Thursday, March 31, 2011

Update

I thought a brief update was in order before getting on with the next post in the CNC essay series. I have been chipping away every day at the remaining work on the second half of The Art of Japanese Carpentry Drawing Volume III. I appreciate the patience shown by all of you who have bought the volume on the faith that I would issue the second half in a timely manner. The table project chewed into that time, but now I'm between projects, more or less, so I can move the writing and drawing forward. I greatly regret the delay. When it's ready, the second half of the volume will be sent to all those who purchased the first half. I've also made some tweaks to Volume I and II and plan to send out that revision (#2) in the near future. Again, for original purchasers, the revisions are completely free.

I haven't heard a peep from the architect who wanted me to collaborate on a Mansard roof project down in Pittsburgh. For no apparent reason, he has vanished completely and hasn't responded to any messages I've sent him in the past three weeks. We were supposed to take a trip to France together in another week, so it's really puzzling.

I have received a design deposit to commence work on a new piece of furniture. This will be a coffee table with a glass top and some interesting curvilinear elements. It's probably a 2~3 month project. If the client is open to it, I'll do a build thread on that soon.

In the meantime, I decided to take my Oliver 166 jointer fence apart, which involved drifting out some fixed pins and general careful bashing with a mallet. I have the parts down at a local machine shop where they will do, I hope, any necessary re-machining and align-honing of the parts so I can get the fence operating smoothly like it should. While I don't tilt the fence all that often on the jointer, I prefer not to have to arm wrestle with it when the need arises to change the angle from 90˚ to the table. I will also be getting the fence re-ground or re-planed back to flat, possibly at the same machine shop.

My wife reminded me that we could use a few bookcases, so I am taking some leftover bits of wood and putting together a 'quickie' bookcase. By 'quickie' I jest a little, since it will be all joined and will take me "at least a couple of weeks". Given that it is casework, it will be hard to avoid using some glue for the connections, and I'm okay with that -really.

Here's the material I will be working with - a bit of Canary wood, a bit of bubinga, and some curly Black Cherry:

Another view:


Too bad the Canary wood smells gross and doesn't hold its colour. I'm glad to make some use of the board I have left from the Mazerolle sawhorse project from last year, but I doubt I'll be getting any more of the stuff as I don't like working with it much.

The book case will be about 72" (183 cm) tall, and be about 27" wide (68.5 cm), with 5 shelves. Not sure if it's worth doing a detailed build thread or not, but I'll bring the camera to the shop and see what I feel like shooting.

The client who funded and supported the previous project, the Ming-inspired dining table, has indicated interest in dining chairs to go with it, but it is not an immediate priority for him so those chairs might be something happening in the fall.

The client for the coffee table seems interested in several pieces of furniture, and possibly a small outbuilding on her property, so we'll see what happens there. In the next few days I will be concentrating on getting the drawing work moved along.

A bit of this and a bit of that, seems to be the order of the day. I'm looking forward to some of the technical challenges in this next piece of furniture.

One interesting bit of news - I was emailing with a Westerner who is an expert in Chinese furniture, who happens to be in China at the moment, and he said he was unable to access my blog from over there. I guess the Chinese government is blocking access to blogspot and likely other blogging servers.

Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way today.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Ming Inspiration: Studio Photos

I finally received the photos of the Ming-inspired dining table today. It's amazing what some good lighting, quality photographic equipment and general photographic savviness can do!

Looking through all the photos of the build, which stretch into the hundreds, I go back to where it all started, with this classic, yet unassuming Ming side table of huanghuali, maker unknown:


This simple looking corner-leg table, which appears to be no more than a slab of wood upon a frame and four legs, hides an ingenious framing system:


Many hours of design work later, in close consultation with the client who was delighted to be involved, I produced the plan for a dining table to seat eight:


Design was done over the course of a couple of weeks, though many details were refined through the learning that is part and parcel of the build process. If you're new to the blog and want to go back to the starting post, click >> here <<.

The whole project really started to come together when the planks of bubinga arrived:


This was the most expensive slab of wood I had ever acquired for a project, and that added some extra oomph to the mental stress of the cutting and joining phases of the job.

Four months later, the table was complete, and I know many readers have enjoyed following along with all 50 posts comprising the design and build process. I very much appreciated the supportive and kind comments along the way.

So, without further ado...(these are somewhat larger files than I normally load up for the blog - if you click on the pictures they will become larger)...

The big picture:


End View:


Zooming in on a corner:


A look down the side:


The underside:


I believe a piece of furniture should look good from any angle.

A closer look at the point where the central rail meets the short apron:


A view of where the Giant's arm braces, banwancheng, come together, tied with the hiyodori-sen:


I took the original maker's brilliant framing methods and enhanced them with some specialized Japanese joinery methods, both in the photo above and in the way the frame's aprons were connected to one another.

Another view:


And, lastly, the maker's mark in Holly and Gabon Ebony:


I hope that if the maker of the Ming original could see my table he would feel pleased to see how I piggybacked on some on his ideas. I wish I could have met him, but his work spoke volumes about his philosophy as a maker, and I was glad to live in a time and place in history where I could learn of his genius and take inspiration from it.

Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way today.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Computer Numeric Re-Considerations (IV)

Post four in this thread examining the issue of computer controlled equipment in the woodworking context. Numerical Control (NC) refers to the automation of machine tools that are operated by abstractly programmed commands encoded on a storage medium, as opposed to manually controlled via hand wheels or levers.

Early NC machines in the 1940's and 1950's accomplished the information storage by way of punched tape, which, as the name suggests, consisted of a long strip of paper in which holes are punched to store data. These are now long obsolete. One could argue that forms of the idea central those punched tapes appeared on the scene hundred of years earlier. As far back as the medieval period, mills with water driven shafts festooned with protruding elements made for the operation of trip hammers for forging on a predictable pattern.

