Monday, October 17, 2011

Stop the ride, I want to get off!

The work that period woodworkers were able to accomplish with such a small kit is astonishing, when you compare it with the level of tooling present in most modern shops, even hobby shops. I tend to agree with Adam Cherubini on this point: he's mentioned that most woodworkers are equipped in a fashion more similar to a 1900s production shop than that of an 18th century woodshop, but that most of our woodworking output is geared more to a 18th century shop mindset (smaller volume, one-off pieces not production runs).

One thing that contributed to the output of period woodworkers and their small kits is the level of specialization. For example, in many cases they bought wood already sawn to the proper size and thickness by professional sawyers, eliminating the need for rough hewing / planing / sawing. A Philadelphia chairmaker probably wouldn't have needed carving chisels, as he would have had a professional carver do that portion of the work. He likely wouldn't have finished his own chair, as there were professional finishers to do that job. Upholstery was the same deal. In contrast, modern woodworkers do it all, and most of us are self-trained, unlike period woodworkers who would likely have had at least a minimal apprenticeship with a skilled master.

Modern woodworkers are frequently doing the work of several skilled craftsman with significantly less training that the average worker of the past. Because of this, the projects that modern woodworkers complete on a regular basis are just as impressive, if not more so, than the 18th century pieces we all revere. It also, in some ways, explains the woodworking community and its obsession with tools, as we are all fighting an uphill battle against basic human nature. We can't do everything or be good at everything, so we all seek the next great thing to allow us to cut those perfect dovetails, or carve the Newport shell, or apply a French polish in 20 minutes. It's a losing battle, but one that makes a great deal of money for some people.

Like a lot of guys, I'm just trying to get off the merry-go-round, be happy with the tools I have and can find / restore, and make the best furniture and sash that I can with what skills I've got.