It happened again today! Upon showing an acquaintance a newly completed piece of furniture he said, “Boy I’ll bet you have a whole shop full of machines!” I get this a lot and I always wonder how best to respond. If I say “Well, yes I do have machinery but most of my work is done by hand,” most people today seem to stop listening part way through my response. They only hear the “Well, yes I do..” part of my comment. If on the other hand I were to say “Well I like to think it is my skill and hand work that you are admiring and not my tool collection,” I think I’d put people off. They’d go away thinking “Wow that guy really thinks he’s something doesn’t he?”
I suppose it shouldn’t bug me because at least the questioner is interested enough to ask. However, it does bug me! Most people today are so far removed from hand skills they can only imagine a piece of furniture popping out of the end of a big machine in some factory like some sort of giant extrusion, just chopped off at predetermined intervals! I’ve spent the better part of my life learning and refining hand skills, design skills and material skills. Everyone likes to be recognized for their abilities, especially when they are well beyond being the guy at the back of the machine that catches the extrusions and shoves them in a big box.
Now don’t get me wrong, I do have a full complement of woodworking machinery, but machinery only does so much. It is faster to saw a board on a table saw or band saw most of the time. The current crop of 5 axis CNC routers can reproduce virtually any shape provided you can convert the design into a language the computer can read. What the machines cannot do, and it is my sincere hope they never can, is to be able to read the direction of the grain on a piece of walnut. Machines cannot recognize the beauty in the location of a knot or other defect and capitalize on the beauty of these things to make an outstanding piece of furniture.
Back in the middle of the 15th century, and throughout the first 25 years of the 19th century, we find what is recognized as the very finest furniture design and construction ever produced by mankind! Furniture was produced without the benefit of computers, table saws or even electricity for that matter. Many a craftsman couldn’t even read or write. Makers such as Thomas Chippendale, Duncan Phyfe, or the father son team of John and Thomas Seymour or any of the scores of nameless craftspeople who produced furniture completely by hand rival anything we make today. The furniture makers in places like Paris France, London England, Florence Italy, not to mention Boston, Philadelphia, and New York City designed and created furniture we to this day still admire, value and reproduce. These folks understood wood; they understood grain, humidity and wood movement. They understood how to bring out the beauty of the material they worked and they knew what wood to use for what projects. They also knew how to use the simplest of edge tools to bring out the beauty of swirling grain patterns or to smooth surfaces with clarity that even today are not possible to replicate by any machine.
So while I understand that today machines do most everything for us, they cannot do what trained eyes and hands can. Starting with the next SeaFeather Studio newsletter, I will begin a series of articles to help our readers understand some of the non-electric tools I use to create the furniture. We’ll even look at the design process if I don’t bore you to death before we get that far! Next month I will show you one of my favorite tools, my Chevalet de Marquetrie, a 17th century French tool that I use in all my veneer and marquetry work! Till then remember; don’t run with a sharp edged tool in your hand, and unless you like splinters, try not to rub wood against the grain!