In 1801 Joseph Marie Jacquard invented a device which allowed punch cards to operate weaving looms. This device, the Jacquard Loom, simplified the process of manufacturing textiles with complex patterns- here's a picture of an example of that sort of loom, from a plant in India:


Changing the pattern of the loom's weave was no more difficult than changing the punch cards out for different ones. This concept was an important one, it should be noted, in terms of the development of the computer. The real development of punch cards happened when Herman Hollerith developed his tabulating machine in the 1890's so as to enable the data from the US census to be tabulated in a much quicker time frame -from an expected 10 years down to a matter of a few months. Here's Herman:


Hollerith, in 1911, merged his Tabulating Machine Company with two others, the International Time Recording Company, and the Computing Scale Company, to form the Computer-Tabulating Recording Company. The new company (CTR) came under single management for the first time in 1914, when the company had 1,300 employees. It was in that year the late Thomas J. Watson, Sr., a salesman of cash registers, joined the firm as general manager, and soon became its president. In 1924, the name International Business Machines Corporation was adopted. That's IBM, in case you missed it. This proprietary punch card technology of the IBM Corporation saw use during the second world war to aid, amongst other things, the Nazi's in compiling detailed information on the Jewish population and running all those 'special' trains on time - a story told most persuasively and in great detail in Edwin Black's brilliant investigative work IBM and the Holocaust. Each of the death camps, for instance, had it's own Hollerith Tabulating Machine. That's a book definitely worth a read, guaranteed not to cheer one up too much.

Right, back to our story. In previous posts I have looked at the question of hand work vs CNC-machined work in terms of creative expression, and in the immediately preceding post, I mentioned the fairly obvious advantage CNC gives when the maker is faced with producing large numbers of duplicate parts.

The person credited with pioneering Computer Numerical Control systems (CNC) for machine tools was a certain John T. Parsons. Like so many other technological developments, the impetus was the development of military hardware. In 1946, together with his employee Frank Stulen, Parsons developed a punch-card operated equipment to solve the challenging machining operations inherent in producing the complex curves of a helicopter blade. As Parsons notes in an interview where he recollects the development process:

" To define an airfoil template, they gave us 17 points between the radii on the upper and lower surfaces. The coordinate points were different for each of the two surfaces. Then you had to take a French curve and connect those points. It wasn't accurate, and you didn't know the accuracy of the French curve between the coordinates. So I asked Stulen if he could use his college education, something I don't have, and give me 200 points along the radius of each surface, which he had no problem doing. He made up a chart describing X axis and Y-axis coordinates for a milling machine. Then, using a Bridgeport mill, we put one man on the left-to-right axis, and one man on the in-and-out axis. We didn't have to worry about the Z axis because we were using a 0.050" thick steel template. That's the way we made templates in the late 1940s. That's what prompted the work to do it automatically."

In 1948, Parson's company was awarded a contract to develop a related military product:

"the innovative and challenging tapered wings for military aircraft; they won the contract because they developed the computer support to do the difficult three-dimensional interpolation for the complex shapes, as well as the 800 steps long production cycle for the wing manufacturing."

I think an important point in regards to the adoption of NC, and later CNC techniques, is that the development was driven by the difficult technical challenges that were defying solutions by conventional means. These machines were not initially considered in light of their effect upon labor conditions and production. The new types of aircraft and missiles developed after WW II, like jet-engined planes for instance, required materials and construction that made them both extremely strong and as light as possible. Attempts to produce the tapered complex wing shapes by conventional fabrication approaches described in the foregoing quote had in fact resulted in utter failure. Parsons was hired to to try and solve the problem after these conventional approaches were clearly not getting the job done - the wings of the plane in question, when produced by templating and standard mill work techniques made for a plane that was so heavy it couldn't get off the ground.

In time, MIT became involved as Parsons realized one of the design challenges of the technology involved developing servomotors which would allow for accurate positioning and smooth cutting actions. As noted in the Wikipedia article on Numerical Control,

"Since the mechanical controls did not respond in a linear fashion, you couldn't simply drive it with a given amount of power, because the differing forces meant the same amount of power would not always produce the same amount of motion in the controls. No matter how many points you included, the outline would still be rough."

This casts an interesting light on the question of human sensitivity to material vs the apparent 'blunt instrument' of the machine. I'll set that aside for the moment however.

MIT and Parsons got into a tussle over the development of CNC, but in the end Parsons was granted the first patents for the technology in 1958. It took many years however before CNC-manufacturing caught on to any significant extent, a problem that Parsons put down to the "computer people":

" The slow progress of computer development was part of the problem. In addition, the people who were trying to sell the idea didn’t really know manufacturing—they were computer people.
The NC concept was so strange to manufacturers, and so slow to catch on, that the US Army itself finally had to build 120 NC machines and lease them to various manufacturers to begin popularizing its use."
In time, those CNC-operated machine tools did catch on, and became much the norm in the machine tool industry. If you own any power tools built since 1980 or so, you can be fairly certain that CNC processes were employed at some point, most especially in the tool and die portion of the job, where the casting molds were developed. Many hand tools now are being produced by way of CNC as well- I would cite the products of Lee Valley and Bridge City Toolworks as obvious examples, where CNC machine tools make the products themselves to one extent or another.

It turns out that the advent of CNC came to be perceived by certain folks as having other sorts of interesting 'advantages' besides improving production capability and quality. In the next post I'll delve into that matter in more detail.

Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way today.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Computer Numeric Re-Considerations (III)

I've been enjoying the lively discussion emerging from the previous two posts in this thread, and continue to chat about the issue with other woodworkers. I might be starting to approach the 'broken record' phase for all I know, but I am still engaged in this topic. In fact, repetition is one of the most appealing reasons I can think of for making use of CNC.

When I was a teenager I worked in my father's business on weekends, which manufactured aluminum sailboat masts. One of my jobs was to work on the metal lathe turning sheaves for the mast heads. Sheaves are another term for pulley, in case you hadn't heard it before. I remember the machining sequence well - face off the end of the stock, drill the center for the bronze bushing, turn the outside down to the diameter required, machine the groove in the sheave for the rope, part off the sheave, press in the bronze bushing and it's pretty much done. The first one you make is an intriguing challenge - by the 4th or 5th one you are starting to get the hang of it, after a dozen you could say you have it down. After 20 or 30 of them you can do it in your sleep pretty much.Soon, you might be starting to dread making another goddamn sheave. I think these sorts of highly repetitive sequences of work, where each part really needs to be identical to the one before, are perfect applications for automation. It's simply not interesting work, and certainly not work with significant opportunity for artistic exploration. Repetition of that sort is a little inhuman actually.

I was thinking more about machinist's work today I visited a local machine shop run by a retired shop teacher, named Tim, who must be around 70 years of age. I have my Oliver jointer fence apart at the moment as I am planning to get the fence re-machined in the near future. There are a few pieces of the fence hinge mechanism that will benefit from some fiddling that only a machinist can provide. I paid a visit to see Tim and ask if he could take a look at the fence hinge parts sometime next week. While chatting with him, I noticed he had a couple of CNC-lathes, both Japanese. He had conventional metal working equipment as well of course, and much of that was Japanese as well. I was thinking to myself, it doesn't seem like machinists have much issue with using CNC equipment. And then thinking of making those sheaves again reminded me of how pleasant it would be to have such parts made on a CNC.

