Monday, January 30, 2012

It's funny what you see when you're not looking

"Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do."
-Bruce Lee

I came across this quote by accident today, but it perfectly describes something I've been trying to tell people about learning woodworking... or learning many other things for that matter. And it's right in line with the sentiment that you have to GET OFF OF THE INTERNET TO LEARN.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

What did I learn today?

A lot of my shop philosophies are a mash-up of things I learned in Getting Things Done, and The Toyota Way, mixed with a little bit of Gantt charting and a few other things. One of the big issues is planning out the work that I have to do, so that I can do it, without completely spinning out about how to do whatever it is that I'm supposed to be doing. For a start, that's not too bad. And if I write down my plan, and a list of what's coming up, it helps me to be productive when I come in the next day.

Lately, various things have been conspiring to keep me away from the shop for a few days at a time, or wildly distracted when I'm there, and there have been a few days lately when I've wandered in, thinking "Ok, what was I working on?" So one of the things I've been focusing on is maintaining a shop log, as part of that plan. That way I have some idea what's going on if something weird happens, and I have to be out, again, for a few days.  A decent log will tell me what I was doing when I left, and I'll have a short list of "what to do today," waiting for me when I come back in. I can proceed with the project without having to re-invent the wheel that had been rolling right along just a few days before. I hate re-inventing the wheel. I hate it even more when I have to keep doing it.

So, I've also been logging a section titled 'What did I learn today.' Writing down one or two things, even if they were simple, works miracles. For starters, it helps me hold onto little lessons, and that's important. But it's also been a startlingly good way to  put myself back into whatever I was doing last time I was there, because it prompts me to remember the mental context of what I was working on when I learned whatever it was, and it really puts me right back into that train of thought, so I can keep going. As a mnemonic device, it's pretty cool.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The tools of our tools

"Men have become the tools of their tools."
 -Henry David Thoreau

The context around this quote deals with the transition from Eden-like simplicity, to agriculture, and other systemic ways of life that require tools and so on to continue to function. But given that Thoreau lived at the height of the industrial revolution, it's pretty clear that  he was really reacting to the change from an agricultural society to an industrial one. Maybe he was decrying the move away from a life where people did things by hand. Maybe he was just trying to cope with changing context in general, it's hard to say. I'm sure there are serious Thoreau scholars who have gone into this more deeply than I will. But the quote is a good point of departure, because it's easy in the shop to become a slave to your tools.

Whether you're a hand-tool purist, a machine junkie, or a hybrid woodworker, I think there's something to be said about paying attention to the balance of power in your own shop. Blades need to be cleaned, chisels and plane irons sharpened, jigs repaired, etc... there's a lot of maintenance involved sometimes. I have no issue when it comes to being the custodian of my tools, until I begin to think that maybe, I have too many tools.

This is just something I've been musing on in recent weeks, as I try to clear out some space in my own shop. There are some tools that don't get as much use as I thought they would. Sometimes it's a tool that was a real investment, but didn't pan out. Other times it's something as simple as wondering why I have so many hand planes. I don't have as many planes as some folks that I've talked to, but there is simply too much steel that needs to be sharpened. When I started out, sharpening took a couple of minutes away from the work, but it was a good time to step back from something, collect myself, regroup, and get back to work. Now, I simply grab another plane, and before I know it, they're all  dull, and I need to take half a day to get things back in tune... or decide to work with dull tools. Sharpening is Sisyphean in nature, and I get that. It's part of the work, so I accept it. But detouring for half a day to fix up the fleet is another matter.

There are other tools and machines and processes that are simply more involved than they need to be, and there's a lot of 'stuff' that needs to be organized and dealt with, and in similar fashion, I don't always get everything put back, jigs repaired or remade, or blades cleaned off, or whatever. (Lord knows my table saw blades could use a good cleaning...) In some cases, it's because I need to revamp and streamline, but in other cases, I'm beginning to think it's just that I should go farther to simplify, and focus more on the work than on the tools. And if I have to focus on tools, to figure out which ones really deserve the focus.

