Grunt Work, Machines and Soul (somewhat long)


Earlier, there was a thread on Michael Fortune’s “design for production”. 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 “plan”.
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 in appearance.
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 handcrafted 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 to waste).
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 wood.
What say you?
charlie b
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I'm rather inexperienced in woodworking, but my day job is a software designer.
In a computer, the fundamental building blocks are completely mechanical and absolutely predictable. Barring hardware problems the computer does *exactly* what you tell it to. However, I think it's still possible to have "soul"--it just means that the "soul" comes in at a higher level of abstraction.
Consider the examples you gave--part layout based on "what looks best", modification based on how it "feels" when being worked. Given a sufficient amount of time and effort this could be at least partially mechanized. In this hypothetical case, the rules by which the machine operated would have to have been created by someone. Thus, the machine would be carrying out (at one level removed) the wishes of the original designer.
You could eventually get this machine to be pretty good (almost certainly better than I), but it would likely be impossible to get it as good as the real artists, simply because not all of the artistic decisions are amenable to reduction to rules of logic. (Although they do have software to generate artwork and musical compositions.)
What I'm trying to say is that even if you have something completely machine-made it would still be possible for it to have "soul"--it's just that the soul doesn't come from the machine, but the machine *designers*.
I don't think we're anywhere near that level of sophistication yet, but I wouldn't be surprised to see layout software eventually get hooked to a digital camera and given some basic understanding of desirable grain directions.
Chris
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Been around long enough to remember the early days of SIG GRAPH? interGraph's wire frame raster displayed "3D" helicopters "flying"? How about the beach, with waves and clouds moving while the sunlight changed computer animation- done by a guy at Lawrence Livermore Labs. He agreed to work for them, in return for having one of their super computers to play with for a few hours during low demand periods?
After two days of temps around 100 degrees F, and more forecast, I wrote a random waves sound generating program on an Atari 800 using Atari Basic to control volume, tone and time for each of the four sound "channels" built into the 800. Sounds were "outwash", "curl", "break" and "inwash". Varied volume and "attack", "sustain" and "diminish" by size of wave, duration between breaks varied randomly. Got the program working, crashed on the floor and imagined I was at the beach. It's OK to be hot at the beach.
But machines only do EXACTLY what you tell them to do, with very basic instructions. While some interesting "art", be it 2D images or sounds, computer generated stuff seldom deals with aesthetic things well, or consistently. When it comes to "soul" in furniture making I'll still go with "wetware" driving tools and muscles.
Some things lend themselves to abstraction - no interplay between theoretical and real world. That's where the "workmanship of risk" approach CAN more consistently produce good or even great pieces.
charlie b
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wrote:

I think we've only really scratched the surface in understanding how math plays into the underlying fundamentals of what makes a thing beautiful. You look at a fractal and there's this thing more complicated than anything we could come up with, and yet it's based on something simple. Music is math. You need not be aware of the math to make great music, but the number of people who can actually do it is limited. For the rest of us, let's take any help we can get. Being able to hit a baseball is math. Again, you can be oblivious to the math and be the best hitter in the world, and undertanding the math doesn't mean you can hit the ball.
Imagine a computer program that could spit out designs based on formulas and you could sit back and say No, No, No, Interesting but No, No, Hmmm... what if I switched that around like such and such and...
They make 2d and 3d images out of fractals, they make music out of them, who wants to try furniture?

How much of our own work is copying what some other person made? In a lot of ways we're just really inefficient and inaccurate CNC machines substituting our own preferences and trying to make up for our mistakes.
-Leuf
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Music is math. You need not be aware of the math

The best music is not in the simple ratios of harmonics but the subtleties of being *outside* (a little sharp of flat) of these ratios. The perfect envelope of a guitar bend is what separates the "artists" from the 6-string craftsman. A good drummer will play a little ahead or behind the beat to create push and pull (tension).

IMO plaster walls look better than sheet rock, specifically because of their imperfection. In may cases perfection *is* unapealing.
Then again, sometimes "patina" is really just dirt. :-)
-Steve
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On Tue, 28 Mar 2006 07:14:36 -0500, "Stephen M"

Which is all still math :) Computer generated music is lifeless compared to the real thing, but that's because the program doesn't know to do those things not because it can't do those things.

So if a piece of furniture one of us made came out "perfect" should we hang our heads, take it apart and try again? I make these intarsia leaves where the edges and grain of the pieces simulate the veins of the leaf. I get the gaps between the pieces to an acceptable level and then I stop, and I like to think the finished leaf looks better with the small gaps in it. But at the same time if pieces fit together perfectly I don't sand a gap in where there was none. I can't have it both ways.
I think for most of us we have to worry more about the border between "having character" and "careless" than "perfection". If you do manage to get to the latter you did it by first overcoming the former and you probably don't need any help understanding it.
-Leuf
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subtleties
6-string
At the risk of being completely pedantic, music can be simulated with a mathematical model. Most if not all simulations are close but not exactly the same as the original. The reproduction is only as good as the mathematical model. For example, a CD recording is a represented by a series of discete values, not the smooth anolog curve of the original sound.

their
No. I'm suggesting that "perfect", in the eyes of those beholding, is probably not mathematically straight/flat/square/smooth etc. While I agree that it's possible that machinery could render just about anything possible, the real challenge would would be creating an accurate definition of what our eye sees as perfect. Traditional tooling in conjuction with tactile feedback loop, (including the analog circuitry in our heads) can to a better job than a machine with using a fully automated digital simulaiton.
The limitation of automated systems is not the machines, but the algorithms that drive them (spoken like a software guy eh?). If you can't define what it is that makes the undulations of a plaster wall appealing then it's pretty tough to automate its recreation.

