Earlier, there was a thread on Michael Fortune’s “design for
An example of his approach - the design of a hand mirror and the jigs to
permit relatively unskilled people, using readily available and
relatively inexpensive hand held power tools, to produce multiples of
them. Morris Dovey noted that a CNC machine could make them without all
the jigs Fortune came up with. My repsonse was that what would
distinguish the hand and jigs pieces from the CNC pieces was soul, one
would have some and the other would not.
That raised an interesting question.
If it’s OK to use power joiners, planers, table saw,
bandsaw and the like to do the “grunt work”,
where does the grunt work stop and the craftsmansip,
with the “soul” that goes with it, begin?
Morris asked if the grunt work stopped - say at 0.0012” from the final
finished piece. He implied that once the concept was developed to the
point that a CNC machine could be used to make the piece - the rest was
grunt work -the “soul” in a piece coming from the mind of the designer,
not his or her hands, or anyone else’s hands for that matter.
I noted that there are some things that don’t lend themselves to CNC
machine work - undercuts, flowing curves and the like. Morris noted
that a 3 1/2 axis CNC machine, with the right tooling, could do that
kind of thing as well.
I thought about that. With enough technology - and money - almost
anything a craftsman could do could probably also done by automated
machines. So what was it that was missing with the automated approaoch?
I found the answer in the March-April 2006 issue of Woodworker West
(www.woodwest.com), there’s an articel by W. Patrick Edwards titled
“Form Follows Process - A Historic Look at Workmanship”, first
published in The Journal of American Period Furniture in January of
2001. Mr. Edwards, according to the article, has 30 years of
experience restoring antique furniture masterpieces and constructing new
pieces utilizing traditional 18th Century techniques - and he therefore
may be biased towards hand work and hand tools.
In the article, Edwards presents David Pye’s distinction between “hand
work” and “machine work” and Pye’s definition of “craftsmanship” as the
“workmanship of risk” as distinct from the “workmanship of certainty”.
In both cases, he’s talking about production work, be it with hand
tools, with machines or a combination of the two. Remember that
pre-power tools furniture makers, like their power tools successors,
made their living producing furniture, with the emphasis on production.
Pre-Industrial furniture makers who used efficient methods and
procedures to produce their furniture while maintaining their quality
standards prospered just as their successors have.
Pye boils “craftsmanship” down to answering the question “Is the result
predetermined and unalterable once production begins?”
If “risk” is involved, and the opportunity to modify either the method
of work (what tool to use in a specific situation and method of using
it) or the original design is modified to adapt to specific conditions
at hand, then it’s “craftsmanship”. If not, it isn’t “craftsmanship”.
Both “workmanship of risk” and “workmanship of certainty” can result in
wonderful pieces of furniture - or crap. But I think that “workmanship
of risk” allows for more opportunities to create a great pieces than
does “workmanship of certaintly”.
And that gets us back to today’s automated production methods and,
specifically, the use of CNC. CNC tooling and the capabilities of CNC
machines make it possible to manufacture just about anything a furniture
designer can come up with. With good quality control of both the the
raw materials (wood) and the machine processing, high quality furniture
can be produced at a price point significantly below that of anything a
small “workmanship of risk” shop can produce.
So why go the “workmanship of risk” route rather than the “workmanship
of certainty” route? Isn’t it the idea for a piece, developed to a
sufficient level of detail to have a CNC machine “do the grunt worka’,
where the “soul” of a piece is instilled in the piece?
I think that the answer is no - and here’s why.
“Risk” implies not only the opportunity for mistakes and perhaps
failure, but also the opportunity for success, to “produce” a piece
better than the original “plan”.
“Producing” nice/good furniture involves far more than coming up with an
idea, drawing it in sufficient detail to describe what the componets
dimensions are, what goes where and how the parts are joined together.
Beyond The Measured Drawing(s), there are a series of critical decisions
that must be made on the way to the finished “production” piece, some of
which MAY result in minor, or even major modifications of the original
The decisions begin with the wood. Go with one for all the visible
parts or go with multiple woods? If multipe, which woods would
compliment each other the best - fo this piece? This one’s a push since
both approaches, risk and certainty share this / these decisions.
When you get to stock selection and parts layout the two approaches
diverge significantly. While both can account for grain orientation,
even the better sheet goods/ply “cuts layout” software has this
capability, the type of grain and the location of the figure in a
particular part can’t be selected by a machine. Even if a machine could
“see” the grain pattern/figure, could it select the best area of the raw
stock which would be both most pleasing to the eye AND be harmonious
with adjacent parts? After all - we’re talking about furntirue made of
wood. THAT is the first major difference - for wood, unlike metal or
“wood products” is not uniform nor homogeneous, either structurally or
So parts layout is a significant difference. With the “risk” approach,
“optimization” of the use of the wood is a consideration, but not the
over riding consideration. One may chose to “waste” some wood to get a
nicer looking part that goes better with adjacent parts. In normal
furniture Ive heard allowing for 10 to 15% for waste. In higher end
shops it could be 25% or more (though “scraps” and “cut offs” seldom go
For me, parts layout/selection is a fun process of getting out a bunch
of “candidates”, moving pieces around, flipping one or more over,
rotating 180 degrees, slipping and sliding to get close to some
combination that may “work”. Then I make a “viewing frame” for the
part’s size, appropriately using framing squares, and slide my “window”
around ‘til I see something in it that “fits” and “works” for the piece
I have in mind. I start with the major focal point(s) of the piece -
door panel(s), drawer face(s), table top, then the “support” parts -
literally or figuratively.
Sometimes this process may change the original design, maybe merely
modifying the size of the piece or the proportions -or - become the
beginnings of an idea for a completely different piece. This is just
one of the things “workmanship of risk” has over “workmanship of
certainty”- It’s adaptive - throughout the process of “producing” a
piece - Pye’s differentiating question - “Is the result predetermined
and unalterable once production begins?” answered.
And that adaptation throughout the process of “production” in the
“workmanship of risk” approach may, or may not, fine tune and improve
the original design and plans. If you’re preparing the stock for a
piece at “human speed”, be it with handtools or with handheld power
tools, one may see - or feel something in the wood that suggests either
an eminent problem or a possible improvement and make a choice. As edge
treatments, sometimes very important in a piece, are worked on - the
wood of one piece may indicate that something other than a 45 chamfer
might bring out a pleasing grain, or remove some less than pleasing
grain - or maybe a sap pocket or the like. The closer the method of
working the wood comes to human speed with tools that allow the human to
sense changes both visually and tactily, the greater the potential for
incremental improvements - or screw ups.
Rather than continue, let me repeat - at some point, the method of
processing the parts of a piece in the “production” process begins
losing “soul” as the human “maker” gets farther and farther from the
What say you?