There's clearly a balance that needs to be struck there, it's obvious that many tools are necessary, and in some cases, I really do need to just rebuild those jigs, and clean things up. And there are definitely babies in that bathwater. It's life in a small shop, for sure. The shop machine needs to be maintained. But it's very possible that the machine should be made to be more efficient, and less needy... 


So, the other day, I received an email, indicating some interest in my coffee tables. I was pretty happy about that.  Since then, there have been a few emails back and forth. I wasn't sure if they were going to bite, or not.

Well, several emails later, they asked if I'd ever shipped to China, or Malaysia, or other Asian countries. I said no, they said no problem.

But I was feeling a little weird about the whole thing. So, I googled the company, followed by the word 'scam.'

And there they were... apparently there are people out there trying to scam artists out of their money. The details aren't very convoluted, but they're enough to make me feel bummed about the whole thing. I haven't heard much from the apparent scammers recently, we'll see what happens.


Sunday, January 22, 2012

On learning, growing, and making mistakes

This entry is the conflation of several different things that have been bouncing around in my head for the past few days.

It started with a reply that I made to an entry on a woodworking message board. The short version is that someone was having an issue with wood that they'd resawed, and made the comment that "that's a mistake I'll never make again."

I feel that a common thread among some of the woodworkers I've met, is a confused feeling of failure when things don't go according to plan, that many of them take personally. (I don't think this is what the OP was trying to say, but it's the reaction I had to some of what he wrote.) Sometimes, this feeling is enough to throw people off of their game... or in some cases, to put the game aside for a little while.

I responded, citing John Ruskin. I had to paraphrase, but basically what Ruskin said is that the Greeks' insistence on perfection was their downfall. This insistence on perfection restricted Greek craftsmen to only using techniques that they could execute flawlessly every time. There was no room for growth, because there was no room for error. So their work, while flawless, was simple. He then proceeds to say that the heart of Christianity is forgiveness, and that this is critical for the growth of an artisan. Only someone who can forgive himself for his own growing pains can ever reach his full potential.

If ever there was a skill that required the ability to forgive a few dropped balls, it's juggling. Today I was watching a video of a juggler named Michael Moschen going through a juggling routine in an auditorium. (The video is 37 minutes long. It's fun, but it requires time.) At 13:45 he stops, and says; "Let me put you in that area of learning, which is very insecure."  He then tries to teach the audience a simple trick to do with their fingers, and it gets a laugh. Then he tries to get them to do it while following the balls that he's juggling. At 16:10, he captures the awkward moment for the audience to make his point:

"That's actually what most people face, throughout their lives. A moment of learning. A moment of challenge. It's a moment that you can't make sense of. Why the hell should I learn this? Does it really have anything to do with ANYTHING in my life? I can't decide. Is it fun? Is it challenging? Am I supposed to cheat? What are you supposed to do?

"You've got someone up here who's the operative principle, of doing that for his whole life, ok. Trying to figure that stuff out. But, is it going to get you anywhere? It's just a moment. That's all it is; a moment."

It's these moments that make us better at what we do: Feeling overwhelmed, confused, a little awkward, and very tenuous.

It's summed up very well by the Taoist Chuang-tzu: "The torch of doubt and chaos, this is what the sage steers by."

This is later paraphrased, probably unintentionally, by Albert Einstein, in his 3 rules of work:
1. Out of clutter, find simplicity.
2. Out of discord, find harmony.
3. In the middle of difficulty, lies opportunity.

These learning moments are clearly not an uncommon experience. The real challenge is to maintain your bearing, to keep a positive attitude, make your mistakes with grace, and Keep Moving Forward. As Steve Jobs put it, it's "the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything."