And therein lies the elusive quality of art. The ability to capure the essance of something without shown the whole. This is why an illustration is usually more effective than a photograph, because the irrelevant information is subtracted. I think this applies to written works, music and physical arts.
Cheers,
Steve
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Stephen M wrote:

Strippers and sumie as well. Most of what you "see" is filled in by the viewer's imagination,more so with sumie. In a sumie (oriental brush painting, typically done in continous shades of gray) painting (actually "inking"), the bare minimum required to triggerer the idea of the piece is actually on the paper - the viewer's eye, experience and imagination fills in the rest.
James Krenov's pieces have that quality, and like haiku, change with the viewers mental state as wel as how the light plays with the surfaces and grain.
Nicely put sir. Computer algorithms may be able to produce "art", but soul will always be the domain of living things, be it a human or a bird.
(just noticed rithms vs rythms)
charlie b
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wrote:

Not trying to remove the human from the equation. But first we used the computer to help draw the design. Now it's being used to help produce the design. We've only used it to produce the design in the respect that it can give us a way to fool around with things without getting a new sheet of paper or piece of wood. I think we could use it to help come up with the design as well. The same ignorance of the computer towards not doing certain things also means it doesn't know it shouldn't do things that the human has preconceived notions not to do. It's not afraid to take risks, it has no concept of risk.
The best thing is that exploring things like this, and artificial intelligence, is that we find out how little we actually understand things that we take for granted. Trying to teach the computer we end up learning about ourselves.
-Leuf
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Leuf wrote:

Personally, I prefer teaching kids and get the same result in terms of learning about myself. Kids ask questions and sometimes display what can only be described as glee.
charlie b
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Chris Friesen wrote:

I'm troubled by the assumption that the craftsman is less involved in the work if the cuts are programmed into the machine. There's nothing other than inertia there to stop the craftsman from stepping in to modify the course of the blade to affect a curve in a chamfer, or to arrange the workpiece to take advantage of some effect of the wood.
'Course, you could argue that inertia... or momentum, is the point of CNC, and getting that involved in the work works against the whole point of automation.
In any event, there's nothing unalterable about a programmed series of cuts and the soul or liveliness of a piece can be found in the craftsman's involvement in its making. Whether that be through the handles of a spokeshave, or the fingerpads of a keyboard, it is still transmitted to the wood.
er
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I believe the assumption would only hold true if the bulk of entire process to the finished product is done by the machine. *That* I'd attribute to many factories. Since most of us don't own all these commercial machines, our constructions are prone to errors and variances in construction that make most of what we make unique.
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Enoch Root wrote:

But the fingerpads give no tactile feedback FROM the wood TO the hands of the person on the keyboard. And with a machine whirring and a cutter cutting, it's hard to hear when the sound of the cuttiing edge changes that subtle little bit that warns of the beginning of a problem. The machine driven wood removing device also can't see when the nice grain begins appearing and indicates "screw the plans, I'm stopping here to keep this look of the wood!"
charlie b
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charlie b wrote:

Jim Krenov's isn't the only approach to doing lasting things in wood.
Lately I've been collecting images of backsaw handles for a project. (Bob Brode's pages have been a big help.) Handles of that era embody a craftman's influence on the final form, whereas more modern ones do not.
They were also made in a factory setting, with an emphasis on production. But modern saw handles, even the really good ones, don't match them in character and distinction.
I don't think it is because of the tools being used to make them that they don't measure up.
I think it is because the maker is less involved in their production, and because less thought is being given to their form, their fit, and how they will be used.
Well, maybe that is similar to Krenov's way in some respects. But where his design goal emerges from an evolving process, the final form of those handles is not. All the factors that contribute to the handles' design and execution are known prior to the making. And yet, they feel excellant.
er
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Can the 'machine' go to the lumber yard and sort through the cherry looking for exactly the right pieces for the current project? And does it know enough to pick up some great bubinga that just came in to use in some future project? Or pick up a block of pink ivory at a good price because 'I'll use it for something'?
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On Mon, 27 Mar 2006 07:35:25 GMT, Lobby Dosser

Given the number of computer geeks that have woodworking as a hobby, I wouldn't be surprised if the answer to this in the future is 'yes'.
-Leuf
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It has been and it ever was thus that a product by which I mean a piece that has always been intended for replication is substantially different from a piece which is intended to be a one-off.
(someone told me that I use too many commas. i hope that you enjoy the result of my response.)
Pye's theories are the natural reification of the Cotswald movement which came to be the Craftsman Movement which came to be the underpinnings of the design ethic of Greene and Greene which came to be the given group of elements that describe the Craftsman ethic at least in America.
As you can see we have a doubled opportunity to define the idea of "Craftsman".
The concept of "The Workmanship Of Risk" was addressed by Diderot and is not something specific to Pye which is why Pye's book has gone out of print and Diderot's book is still available even though it is a bit older.
What we do as independent craftsmen is all about the workmanship of risk. It doesn't matter if we jig it up. Our jigs our open to question.
I currently work in a manufacturing environment. They call it cabinetmaking but it is not.
The entire goal of a manufacturing process is to eliminate the intelligence that would drive the production of a single product and replace it with a logic that obviates the need for intelligence in pursuit of the goal of making many of the same product as efficiently as possible.
When we look at an empty wall in our house and say to ourselves that a shelf should be there we aremarket researchers. When we define the requirements of the shelf we are designers. When we modify the design to agree with the available stock in our shop we are value engineering. When we figure out the best way to cut and join we are engineers. When we decide on the the finish that will go best in our home given the other partners involved we are marketers.
When we are done we are heroes.
Regards,
Tom Watson
tjwatson1ATcomcastDOTnet (real email)
http://home.comcast.net/~tjwatson1 /
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