Academics like Sōetsu Yanagi might romanticize the unconscious excellence of the mass produced Korean tea bowl that is the most esteemed piece of among chanoyū cognoscenti. He liked the fact that its beauty was the product, not of deliberate intent on the part of the artisan, but as a by-product of their automata-like perfection of skill. That might be an ideal from an academic view, however such is not always the case for the maker.

A lot of people romanticize woodworking I think, with images of the craftsperson out in their warm and toasty shop, trusty dog snoozing nearby on a cushion, wisps of shavings falling from the board as they construct one perfect surface after another and effortlessly assemble another beautiful creation with pride and satisfaction in a job well done. Well, it might be like that sometimes folks, but a lot of the time its not quite so romantic. A lot of tasks in fact are highly repetitious - in my typical sequence it might be: re-saw the boards, joint the boards, plane the boards, trim the boards to dimension, mark out the joints, sharpen the tools, cut the joints, sharpen the tools, wear some skin off your finger tips and bleed all over everything most inconveniently, make some jigs, test the jigs, adjust the jigs, cut some more joints, profile edges, test assemble, adjust, assemble, adjust, assemble, sharpen tools, finish plane, sharpen tools, finish plane, have some tear out, let out a few curses, try some scraping, start the finishing work, rub oil until you think you are going to lose your mind.

Now, out of the tasks I typically need to undertake on a given project, 95% of them I have had considerable practice with and in some cases no longer find the work all that interesting. For example, running 20 boards through the planer half a dozen times each board, is three hours of time I find, at best, meditative. Now, I really enjoy laying out and cutting joints, really enjoy sharpening and planing, edge profiling, jointing, and so forth. I am no fan of finishing work, and running the shaper I find at times a bit on the scary side.

Importantly, one can not zone out when doing certain of these repetitive tasks as unfortunate outcomes can soon eventuate. As me how I know.

While there is much repetition of a given skill in woodwork, be it sawing a straight line, chiseling out a mortise, planing an edge true or a face flat, it is when faced with the making of numerous identical copies of a given object that the work becomes more, well, machine-like.

It's no surprise that one of the first woodworking specialties to take up the CNC with gusto is the stair-making branch of the trade. Stairs, by nature, are composed of units which repeat, and I'm sure after making 50 bannisters/balusters the intrigue wears off a bit, never mind when making hundreds and hundreds of the same thing as a component stair manufacturer would. While the odd variation in a piece might be delightful in the products of the hand, when you have 5o balusters lined up, the irregular ones stick out and do not look pleasing in most cases. What is called for is absolute uniformity - at least by most clients for such pieces. And it is that sort of work where the repetition of making moves well away from any hope of artistic expression.

As an aside, only peripherally related to the topic at hand today, I read recently that more geometrical stairs are being built today than in the golden age of 19th century stair-building due to the advent of 5-axis CNC machining.

I think a lot of people might associate CNC to some sort of situation where the wood is fed into one end of a giant machine and out the other comes the completed piece. To be sure, there is a good amount of CNC work done along these lines. In such a case, the only interesting job is going to be the designing of the product, and maybe programming the machine, as the other workers in the shop will be doing little other than loading, unloading and packaging. Of course, some might like that sort of work but it isn't typically the sort of environment where those of a more artistic bent would tend to flourish.

However, when looking at the work done by Karl Holtey and others, we can see that the CNC is only forming a part of the overall process - the artisan is choosing the most appropriate tool for the job at hand out of the equipment available. Sometimes the 'best' tool is going to be CNC-based for reasons of the precision afforded - Holtey's employment of CNC milling to cut the multiple oblique dovetails for the wooden-soled planes he makes would be a good example. He avers that it wouldn't be possible to make that joint any other way, and I would have to agree. Sometimes the CNC is going to be the best choice when the work to be done is highly repetitive and not terribly creative - like cutting plywood to shapes which will interlock to form some sort of chair, for example. I certainly wouldn't be too excited by a job where I did nothing all day but cut plywood patterns and trim them. Some would find that work fun, but not me.

I think when the work revolves around the CNC and not much else, the craft disappears for all those except the programmer and designer. And that's a loss. I have more to say yet in relation to the blue collar/white collar ramifications of CNC, and will be looking at that topic a bit more in the next post.

Thanks for coming by today. --> on to post IV

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Computer Numeric Re-Considerations (II)

The topic of CNC (Computer Numeric Control)-operated woodworking equipment has been on my mind a lot in recent days. I have had many discussions with my wife, with the woodworkers upstairs in the building where my shop is located, with the jewelry shop people in that same building, and in the exchange I have had with one of the commenters following up from the first post in this series. I was surprised there weren't more comments, more people up in arms. it seems like a contentious topic to me at least.

One of the comments raised a point, and it is one leveled frequently at CNC-produced objects: the 'coldness' which arises from their 'perfection'. In relation to CNC-produced bicycle components, the commenter (my friend in Nagano, furniture maker Dennis Young) mentioned:

"What is gained in precision and lightness, is lost in warmth",

and,

"No two are exactly the same, more individuality in that, less sterility."

Fair comment, and I do agree that such is often the outcome with a lot of machine-produced items. But I don't think CNC-produced items are especially unique in this regard, nor do I think it is necessarily the case that CNC-produced items can only be inherently cold or sterile. Are Karl Holtey's planes, which feature much CNC-work, sterile?

I'd like to explore that idea of uniformity/sterility/warmth in terms of workmanship a little further today, and I want to be clear that I am not trying to persuade so much here as share the thoughts and ideas that have been current in my consideration of this topic. I find it an intriguing area to explore, and in which to question my own assumptions and prejudices, having never used CNC machinery and been critical of it in the past.

Here's a point that occurred to me in regards to the hand-wrought product: as a craftsman, my objective in making things is in fact to obtain as much precision as I can. I don't imagine too many joiners, come to think of it, working with an intention to create sloppily-fit joints. Some may perhaps be inattentive, or satisfied with mediocrity, but they do not seek to produce poor work, unless they are mad, say, at their boss.

My interest and drive in my process of working wood and creating things is that I want joints to fit with just the right amount of pressure and with good alignment. I want the hand-planed or scraped surface to come out dead flat with no tool marks left behind. I want the molded bead on one side of the table apron to be the same shape and size as the bead on the other aprons. And you know, I never seem to quite achieve those objectives, though I do strive hard to do so, and will continue to strive in that direction. It might be an impossible task to achieve such perfection. It seems to me that if I did achieve that degree of perfection in my product, there would be some observers who might therefore think that product 'cold' or who would think it must be a machine-made product.... It's a little perverse. Welcome to the modern world.

