Sunday, September 30, 2007

Portfolio Photos at Flickr

I've been slow to organize photos of my work at Flickr, but I finally have. Click the Flickr badge at the right of this page to look at my portfolio. Be sure to peruse both sets ("Architectural Woodwork" and "Furniture and Decorative Arts"), and leave comments if you're so inclined.

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.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Wood Mechanic Hits the Road

I'm in Greensboro, N.C. for training on the two machines pictured below. The first one is a fancy knife grinder, which grinds the profiles into the tool steel used in shapers and moulders to create mouldings. One makes a template which the machine follows to guide a grinding wheel across the surface of blank tool steel. Basically, it works like a big, expensive key grinder. It used to be that the templates were cut out of 1/16" mild steel and filed by hand, a process that could take hours. Nowadays, one simply outputs a CAD drawing to a little desktop CNC router that cuts the template from a sheet of acrylic. It even etches in a job name if you want. If I ran "," that little router is the kind of thing I'd put on it.

The second machine is a state-of-the-art six-head moulder marketed under the brand name Kentwood and sold by Stiles Machinery. Competing brands include Diehl, Wadkin, and Weinig. Moulders have been around since the mid nineteenth century when someone got the bright idea of combining jointing, planing, and moulding operations into one machine. The early ones were belt-driven monstrosities that ran from a central shaft that powered all the motors in the shop. I imagine they had a "parts" bucket next to these things, not for machine parts, but for people parts. In any case, a moulder is capable of quickly and accurately producing large quantities of any straight moulding used in a building. In fact, 2 x 4's and other dimensional lumber is milled in a moulder,which reduces the rough stock to the final dimension and rounds the corners. We use ours for anything from white pine shoe moulding to 9" crown moulding. Until we got this new machine, we were using one from the late 30's and another from the mid 80's.

I hope to post more updates as this training week continues.

Lastly--please send me some emails; I'm lonely down here!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Seven Oak Newel Posts

Last week I worked on this set of seven large fluted oak newel posts. The photos below show the newels at various stages of completion. I used lock miters on the upper column and splined miters on the lower, larger column. The mouldings were made to match those in a photo provided by the customer.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Bartering with the Dentist

Here's a curly maple through-dovetailed chest I made for my dentist several years ago in exchange for some fillings. I've been thinking about this piece recently because of my newfound obsession with tool sharpness. A good set of hand-chopped dovetails really depends on sharp chisels, and I think this piece could have been better with sharper tools. The photo is very flattering, hiding the flaws which I can see so clearly in my mind's eye.