Sunday, March 25, 2007

Appropriate Technology

For me, chairs and chairmaking are a means to an end. My real goal is to spend my days in a quiet, dustless shop doing hand work on an object that is beautiful, useful and fun to make. I am a terrible musician, so chairs it is. When was in Manhattan working in cabinet shops, milling planks or plywood while wearing a respirator, eye protection and ear protection for 8 hours or more a day, I decided something had to give. So I rented a small workshop, which I shared with a guitar maker and set out to figure out what I could make that would fit the bill. We each had about an area about 10' X 10'. What could I make in this tiny space? I jealously watched my shopmate using hand tools to make his gorgeous archtop guitars and began to seek out the technology and object that would set me free. For a modern cabinet maker, your chisels and planes come into play on occasion and are often the first foray into handtools, however, power tooling has come far to eliminate their use altogether, especially in the time hungry competitive world of cabinetry. I recall being gently mocked for hand tool use. The big lesson was that the point of hand tools cannot be to compete with power tools on the turf of modern production methods. Like John Henry racing the steam shovel, you can do it, but it'll kill you, or your business, in the end.
This is where the appropriate technology comes in. Choosing technology for romantic reasons, when you're in business, quickly gets old as the bottom line starts aching. The speed with which I can work green wood from a raw state to a finished piece as well as the increase in the strength and flexibility of the piece make get sense. In this way, I am not competing with power tools, they simply don't meet the requirements of the materials. Yes, there is a learning curve. My students carve a seat in a few hours, I do so in around 45 minutes. Couldn't a machine be rigged to do it in less? Maybe. But when I'm done I don't have to sand and most importantly, I am capable of creating new work with a seamlessness that setting up a new jig or programming a new CNC computer might kill. One must fit their own priorities into the equation to learn where the line between romance, power overkill and appropriate technology lies. I don't want to run a factory, I don't want to have employees, I don't want my designs written in stone. Luckily for me, there are enough folks out there who appreciate the difference in quality of a hand made chair to allow me to work with the methods I choose.
On occasion, I do recognize that some part of my process benefits from power use (yes Gerry, it's routing the rocker slots) but more often than not, the rarity of the occasion doesn't justify buying the tool, using valuable shop space to house it, time to maintain and set it up, and the noise and dust that it will create.
A few years ago, Fine Woodworking had a picture of Curtis Buchanan sitting on the porch of his tiny shop shaving spindles. I am suprised by how many of my students have seen this picture and were compelled to seek out the quality of the time spent as much as the quality of the object. One even, kept this picture pinned up in his cubicle, that's right Curtis, you're either a pin up model or a poster child! The limitations imposed by my tiny NYC shop led me to discover chair making and, more importantly, that it is up to me to choose how to spend my time, and no powertool can do that for you.


Anonymous said...

Hello, i just read your post and the part, a means to an end said it perfectly. Your workshop looks like a definite place to inspire a person to make what you do, one day i hope to have the same. One of the things i would some day like to make is a windsor chair, your blog is making me want to do it much sooner than later,
keep up the good work.
L Clarke

Peter Galbert said...

Thanks, a little encouragement goes a long way. If this entry inspired you, you might check out books on greenwoodworking by Drew Langsner, Roy Underhill and John Alexander. They'll have you in the woods having a blast in no time.