I suppose time will tell…
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