Some craftspeople go to the trouble of making their work look deliberately imperfect so that it looks more 'hand-made', leaving behind -or adding - tool marks, or making things look like they are joined together traditionally when in fact they are not, using materials which look more overtly like the tree they came from (with waney edges, knots, inclusions, rusty bolt holes in salvaged material, etc.. A case in point are Greene and Greene chairs, sideboards, etc., where the pegs often cover screws or are simply decorative, and interior trusses are often simply decorative interior accessories, grand as they do look.

And, as many woodworkers know, the term 'hand-made' is a bit nebulous/subjective to begin with - not that it needs to be, only that it has become so it would seem. On the recent table project, I indeed used such classic hand tools as chisels, planes, scrapers, marking gauges, and hand saws. But I also used powered planers, jointers, routers, drill presses, and so forth. Is that table therefore hand-made? Not strictly speaking. Is it machine made? Not exactly, or at least, not entirely. It's somewhere in the middle. I suspect that vast numbers of woodworkers, at least those making furniture, arrive at their results in much the same way as I did, albeit with less hand tool involvement, and more machine work, being more typical of the process I would say.

I don't, in fact, want to do all the work by hand. Hands up, those out there who would choose to hand plane 1/4" of material off a 12" wide curly bubinga plank to get it down to a thinner dimension? That task would take at least a full day of fairly strenuous labour I would suspect. And if there were a stack of boards upon which the same work need be performed? The novelty might wear off of planing it all down I suspect. Give it a try and see.

Or, hands up again, would you rather run the plank through the planer and get the work done accurately in a few minutes? Or, who would have opted to rip the 20" wide table top panels for that Ming table with a hand saw off of the 3" thick piece of stock? I suspect few takers, and even if there were one or two, I am going to guess that they aren't professionals in the woodworking arena. Nothing wrong with being an amateur, but time constraints are less of a worry in that form of the endeavor obviously.

I might add that it is not always the case that hand tool work is slower - it can often be faster in certain aspects. But not usually when there are large numbers of parts to be processed identically at one time, which is a large portion of the process of making - then the machine is much more efficient.

So, the vast majority of us, we 'hewers of wood', are using machinery to one extent or another. Indeed, based upon what I have seen, I would say 99% of woodworkers utilize powered machinery for virtually all of the work they do. I rarely come across woodworkers with sharp hand tools, for instance, though their business card might depict a jack plane or handsaw. These hand tools are becoming decorative, I dare say, in many shops

All that said, for many, the hand touches, few as they may be, are often the points of pride in the making of the piece. In the western tradition, for instance, there is a tremendous emphasis on hand-cut dovetailed drawers, as one example. Let me digress slightly if I may....

The dovetailed carcase as such is approaching a form of fetish in fact, an obsession among woodworkers - a detail which might be scarcely noticed by the clients who buy the pieces. I think most woodworkers are aware of that point.

It was interesting to note what happened when machines to cut dovetails appeared on the scene in the early 1920's or thereabouts. While the bulk of hand-cut carcase dovetailing was done fairly quickly - and not always all that tidily - in most production settings, the machinery allowed for even faster production of these joints, and got greater uniformity and, I would say in some cases, more predictable quality in production. It can be said that in many cases the machine-made stuff was a form of cheapening a product, and little else.

Those who didn't like the new technology decried the sterility and uniformity of the machine-made dovetail. They still do. And then they chose an interesting course of action in their handwork in relation to dovetails: to focus on making dovetails with ultra-narrow pins, even 'zero-point' dovetails. This now became the hallmark of craftsmanship. Why? Because the spaces on the 'tails board' for such pins could not be cut with a machine!

It's a little whacky though, when the joint is considered from a mechanical integrity perspective. While narrowing out the pins could allow for dovetails to be crowded more tightly together, which would mean greater surface area and a stronger joint, in practice, from what I have observed, the pins get spaced in much the same way as they would with thicker pins. And so, in the quest to lay claim to some apparently hallowed ground in which the machines can't gain entry, the product now makes use of pins which are so skinny as to be weaker than is ideal. Or so it would seem to me.

Further, the dovetailed carcase joints while it is a mechanical connection in one direction at least, without glue it would come apart. So, since glue is really what keeps it together, and since, as many have asserted, modern glues are so wonderful, finger joints would be just as fine a connection. Dovetailed drawer ends are more visually dramatic and are a point of show-off for the maker in a sense. But if you consider the highest class of woodwork, the full through dovetail is somewhat down the list of preferability- considered superior were half-blind dovetails, then full-blind dovetails, and, in the best work, the ultimate method was considered to be concealed mitered dovetails, which are "true craftsmanship without ostentation", as I have read of them being described. Do that though, and many might think you had used dowels or biscuits to put it together. So, since it is not something that can be easily shown, most woodworkers would not opt to make such joints. In short, the reason for the dovetails is largely for show, to communicate a meaning, to make a statement. If they weren't so obvious to view when a drawer was opened, I'm willing to wager that you wouldn't see them done so often.

And the other point in regards to all this fuss about the dovetails which scarcely bears mentioning but I will do so anyhow, is that the consumer, while they may understand to an extent, or have at least been told that 'dovetails' are a sign of quality construction (and, as an aside I would add that no buyer in Japan looking at a high class tansu would be giving any thought to dovetailed drawer construction), if you were to show that consumer a drawer with dovetails that had been produced by one of the better jigs on the market, and a drawer with dovetails made by hand, they would not likely be able to spot the difference. And even if the craftperson pointed out, beaming with pride, the skinny pins in the hand cut dovetails, and told the client what they signified, I expect that at best you would get from that client a shrug, or a slightly hesitant and uncomprehending nod and murmur of 'oh, I see', when in fact they are perhaps thinking 'what is the nut going on about?'

So, these skinny dovetails are often, I dare say, something done to impress other woodworkers, to make a show (that only another woodworker would likely notice) of a part being hand made - - when the rest of the piece may well have been cut almost entirely with power tools. It's a funny thing. It may not always be a show for others - it may be something the woodworker does to simply validate to themselves what they are doing as a maker, to tell themselves that they are still, uh, hewing that material the old fashioned way, at least in some small part. And I'm not saying there is anything wrong with that, per se, only to show the lengths some makers will go to claim some of that precious 'hand-made' cachet in their work.

