Sunday, September 23, 2007

Homemade Knives!

In brief, here's what I learned down in North Carolina:

1) How to make a knife template from a customer's sample moulding. The template is depicted below. This one was made by hand, but where I work, a computer controlled router churns these out. Incidentally, it's signed not because of its incredible beauty, but simply to differentiate it from my classmates' templates.

2) How to use that sample to grind knives to be used in the moulder. The knives are depicted below. These are ground from stock M2 steel, an alloy containing Molybdenum. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the knife grinding machine (which costs more than $30k) is really just a fancy version of a key grinder. A stylus guides the spinning grinding wheel across the template's pattern, and transfers that pattern to the the knive's edges. Grinding the knives takes about 20-30 minutes.

3) How to set up and run the moulder. Below you'll see the moulding that was run from the knives I ground. Once the machine is set up, it can change the dimensions or add profiles to all four faces of a piece of stock, and it can do this very quickly.

As I have mentioned, the company which offered this class, Stiles Machinery, is a leader in "Panel Processing" (working with plywood and MDF) and "Solid Wood Technologies" (working with wood). Having worked primarily in small shops, I've not seen the kinds of machines for sale in Stiles' showroom, and I'd wager that very few of my woodworking brethren have either.

Allow me to offer some examples:

Stiles sells machines which can apply a cured, high-gloss finish to a plywood cabinet component in about four minutes.

I saw people running assembled 5-piece maple doors through a multi-head sander, and when the doors came out of the machine, most recently having been sanded with 400-grit flaps, they were in amazing condition to take a finish. The doors looked like they'd been hand-detailed, not like they'd been sandblasted.

The showroom included gang rip-saws through which rip wide pieces of stock are transformed into multiple moulder blanks in a matter of seconds. Ditto for the incredible cut-off saw and robotic hopper.

You know, I really try to make this blog a technical, informative one, and not one where I wax philosophical about stuff. I try to steer clear of opining and editorializing. BUT, the stuff I saw last week has really got me thinking about what we mean when we talk about craft, and about the future of craft in the face of these kinds of capabilities.

Let's imagine that there's a continuous scale which has on one end a single person producing a piece of furniture entirely by hand, and on the other, several acres of servo-driven, robotically fed, software optimized big-box machines spitting out cabinets. Let's say that the fit and finish produced by these two efforts ultimately reaches the point of total equality. Is that awesome or sad? Is it both?

There have been craft traditions (The Arts and Craft Movement, The Roycrofters) which have rejected the machine in favor of "the best I can do" by hand work alone. Most fine woodworkers these days blanch at the thought of production machinery or factory furniture. But, at the same time, most fine woodworkers daily take advantage of technological advances their predecessors didn't have access to, like electricity, improvements in tool steel, and the like. So where does the continuous scale from all-hand-work to total-machine-work move from useful and cool to simply dehumanized and dreary?

I don't know. If you know, please post a comment.


Anonymous said...

it's not an either/or situation, and there is no real line, the debate goes on because the question isn't valid ...i guess it becomes dehumanized when the human stops caring, it has nothing to do w/the technology :)

Anonymous said...

i'm sorry, that really wasn't really appropriate for what you were saying at all ...i am just sensitive about the crafts-movement people, i work around them regularly and they drive me up the wall have an interesting question, different from what i responded to ...nevermind :)

Anonymous said...

duh. someone else should say something. this is why i don't blog. glad these are anonymous. sorry, wood mechanic. great work.

The Wood Mechanic said...

Anonymous, no need to apologize for your first post! This issue is kind of a hot one for many craftspeople. For what it's worth, though, it's not really all that hot for me. I enjoy learning stuff, whether it's how to use some old-fangled handplane or a new-fangled moulder. As far as the modern day "crafts-movement people" go, while I often appreciate their sincerity, I do wonder how they expect to make a living doing woodworking once they're done with their degree programs. Inevitably, part of being a good craftsperson is doing high quality work fairly quickly.

And yes, won't someone else weigh in on this?

Anonymous said...

word. thanks. yes, weigh in.

clayb said...

didn't the original craftsman movement die out because only the really wealthy could afford the product? When I have made dovetail joints in the past I hogged out the main material with a dado blade and then cut to the corners with a coping saw. Was this the traditional method, no way, but I needed to get the damn thing out the door quick so I could get the money that I needed for diapers beer and food.

how's that?

clayb said...

Sorry, I meant to say, wasn't the original notion of the "noble proletarian craftsperson" compromised...?

clayb said...

Besides, I intend so slowly, methodically destroy my fine affordable Ikea cabinetry with my children, my pets and my all too frequent moving practices.

Jules said...

Sorry it's taken me so long to respond. I think the question you pose is an interesting one. You give the example of two virtually identical pieces of furniture, one hand-crafted, and the other made by machine. The difference,to me, is the heart and soul and sweat that went into making the hand-crafted piece. That's what makes it more interesting.

It got me thinking to the age-old writer's dilemma(well,a dilemma to some) about longhand versus computer,or even typewriter. Is a well-written modern novel any less well-written because it has been composed,if you will, on a "machine"? I know it's not exactly the same thing,but there are writers out there who consider any novel not written in longhand inferior.

Speaking strictly of furniture, the human element counts for an awful lot. There is no "soul" in a chest of drawers that comes in a do-it-yourself kit at Target. Unfortunately,money is a big issue for most people when buying furniture. But as long as there continues to be a market for what you do,and what Harrison does,I say, "Keep on truckin'!"

Not much other news here. Have you been to see Dylan yet? I hope you requested "Big Butts." Love,Sis

The Wood Mechanic said...

Thanks for everyone's comments. Clay--to your comment about hogging out dovetail waste, I say: If Thomas Chippendale had had Baltic Birch plywood, he would have used it.

Anonymous said...

I was drawn to your article called "Homemade Knives", but was disappointed. What you really meant was machine made knives. I learned how to make moulder knives the original "Homemade" way. You know, making a jointer stone to match the patern, and then cutting out the knives by tracing the pattern onto it. You then hog out the majority of the material, and then shape the knife by hand on a grinder. Once all the knives are cut out, you have to grind the bevel by hand. Once it is beveled, you balance them and set them into a moulder head in a jointer stand, and run them up to speed and joint them with your jointer stand. Then you can grind the jointed parts only from the beveled side. The knives are then made. Incidentally, I did this for about 12 years, and made thousands using this method.

No templates or 30K machines needed. Just talent, and a good grinder and knife bevel jig.

That would be a real "Homemade Knives" article I would like to see sometime. I guess it is a forgotten art.