Notable Physics geek and intellectual Randall Munroe had something similar to say on the topic:

"Handy exam trick: when you know the answer, but not the correct derivation, derive blindly forward from the givens and backward from the answer, and join the chains once the equations start looking similar. Sometimes the graders don't notice the seam."

I left three years of woodworking retail jobs with the indelible impression that the stores, magazines, and tool companies are all trying to sell hobbyists on the notion that woodworking is easy, jigs will make it simpler, and all you need is the right magic wand, and the cash to afford it. The simple truth is that real learning isn't simple, and it isn't easy. (It's not hard, either, but it's not easy.) Becoming better at anything, be it woodworking, juggling, or just daily life... is labor intensive. It takes time and forgiveness and courage to move through those learning moments.

Back to Michael Moschen (while he manipulates some new objects on stage, two minutes before the end of his show):

"The latest thing that I'm working on... I don't know what it is yet. And that's good. I like not to know for as long as possible. Well, because it tells me the truth, instead of me imposing the truth." (See the above referenced video, around 34:50)

This is the opportunity that lies within the moment. If you can put aside the feelings of awkwardness, and disorientation, and not try to force your own interpretation of what's going on, a nugget of something that's real and true will present itself. You need to be willing to make a few mistakes, and do things a few times before you notice the thing you were missing. With perseverance and attention, you'll learn something productive and useful from your efforts, and you'll be ready to move forward again.

The next time you find yourself lamenting the bumps and bruises, or think to yourself 'that's a mistake I'll never make again,' take the time to find the blessing in the moment. Every setback is a learning moment. Don't waste it.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Why the Internet is anathema to productivity

"The ancestor of every action is a thought."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

The idea of a table is a simple one. The idea of building a table is less so. It's hard to visualize all of the details, which is where drawings come in: joinery, dimensions, proportions: It's a very complex thought, and it takes time to work it all out. And yes, it takes a bit of focused effort. But to prepare for the action of building, you must organize and prepare the thought, the idea, that will guide your efforts.

For myself, I find the Internet to be the ideal place for unfocused, easy thoughts. I can type faster than I can write, and while I can't yet type at the speed of thought, I can point and click at the speed of distraction. Several browser tabs and a google search later, what have I learned?

Apparently hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia is defined as 'a fear of long words.' how the hell does one deliver such a diagnosis? That's just evil.

What? Oh, table... Right. Then what have I really learned?

The Internet is NOT a great place to develop and work out a complex idea. Or, to learn about a complex idea.

Go to your shop, and do it there.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Putting things in perspective

I just wanted to put up another photo of the Numitron clock that I wrapped up in October. Everywhere I go, people who have seen the photos all say the same thing: "Oh my GOD. It's so SMALL!"

Yes, it is. This is a photo of the clock, next to a 12" combination square.

The Joys of Ringleading a One Man Circus

I just spent 2 days putting together most of my website, which will be up soon. I think this is more tiring work than actually making the furniture.

This is an expansion of the Shop and Mind stuff, in a way. I need to run the website, and handle marketing and sales, to keep the shop rent paid, so I can take the time to organize, store everything, keep the space running right... all so I can enjoy those few moments at the bench.

It's worth it.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Back to Basics

"Here we train hand mind and heart for the common good"
I wanted to put this photo up, because I think it's important to remember that manual training used to be considered a critical part of a child's education. The photo above is from the exterior of the Hardy Elementary School in Arlington, MA. Construction of the school started in 1925, and the school was considered very modern for its time. At this point, Sloyd training had been in use in the Boston area for just over 30 years, and there were a lot of other manual training programs being bounced around at the time.