The zenith of quality handwork, from a 19th century perspective at least, is the perfect surface, the crisp carving, the light-tight joinery. And if you achieved it in a piece, people would likely think, in this day and age, that it was machine made. This puts the craftsperson in a position of having to have some portion of their work clearly look hand-done if they want to signify clearly that the piece is hand-made.

So, given that inhuman, 'cold' perfection is associated to the machine, many will associate some slight irregularity in a piece with the work of the hand - the errant tool mark here and there, the scraper mark left behind, the one leg that is subtly shaped differently than the others, the carved flower with detail differences from the other ones nearby, etc.. This is the sort of imperfection and diversity that delighted Ruskin. And here's the shocking thing: there's no reason you can't have the exact same outcome with CNC, if that is the desired result. I find that somewhat humorous actually.

It is no issue to program the CNC such that each piece, say one cabriole leg, is varied from the next in some slight way. This is not what happens in practice, from what I've seen, however it is very much within the realm of the machine's capabilities. Or, as is already done in some non-CNC work, one could go over the CNC'd 'perfection' and deliberately place tool marks. Yes, it's not what might be called honest craftsmanship, and it's not something I would be interested in doing, but as an approach it would be nothing new in the world of furniture making.

So, I've given some attention to the idea that CNC-produced work need be inherently sterile. I don't think it is necessarily the case, at least in terms of the capabilities of the technology. I might add that certainly there is no shortage of conventionally produced woodwork that is sterile, lacking in variation, craftsmanship, or visual interest. Even hand carving can be insipid or magnificent, depending upon talent of the carver.

In the following posts on this topic - and I've got a fair amount to say yet - I'll delve into other facets of this intriguing CNC question.

Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way today. Comments always welcome. --> on to post III

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Computer Numeric Re-Considerations

I've been in touch with an architect from Pittsburgh in the past couple of months who has invited me to collaborate on a residential project in urban Pittsburgh. The structure is to be 30' x 60', two main floors with smaller rooms under the roof, which is to be a Mansard. He wants me to design the Mansard, which is to have exposed timber framing, and there is also discussion that I will design a geometrical (helical) main staircase and some intriguing dormers. At this point it remains a discussion so we'll see what happens.

You will note in the above paragraph that I said design, not design and build. The architect's intent, at least with the timber roof portion of the project, is to have the timbers cut by another contractor, using lasers no less. While I remain a bit skeptical at this point, apparently it can be done with larger timbers now, so I'll keep an open mind. The staircase work and the other double curvilinear work with the dormers seems to be intended for production via the world of 5-axis CNC.

So, I am left, in considering the opportunity, assessing the situation here - how do I feel about designing and not building? What is important to me about the process of making objects? Lots of questions have been swirling through my mind of late, and one of the things I have been thinking about is Computer Numeric Control, or CNC for short. I'm already very dedicated to drawing my pieces on the computer, and see many advantages to it, so the steps over to CNC are not so far. A lot to think about however!

My previous experiences looking at CNC-produced timber frame work has not been one of being awestruck. The surface qualities of the timbers I saw retained obvious machining marks, the fit of the joinery was not as good as I would have thought possible, and the product overall had a somewhat 'cold' feel - I know that is a bit of a nebulous description, but it's the best word I could think of to describe it. That said, a tool is a tool, and while I do not believe in the so-called neutrality of technology, I remain open minded when it comes to the capabilities and directions made possible by new forms of technology. At one point, people resisted the introduction of the telephone, while today I hesitate about texting.

Technology can be used in various ways, and not all of those ways can ever be fully envisioned by the developer of a given technology - indeed, there are many examples of a technology being developed for one express purpose which then found wide use in some unexpected field later on.

So, with CNC, what is the purpose - why do companies adopt this technology? From my examination thus far, and from reading various testimonials from companies that have gone to CNC for some aspect of their production, the common reasons include:
  • obtaining consistent product quality run to run
  • improving product quality
  • improving interface between design and manufacture
  • increasing productivity
CNC finds wide application in production of large multiples of a given part, whether it be elliptical molding, stair-rail parts, plywood chairs, and so forth. CNC is also very useful in prototyping before production begins.

Now, it isn't the mass-production/productivity equation that appeals so much to me. Like any other type of woodworking, if the design is ugly or poorly conceived, CNC adds only a reduction in price. Indeed, lots the CNC-produced stuff I have seen in wood is of little to no appeal to me.

However, that's not the point. The capability of CNC is to produce really any design which can be envisioned, and fabricated, potentially, with high accuracy. That does appeal to me. Here's a point - my interest in bicycles, for instance, involves CNC. My current ride has quite a few parts on it which are produced by CNC, including the headset and hubs, stem, seat post, and so forth. My life rides on those parts - they must be reliable. I like it if they are beautiful too! Actually, the fact that they are produced by CNC is an additional bonus, even a cachet to those products. Look at this handlebar stem for example, made by Italian firm Extralite:
Now, though it may look like a machined chunk of aluminum (which indeed it is!), what you are not seeing is the hundreds of hours of design work that went into this product, including finite element analysis. The stem is machined out to the wazoo and weighs less than 100 grams. I've had it on my bike for several years now with no problems.

Is it cheap? No. But consider what it would cost to have it made by hand. I don't even know if
I'd want it made by hand - the product is pushed to a technical limit of materials, and frankly I think I would trust the CNC more. I certainly know that I could only afford the CNC-produced item.

Consider Karl Holtey, the esteemed British maker of metal-bodied woodworking planes. He's now making a 'transitional plane' (<-- a link), which is wood-bodied with a metal Norris-style adjustment mechanism. The soles of his planes are made of two woods locked together by lots of oblique sliding dovetails:
The above joint is an example of a connection that couldn't be well made any other way than CNC. Intriguingly, he doesn't use his planes to process the surfacing cuts on the plane sole parts - he uses his CNC milling machine.

Take a look at a photo series (<-- link) depicting the steps involved in making his #982 smoothing plane. Anyone out there who would say that these planes are not desirable due to the fact that computer numeric machining is involved? Does it look 'cookie cutter' to anyone out there? My point is that CNC can be used to produce extremely precise objects, and really the beauty is part of the designer's skill. Most people, I think, would choose beautiful and precise over ugly and precise, however there are many who would also choose beautiful and poorly made over ugly and precisely made. Funny how that goes - and that's why there are so many neat designer products that don't last very long. Consumers usually are not oriented to the details of how something is made or care even about how long it will last. This is the consumer society and that is how the conditioning has been done.

