Small Woodworking Shops
However different they may look, all of these shops exude an air of creativity and inventiveness. Each is a place where an artisan — professional or amateur — turns raw materials that could be almost anything into an object that is only one thing. In truth, great shops are really a combination of not only how we arrange the space and stock it with tools and raw materials but also how we use the space when we get there.
Contemporary craftsmen have a wider selection of materials and tools than their predecessors, but the process of making something from wood is essentially the same. Furniture is drawn on paper (well, maybe using a computer) then each component is cut and shaped by a single craftsman. He or she assembles and finishes the piece and delivers it to the person who ordered it.
Art furniture or sculptural pieces may evolve differently, but an essential similarity, is the methodology of work: a deliberate one-at-a-time approach. Customers may wait months — years even — before their orders are filled. They could just as easily drive to a local retail store and buy what they wanted the same day and for less money. That so many professional artisans are able to make a living is an encouraging sign that there are still people who assign a high value to this approach and are willing to pay for it.
In his book The Nature and Art of Workmanship, David Pye, an English craftsman and intellectual, offers what is probably the most widely repeated explanation of what distinguishes craft from mass production.
Pye explains two ways of working. One is a process whose outcome is predetermined, which he calls the "workmanship of certainty." That is, the worker uses machines or techniques that eliminate the risk of all unplanned outcomes. With the other approach, the "workmanship of risk," there are no guaranteed outcomes.
Pye describes this latter kind of craftsmanship as "using any kind of technique or apparatus in which the quality of the result is not predetermined, but depends on the judgment, dexterity, and care which the maker exercises as he [sic] works. The essential idea is that the quality of the result is continually at risk during the process of making."
That is the essential difference between furniture that is made in a factory and furniture made in a small shop. Even though most amateur woodworkers use machines to speed up the work and make the outcome more predictable, few completely eliminate the element of risk in how a piece will turn out. In this, amateur woodworkers the world over are allied with small-shop professionals.
Commonality of a Tradition
Most of the artisans shown here have a basic repertoire of tools that will look familiar to any part-time woodworker. At the heart of most shops, you can find a heavy-duty table saw or bandsaw, a thickness planer, and a jointer. Almost everyone needs these items.
In addition, there may be a collection of more specialized tools that are related to a particular trade — a scrollsaw for someone who cuts intricate patterns or a heavy mortising machine for someone who does a lot of casework. With some exceptions, they are often the same kinds of tools that call be found in many amateur shops.
Many a bad piece of furniture is unfairly blamed on the tools used to make it, but it is also true that first-rate work is infinitely more difficult with poorly made tools. A number of these woodworkers like old tools — big cast-iron models made 50 years or 60 years ago. Some are even older. Many are far more handsome than their modern equivalents, with graceful, curved castings and delicate ornamentation that manufacturers no longer bother with.
In other shops, technology has been harnessed in imaginative ways. Vacuum-actuated clamps and veneer presses, high-pressure water nozzles, and computer-guided overhead routers have all vastly increased accuracy and productivity.
Many shops are also stocked with a good selection of hand tools. Even in shops where machines do a lot of the work, it is not at all unusual to see a wall-mounted tool chest that neatly stores hand planes, chisels, cabinet scrapers, files, marking gauges, and a dozen other tools.
Some shops rely almost completely on hand tools, but most furniture makers seem to have reached a compromise: using machines to eliminate drudgery and using hand tools when they are faster or more expressive.
Preserving the Workshop Tradition
Keeping the workshop tradition alive is an uphill fight. We are becoming a culture that doesn't know how to make a living with our hands. Indeed, the federal labor department reports the fastest-growing occupations in the next decade will be computer engineers, computer-support specialists, system analysts, database administrators, desktop publishers, paralegals, and home health aides.
Nowhere on the top ten list will you find anything connected with a manual trade. This will make small amateur workshops all the more important. They will remain places where even analysts, database administrators, and paralegals can experience what Pye calls the "workmanship of risk."
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Scott Gibson is a furniture maker, journalist, and photographer. He is former editor at Fine Homebuilding, Fine Woodworking, and Home Furniture magazines.
This article is excerpted from The Workshop: Celebrating the Place Where Craftsmanship Begins, copyright © 2000, available from Taunton Press and at Amazon.com.