In mid-August, I went to the Woodworking in America design conference to give a presentation on a topic that has been of great (and growing) interest for me since I first started teaching hand-tool woodworking at the school: the distinct differences that arise between the artisan and the industrial approach to woodworking. As I got into hand tools after having worked (I should say machined) wood with power tools for a living for almost three decades, I began to see that fundamental differences weren’t just showing up in the processing but also right at the start of the project in the design phase.
When developing my “Handtool Heaven” course, it dawned on me that I while I often found it useful to draw out a project in full-scale I didn’t really need to show students how to apply numbered dimensions or angles to the drawing—because you don’t need those numbers to generate a cut-list. I realized that numbers were for machines. In processing the wood in the power tool realm, you use numbers off a cut list to set fences and cutting angles to numbers inscribed on the machine. But as a hand-tool artisan you are working, not machining, the wood and you don’t need any numbers whatsoever to do so! Instead, my presentation in Chicago described how I show my students to simply mark ticks on a stick to transfer the dimensions of a part represented on the full-scale rendering to the piece of wood that will become that part! Angles are transferred directly with a bevel gauge. (We transfer curves by making a template from the drawing). At the end of the project, it’s possible that you may not have dealt with one number throughout the entire process, from design through completion!
“But where do the dimensions of the project come from in the first place to make a full scale rendering—don’t you need to start with some numbers?” asked someone in the audience? Well that’s where we really start having fun: To make a step stool, I showed how you can take all the dimensions right off your own human body: the step top is as long as the spread of your shoulders (which is two spread-out hand-widths); the width of the step is a foot (your foot!) and the height is whatever is a comfortable step-up for you (which turns out, amazingly enough, to be one spread-out hand width!).
“Well that’s all well and good for a stool you are making for your self”, pipes up another person, “but what about a chest of drawers? You certainly need numbers to define that project, don’t you?” Well this is where it gets interesting—because it turns out that there is little evidence (according the some of the experts speaking at this conference such as George Walker and Jeffrey Greene,) that pre-industrial artisans probably didn’t use numbers to design anything. Instead, what I learned was that furniture design was based on the classic orders of proportion—which were essentially whole-number ratios of squares and portions of squares. Drawings of designs were likely rendered entirely with a straight edge and dividers without a ruler in sight! (Rulers of those days were fairly crude, by the way—the divisions rarely went below 1/8-in.) Experts at the conference such as George Walker (who, by the way, has a very good DVD out on creating furniture designs in this manner) surmise that rulers were only used for giving a general description of a piece, not for design or process.
Hearing what some of the other experts had to say made me feel that I’m on the right track with my thinking that there really are some profound differences in the way we—as workers rather that machinists of wood—must approach not just the working, but also the conceptualization of the projects that we build by hand. It confirms in my mind that to fully understand the way the pre-industrial artisans work we have to understand more than just the tool set, we have to grasp the mindset as well!