I've got more to say on CNC - today's post is the opening salvo about a topic to which I have devoted a fair amount of thought recently. --> on to part II

Thursday, March 17, 2011

This One Rings a Bell (16)

I'm sure a lot of regular readers of his blog may have been wondering as to the status of the Japanese bell tower project I was so earnestly designing in the fall of last year. I've had a few emails querying the progress on that job, and said I would post something soon enough.

The drawing consumed hundreds of hours of my time and pushed my technical drawing to new heights and limits - much of that due to issues with SketchUp, which is not especially well-designed for double curvilinear work. Other problems were discovered in my Japanese layout texts, and it took me quite a while to convince myself that the texts were wrong and not my drawings. Anyway, in the end I conquered the problems and submitted the drawings to the client as .jpegs, the same pictures shown in the previous post in this thread.

Then the client asked me to put a cut list together, and given that the tower needed some 15,000 board feet of timber, all of it custom sizes, that cut list generation took me several days of work.

Then the client had me communicate with a sawyer in Alaska and indicated it might be better if I looked after all the material sourcing.

Then something happened, I have no idea what. I suspect the price of the material, at @$5/board foot, was more than the client was expecting, in relation to the volume of wood required, which he may not have also been expecting. Suddenly the client wanted to "shop around" some more and talk to other mills. Perhaps he hoped to find cheaper wood. Then the client was talking about taking a trip to Ketchican AK to visit the mills, an idea I had floated months earlier, and then he wasn't talking about it.

The client asked me to submit drawings to his engineer, which required I clean them up and convert them to .dwg format, and that took some time.

With the drawings submitted, I asked the client about coming to satisfactory contractual arrangements. He asked me to draft a contract proposal. Again, a few more days of work. I submitted the contract proposal, and waited. And waited.

A few weeks later I called the client to ask him what was happening in regards to the contract. He hummed and hawed and said he had read it and was "thinking it over" but with "so much on the go right now" he was feeling "frozen" about the whole thing but assured me he would be getting in touch. He said he was looking to get the drawings through the building department "first", and that the engineer was "busy with other things". Okay, whatever.

By this point the Ming inspired table project had taken flight so I decided to give that my full attention and let the bell tower client sort things out.

In mid-December, a few days before Christmas, I suddenly got an email from the engineer asking me to submit the complete drawing again, in .dwg format. I thought that things must be moving along, so I sent the file. Then the client contacted me and asked for photos of a bell tower that had served as a point of inspiration for the tower design. He said he'd lost the ones I'd sent earlier. I sent him the photos and gave a gentle nudge in regards to the contract negotiation.

Then just a few days before Christmas came an email from the client thanking me for my work:

"Regarding a construction agreement for the Bell Tower, I have wracked my brain over this and have been unable to imagine how we might work together successfully given the complexity of the project and your considerable distance from _______. So for now I have decided to try to work with a nearby Japanese daiku who just recently came to my attention. You may know him since he also worked on the Ellison project. His name is ______. If this doesn't work out, I will again try to figure some way you could work with us. One never knows what the future will bring.
Again, thanks for your formidable effort in designing the Bell Tower. We shall be forever thankful.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!!!
Gassho"

"Merry Christmas" he said....

That was quite a stunning and entirely unexpected email to receive, one of those I can't believe this moments, familiar to all who are self employed.

I was doubly stunned because I had done all the drawing work based on a very clear conversation with the client in the Fall of 2010 where I told him that the only way I could be involved in the project would be if I fabricated the tower here in Massachusetts. When he gave me the signal that that would work for him, I did the drawing work for a fixed low price of $1500. I felt it was a fair exchange at the time and told myself that even if the project didn't materialize, the chance to draw such a structure would be reward enough. I still feel like I gained so much from designing a very complex Japanese traditional structure - I don't think there are too many non-Japanese carpenters who could have designed it - and very few on this continent.

I'm really not sure quite what happened, however I suspect that the client was never really comfortable with me fabricating the structure out here, out of his daily purview. I got the sense he wanted more control and oversight of things. He wasn't very trusting I guess. Many timber frame structures are shop-built at distance from the site where they will be later erected, so it was nothing unusual to me.

So, bummer, but I still view it as a gain overall. I was frankly shocked at the way it devolved, though I must admit that the warning flags had been present from the outset. I made further communications with the client advising him as to copyright regulations and unauthorized use of my drawings, and then received a reply which clarified much about the client's way of being, which, upon further reflection, has led me to feel most pleased to have no further involvement with that person and his project.

So, I'm sorry there will be no more continuation of this thread, but you never know what might happen and it's possible another similar project will come along one day. If it does, I am very well-prepared!

I learned some new things too about clarifying contractual arrangements and perhaps being a little more careful when the project is such an attractive glittering jewel to me that I overlook signals in the communication with the client that should have led me to a more prudent course of action. Live and learn.

In my experience so far, the jobs that have gone well have involved a direct personal connection with the client. In the case of the bell tower, the client was someone I never met in person, spoke to only a couple of times on the phone, and had always unnerved me with his terse and inconsistent communication style. For me now, such things are clear warning signs.

I have developed great relationships with the clients I have had thus far, and this experience with the bell tower design process, despite the unfortunate outcome, has only served to cement a conviction in my heart as to how important a successful partnership with the client is to the outcome.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Inspiration - Ford Hallam

I was sent links to two videos recently by a reader, each about one half of a documentary on acclaimed jeweler/metalsmith Ford Hallam. Hallam's path is following, and branching from, traditional Japanese metal crafts. He has indeed reached a high level of consummate artisanry in his work. I am deeply impressed by his skill, and humbled by the purity of his approach to the work, and thought I'd share these videos -Utsushi - In Search of Katsuhira's Tiger - with readers here. For full screen, click twice and you will find yourself over on YouTube.

Part 1:



Part 2:



Hallam's teacher in Japanese metal craft is Izumi, Koshiro, and here Hallam makes some comments about his sensei:



And finally, Hallam comments about his method of work, which is centered on hand tools:



I hope readers here find, like I did, tremendous inspiration in this artist's work. I feel energized to deepen my path of study and effort in the medium in which I work.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Ming Inspiration (50)

Before I start today, I want to express my condolences to those readers, friends and their families affected by the recent horrendous earthquake in Japan. I lived near Sendai for a year in 1995, and spent another 18 months in a small town on the southern coast of Hokkaidō, both being areas which have been severely affected by the quakes and tsunami. So the images I've been seeing are of places I have visited or lived close to, and I reflect upon how challenging things must be at this time for people in the affected areas.

------------


I haven't posted in a while, and that is not due to any lack of desire or absence of things to say- I've been flat-out busy getting the table completed.

