Technology is unavoidable in today’s workshop. Be it a smart phone in your pocket that rings just when you’re stretching to apply that last clamp in the most awkward of positions, or an e-reader filled with the last two decades of woodworking magazines and sawdust, only the most stubborn among us has successfully banned all technology from their workspace. Even Roy Underhill, who will not allow something as modern as a steel measuring tape in his shop, tolerates the digital filming equipment that beams his show into our television screens.
A woodworking shop is by definition a place where a bit of the past is kept alive and the future is held at bay. In a world where more and more furniture is made from manufactured wood products that a tree would never recognize as its kin, by machines that suck a board in one end and spit a chair out the other, the small garage shop is a throwback to vanishing way of life. When we make something by hand, one piece at a time, with a material that is widely considered an old fashioned luxury, we are reversing some of the progress of our modern and enlightened society. So, why would a woodworker allow his shop to be invaded by the very essence of this society, the computers and cellphones and the tablets that are the tools of the society that seeks to destroy what the small shop stands for? Why would a man who retreats to the garage to unwind, after a forty hour work week in an office, flip on a satellite fed, high definition LCD television screen over the bench? Why would a person who cuts his dovetails by hand design that project on a sixty-four bit, four gigahertz hyper threading computer with three dimensional modeling software?
Today’s woodworker is a sawing, sanding contradiction. We take pride in our traditional craft, but if you offer us a faster way to dovetail a drawer we’ll give you four hundred bucks for the jig. We rail against cheap, mass produced furniture, but if we could justify the expense of a CNC machine you can bet we’d make every project with a digitally controlled router bit and just assemble the parts like a puzzle.
Of course, not every woodworker embraces all of the latest technology. Some still insist on the quiet, dust free bliss of traditional hand tools. Not the wood-bodied planes used for centuries, mind you. No, the best “traditional” hand tools are precisely machined to tolerances measured beyond the thousandth. They upgrade to the new tool steels created in labs and cryogenically hardened. They sharpen that steel with state of the art honing films and diamond pastes that are far finer than the messy old oil stones.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m one of you. I love the idea of traditional woodworking. I imagine myself sitting on a shaving horse with a drawknife and hickory shavings up to my waist. But I also love the idea of a micro-adjustable, multi-functional, lead-screw driven box joint jig.
I suppose it all comes down to the meaning of two words: “technology” and “traditional”. I imagine that the first caveman woodworker simply banged a stick with another stick. To him, any edged tool was “technology” and those who used them were betraying the “traditional” craft. I’ll bet the great masters of the eighteenth century had an entirely different idea of traditional woodworking than we have today. To a guy with an iron combination plane, a set of wooden skew rabbet planes must have seemed old fashioned indeed. When Stickley began mass producing his craftsman furniture in a big shop full of steam powered workstations Roubo surely rolled over in his Paris grave. But who today would look at a piece of Stickley furniture and call it a betrayal of the craft?
The point I am making is a simple one. If you want to be a true purist you’ll have to reject far more than workshop computers or power tools or even iron hand planes. You’ll have to go back to rocks and sticks. Otherwise you will just be the newfangled woodworker with all the fancy tools to the first cave man you meet. Today’s latest technologies are sure to become tomorrow’s traditional tools just as yesterday’s innovations are today’s antiques. My solution is to embrace the true tradition of the craft, and it has nothing to do with the tools or the way you use them. It has little to do with your selection of materials or choice of joinery. It’s what drove the first woodworker to pick up the first stick and say “ugh… me turn this into chair for Thag…” It’s the desire to create something from scratch, to take raw materials and turn them into something you can point to and say “I made that”. It’s art even if you’re not artistic, you’re creating even if you’re not creative. THAT is the true woodworking tradition, and it won’t matter if woodworkers of the future cut flawless joints with lithium crystals controlled by a series of eye blinks from an easy chair. Because some day, even that will be considered old school woodworking.