Sunday, January 14, 2007
Reflections on hand woodworking
When I say all by hand, I really mean it. From the tree to the little chair or toy for my son.
After a typhoon, I'd go around town see if I could harvest some timber. I'd remove the bark, let the wood dry, rip cut it, resaw it, plane it, square it.
It takes a long long time to do this. It teaches a lot, but it is not productive, even for the hobbyist.
Recently, I have got access to some planer, band saw, thicknesser and table saw. I realized that these tools, though very noisy and potentially dangerous are extreemly usefull, particularly if you harvest your wood yourself.
For me, hand woodworking went together with the desire to reproduce the method used before machines came in, back close to 100years before. But obviously I was sometimes led to buy precut and premilled stock, and that meant some machine did the job before. So seen from that angle, articles made from this kind of stock could be argued to be 100% hand made using hand tools. Or one should specify from where was the hand tool work process started.
Does hand made means made exclusively with hand tools? I don't think so, I'd define hand made as being made by one craftman or craftwoman, and not made by a robot in chain production. To say something has been made without machine, one should say hand tool made. And does one really want to trace back to the way the tree was cut, ripped and milled?
So I'm just coming to the conclusion that I'll probably buy a small band saw, to help me resaw small stock I harvest.
Just make a clever use of machines and don't abuse it, so that hand tools retain there central position.
But I'm still stubborn with my hand tools, as illustrated on the recent post where I am talking ripping an about 120cm (4ft) and 39cm (15") diameter camphor tree! It's just another feeling to cut the wood outside in nature being able to hear the birds singing around compare to the noise of a workshop.
I recently started getting back into woodworking and want to focus more energy on using hand tools. I think the results from well tuned (and properly used) hand tools are far superior to machines and it makes the piece you create much more personal.
Ultimately though it is the intent behind the finished piece that matters so don't feel bad about using machines to accelerate the more mundane tasks of woodworking so you have more time to spend creating. I like to believe that our ancestors used the best technology available to them to complete a given task and if motorized bandsaws and thickness planers had been available they certainly would have used them.
Thanks for your kind comment.
You are certainly right about our ancestors and most probably, if their children invented all those machines following the industrial revolution, it was for productivity reasons: do the job faster, with less effort and with far less human resources.
The idea of the intrincic value of hand made articles covers many aspects.
You mention one: hand made is more personal. Yes, but machines are catching up, and some type of work would just be very difficult to do by hand if not impossible. I am thinking of the minute details found on some wonderful wood carvings of flowers, insects or some farm landscape that are made in the most famous woodcarving place in Taiwan. These incredible sculptures are made with electric rotary tools. I will need to find some pictures to illustrate my sayings.
Another face of the hand tool made article tends toward spirituality: animists in Africa believe that trees have souls and many other ethnic groups attribute souls to objects. This is not new, and even some great scientists like Erwin Shroedinger brings some interesting interrogations when it comes to define life. An object has no life, but one could imagine to find in it the imprint of the craftman or craftwoman who made it: his/her soul, his/her mark, anything that caracterize him/her.
And while this doesn't defines life, it gives to the hand made object a disctinctive history that places it on another level compared to machine made objects.
Another aspect tends to be an ecological point of view. A tree is a living organism. I often think that the effort it takes me to work it by hand to a finished object is a form of respect for that tree. With an overuse of machine, there's no more room or time for respecting nature.
So in conclusion, machines should be used where they help but one should leave great importance to the hand tool.