I realized about a week ago that the finishing was going to be slower than I had initially planned/hoped, and also that I had delayed the delivery of the table several times already, which is hardly what I might term 'ideal'. With some reluctance, I made a call to the client where I mentioned that another week's delay would be mighty helpful. The client however, had made plans to take off for a two week vacation, and was really wanting to see the table before he left - hardly unreasonable since we were 4 months into the project. So I did the best I could, but of course, the Tung oil only dries and hardens as it likes to - even with supplementary heating and fans. So, longer hours ensued, and most days consisted of oiling and rubbing for a good 5~6 hours and then moving onto the 'other stuff'.

Lots and lots of last minute details - the 'other stuff' - needed to be dealt with, and I had to do the work at a fairly high rate of speed to meet the deadline. I really didn't have time to take photos most of the time - nevertheless, I have accumulated a good pile of pics to share today. Again, my apologies to those with slower connections or older computers.

One of the myriad tasks to complete was to put my makers mark on, which I composed out of ebony and holly and fitted to the underside of the central rail:


There is a jeweler's shop upstairs in the building and I have become friendly with the two craftspeople there, and they kindly allowed - encouraged me, actually - to use some of their tools to work on the holly inlay. Jeweler's gear is pretty neat, and like me, they are striving to be precise and fussy in their work. I found their equipment and advice most helpful.

With the oiling more or less to completion, I could start assembling the pieces. First, I slid the dovetailed battens into place on the backside of one of the top panels, and then fitted the central rail to that assembly:


The central rail is brought closer into position:


Then it is drawn tight against the shims to leave it at the desired offset:


Another view - the underside:


Next, I assembled the battens to the other top panel, and then brought that assembly into union with the first half:


Some clamps and more shims completed the top panel sub-assembly:


Then it was time to do a check-fit of the long side aprons, with their 13 dovetails/10 stub tenons/5 sliding rod tenons engagement:


Another view:


Satisfied with the fit and positioning, I pulled the aprons off and started fitting the dovetailed yatoi-sen:


After the fit was checked, I wiped the inside of the joint with Tung oil:


Here's one rail with all the yatoi-sen fitted:


In the Chinese original, the dovetailed joints along the long edges were wiped with lacquer to serve as a weak adhesive - I opted to wipe some Tung oil/varnish mix on the joints, which should serve much the same purpose:


On goes the long apron with its five yatoi sen engaging into the '+'-shaped slots on the batten ends:


Getting closer, one tap at a time:


The white residue you can see on the inside of the apron is from wet-sanding the varnish. That gets wiped off later and more coats of oil get put on.

Once the rails were fully inserted, I put some clamps in place to hold everything firmly tight and then started fitting the shachi-sen to the inside corner joints. I used ebony for these wedging pins:


I find ebony has a fair amount of splits and checks in it, so there is about 30~40% waste whwn making such parts. Ouch!

Once the pins were at a satisfactory point, I fitted the dovetailed, cross-tongued locking bars for the corner legs:


Locking bar now fitted, and shachi sen driven in - you can see the tip of the pin on the front of the joint:


I fitted all four corners similarly, and then flipped the table over:


The finish on the table top was getting closer at that point, but is not nearly done yet:


That was midweek - the next couple of days were very intense and exhausting, but I managed to get the work done in the nick of time. We were scheduled to arrive at the client's house at 6:00 pm, and pulled in the driveway at 5:59. Whew!

I wasn't simply delivering the table - the client had put on a dinner party in which I would be assembling the table's legs and giant arms braces to the table top in front of an audience. So, I had about 10 people watching me as I put the table together, which took a solid 90 minutes of work. It was a great opportunity to explain the work I do and to show how solid wood joined construction works. The people watching seemed pretty jazzed by that I would say. I managed to involve the client in the process as well, leaving an ebony peg for him to tap into place.

In the end, there stood the table:


A glance underneath:


The client was extremely delighted with the table and it wasn't long before new guests showed up and he had them laying down with him under the table and was then recounting the details of how it went together. It was fun to watch and very rewarding for me to see the patron's enthusiasm.


That's my wife on the left, me, the client and his wife to the right.

The table is now 98% complete. With the fitting process comes peg trimming and that then requires some additional oiling work. The top could use another coat or two of oil, and when I got the sheen very even on the final day of work in the shop, I noticed a couple of small ripples in one of the top panels, which means I have to take the finish back down to bare wood in that area and smooth things a bit. The client likes the slight irregularities, however I cannot let the piece out of my hands quite like that. So, I have taken the piece back to my shop for those final touch-ups, and then will let the oil cure for a spell before I apply a wax. I will be re-delivering the finished piece shortly before the end of the month.

Here's one last view of the table, short apron end, back in my shop and ready for some final touch-ups:


Gotta love that bubinga- though it isn't the easiest material to work, and frankly such expensive material was scary to work at certain junctures. But the figure and colour is wonderful!

I also will take the opportunity to get some professional photos taken of the table and will be sharing those with readers in another week or so.

This project was a true challenge - pushing the envelope for me as a maker and exploring the ideal of glue-less, joined hardwood furniture construction in the Classic Chinese idiom. It went from Ming inspiration to Ming perspiration to, in the last couple of days, Ming desperation. At times I wondered, despite my many years of study and work, if I might be in over my head, biting off more than I could possibly chew. It was uh, a fairly demanding table to make on a technical level. Perhaps no one has attempted to make a table along these lines since the end of the 16th century.

Well, I managed somehow to get through to this point, and am very grateful to the maker of the Ming side table, the unknown craftsman whose brilliant design inspired my efforts. I couldn't have done it without him and couldn't have done it without the help of fellow craftsmen in the building who were generous with their time, tools, and help. My client was awesome - I have never had such an enthusiastic supporter. And finally, to my wife, who has put up with - moreover, supported - an obsessed maniac these past few weeks, my sincere apologies - I hope to return to being your sane reasonable husband in the very near future. For the next couple of days, I plan to take things a little on the leisurely side.

Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way. --> See the final studio pictures!

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Innovation Nation?

A few years ago I went up to the L.S. Starrett factory in Athol, Massachusetts, about 20 minute's drive from where I live now. Starrett makes lots of tools that woodworker and machinists desire, like squares, rules, gage blocks, straightedges, etc. I phoned ahead and asked if I could have a tour of the factory. They kindly obliged and I was given a personal tour, taken to see anything I wanted to see. of course, I first wanted to see the place where they made the squares.

That was a most intriguing visit, however one of the things that struck me keenly about the factory and its equipment was how ancient and, well, primitive the set-up seemed to be. The only modern piece of equipment that I noticed was a laser engraver which they use to mark out rulers. The rest were all traditional old-school metalworking machines. They even had some machining centers still in use which dated to the second world war. Their products are high quality to be sure, however I was really expecting to see a more modern facility.

Now, probably the main company I think of when it comes to L.S. Starrett's market competition, worldwide, is the Japanese firm Mitutoyo. I would like to one day have a tour of their facility as well, and I have a strong suspicion that it will be fairly modern with loads of CNC operated machines, lab-sterile cleanliness, etc.. I would be shocked if it was anything like the L.S. Starrett facility.

The other day I was reading a post over at the old woodworking machines forum about a member's visit to the Northfield company in Minnesota. You can read about it here.

Northfield Foundry and Machine Company is one of the very last US companies making heavy duty woodworking machines, and they are to be congratulated for their survival. I was struck when looking through the photos of the Northfield factory, that, just like L.S. Starrett, it was very old fashioned looking in its set up and equipment. There was the odd CNC machine, but mostly it was old school equipment making the machinery.

Here's a picture from Northfield's website of a brand new jointer:


Direct drive, 3 point chassis, 4 knife cutterhead - a classic type of jointer. It can be had with a variety of motors and with belt drive if so desired, though the machine pictured is direct drive. Current list price for the machine, which comes in three sizes (12", 16", and 24") ranges from $15,000~19,000, depending upon options.

Now, I would like you to take a gander at a Northfield jointer currently listed for sale by a machinery dealer in Pennsylvania, a 1961 model:


Notice anything? Yes- you're not seeing double - - itt is readily apparent that things haven't changed much in 50 years with the Northfield jointer. It is virtually the exact same machine, from what I can tell. Sometime in the 1970's the newer type of 'Northfield' badge was added, though I'm not sure of this. Perhaps some other minor details have changed, likely involving the motor and switching electrics at least.

I did a little more digging and found a picture of another Northfield Jointer, restored, made in February 1943, about the same time as my own Oliver 166 jointer:


I find this kind of curious actually. Why is the design of this machine frozen in time?

Let's look at another heavy duty jointer, made by a company that has been in business about as long as Northfield, Martin Woodworking Machines based in Germany. Few would argue that they make the finest shapers, jointers, planers and sliding saws in the world.

Martin's first jointer was actually a jointer-planer, and was called the T50. It was introduced in the early 1950's. I couldn't locate any photos of it, however I did find one of the next iteration in the dedicated jointer line, the T-51:


That is a 1960's model. Basic, stout, accurate, with a longer in-feed table than out-feed, which is desirable. Note the casting for the table is at least 3" deep.

A few years later along comes the T-52:


Not much has changed, though the fence support system has been streamlined and the base chassis, which is of concrete and steel hybrid construction to optimally dampen vibration, has been streamlined. Cast iron, if you think about, is a good material to make resonating objects from, like bells.

Then we see the T-53, in the late 1980's I believe, with control desk:


The fence support and movement system has been revamped and the fence has an attached swing-out sub fence for jointing thin and narrow stock. The control desk allows the operator to adjust cut depth without stooping over to turn a wheel or move a lever, and allows the tables to be 'sprung' when desired so as to allow slightly hollowed edge jointing to be easily accomplished.

The current model is the T-54- this one having the optional 2.5m in-feed table:


Drool!!

My point here is that the German product appears to be part of a process of continual innovation and refinement. A Martin T51 looks like a horse and buggy affair compared to the T54. Price on a new T54, which is 20" wide, is around $20,000. Not too different than a large optioned-out Northfield.

I thought I'd pop in a video showing the Martin, so you can see how it cuts wood, along with it's companion piece, the T44 planer (double click to get full screen):



Given the features, build quality and price, which machine would you chose, had you the means to buy? for me, the decision would require no time at all - the Martin.

And for a glimpse of how the Martin factory looks, here's a video giving some idea as to that:




It's impressive - except for the soundtrack.

Looking at other Northfield machines, I notice they make a sliding table saw:


These machines run anywhere from $16,000~$35,000 - -and then there is an extensive list of extra-cost options.

Again, let's compare to a standard Martin sliding table saw, the T-73:


The saw is priced around $24,000, and there are of course extra-cost options. Again, for the money, I would pick this over the Northfield without a second thought. I would only pick the Northfield if I was constrained to only 'buy American' for some reason - and I'm not the nationalistic type.

Anyway, my main question here, and I'm putting this out there, is why are companies like L.S. Starrett and Northfield seemingly frozen in time with many of their products? Why have they ceased to innovate?

I have been mulling question this over for a while, and asking other people in my immediate circle of contact about their thoughts and I really can't come to any firm conclusions about it. While there are some innovative products coming out of the US these days, like Apple Computers (designed here, made overseas), I am hard-pressed to come up with physical, manufactured products that are world leaders in terms of quality and technical innovation. That is to say, outside of military hardware. Now, why is that?

I know in my own work that with every piece I make, I learn a little something new, make a few new mistakes, have a few new successes - and take those lessons forward in the next thing I make. I can't see how one would not do that, unless one preferred to be asleep at the wheel as it were, avoiding risk and always working well within one's conceived limits. Or is it something else?

Adapt or die - isn't that a mantra for survival on this earth? Why are these American companies not doing that? What will become of them eventually - can they maintain this approach?

Or, another way of looking at is that these companies have become too comfortable with an earlier adaptation they made and are now afraid to change. As George Bernard Shaw, Irish dramatist said in his 1903 work Man and Superman "Maxims for Revolutionists":
"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."
I would be quite interested to know what readers think. Is is a cultural difference between Germans and Americans? Are there German companies of a similar kind to L.S. Starrett and Northfield to be found, making essentially the same products as they did 50 years ago or more, with much the same production equipment and infrastructure?

I visited a temple carpentry outfit in Ōsaka when I was last in Japan - in business since 1400. What could be more traditional? Their shop was a bit of a surprise as it had plenty of modern equipment in it.

Even staid old Morgan cars in Britain, which eschews an assembly line and pushes the vehicles around from building to buildings has more up-to-date vehicle models (the 'Plus-8') in it's line up - they're not simply making the same cars they made 50 years ago.

Americans were once the most innovative people on earth - in the 1850~1900 period at least. What has changed that? Is it the education system? Is is complacency? What?

As a final piece to think about, I'll leave you a link by a writer for Foreign Policy Magazine, David Rothkopf, a piece entitled, "The Myth of the Innovation Nation" from January of this year. Enjoy - and please share your thoughts.

Thanks for coming by The Carpentry Way.