While some of the others were instituted to make for more competent workers, or to help engineers with the ability to visualize things in a three dimensional way, the purpose of Sloyd, as it was presented by Gustaf Larsson was to develop the student as a whole. I'm starting to dig further into the whole manual training thing, but I've decided at this point that it's a massive rabbit hole on its own.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Organizing Space and Mind Part IV: Planning your projects

On any given day, my mind races around like a weasel on speed. I got hooked on woodworking for one simple reason: When I’m at the bench, I only need to focus on cutting to a line. The world stands still. I can focus, and relax, and the clouds part, for a moment.
As a beginner, finding these moments are easier: One board, one tool, and the novelty of the experience will capture your whole attention. The projects are simpler, and easier to keep in mind. But over the course of years, my projects and work space have become a lot more involved, and it’s harder to hold on to those moments. Between running the business side of the shop, setting up routines, paying the bills, and making sure that everything I need is on hand, there’s a lot of work to keep the dream alive.
I realized pretty quickly that it was harder to work in my shop than it had been to work in school. And I began to realize that there were a lot of supporting elements in school that I’d never really noticed. Supporting elements in any good design are like that: If they’re done well, they’re almost invisible. I had to do a lot of thinking to bring back the simplicity that I found when I was in school.
The Space and Mind entries are an attempt to share what I’ve learned, to help other people find the focus and satisfaction that got me hooked in the first place. Part one looked back at shops that I worked in, that were filled with stuff, but weren’t really productive. Part two is organizing the shop, and storing tools and supplies in such a way that we can get to everything we need, when we need it, and go right back to work. Part three is about setting up the work space so that we can work easily. But before we can get to work, we need a plan. And that’s part four.

It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.
                                -Sun Tzu, The Art of War

To ‘know your enemy,’ you need to know how the finished product will come together. To ‘know yourself,’ you need to know that you have the skills required to make each part, as designed, to bring the project to completion. Given that, all you need to do is work.
I had a conversation at school that showed me just how important planning was, and how powerful it could be. It was my last semester at school, and I was talking to my friend, Chris. We were looking at some carved oval rosettes in a picture of a Federal style table. He wanted to incorporate them into the table he was building. Chris wanted to make sure that they’d be uniform in overall shape, depth of relief, and any other ways that he hadn’t seen yet and couldn’t articulate. He was not a freehand carver, and he was worried that he wouldn’t be able to make them all look the same. I wandered over, and we started bouncing ideas around, and together, we figured out how to lay the rosettes out and carve them in a procedural, repeatable way. I did a double-take, thinking about how we’d just broken down a complex looking element, to make it more approachable, and help create a superior table. In that moment, it felt like we were making molehills out of mountains, and that so much more was possible than I had previously realized. All it took was some problem solving, and some planning and forethought.
The first step of any project for me is to make a few rough sketches, and do some problem solving. Thankfully, I enjoy that part of the process. Once I’ve figured out answers to all of my questions, it’s time to start drafting.
Making a detailed drawing of the project is critical. It helps you to ‘know your enemy,’ in detail. Building on paper is easier than building in wood, because pencil lines and mistakes can be erased, and new solutions can be drawn over the old ones. Paper is cheaper than lumber. Save a tree: waste all the paper you need. Drafting is tedious, but not as tedious as remaking a part when something goes wrong. And I can say from experience that it’s a lot less tedious than improvising a fix when I’ve screwed something up and the assembly won’t go together.   
Improvising is insidious. Some people enjoy that kind of work, because it feels similar to creative, spontaneous work. It’s not; spontaneous work starts out that way. One compromise can beget another, and another, as you struggle to make everything work out the way it was originally supposed to. I was reading Popular Woodworking recently, and read an argument against stock lists that said something long the lines of: “Projects change as they go along, so the stock list isn’t necessarily helpful, because you’ll need more wood than you have anyway.“ Projects don’t change. They get modified when someone botches the job.   
Accurately building a single drawer is easy. Most people can picture the whole thing in their head: Front, back, two sides, and a bottom that is held between grooves. Building a drawer is not a project that changes along the way, because it’s hard to go wrong when you have a clear image in mind. But, the mind can only hold so many things at one time. Improvisation is so insidious because there’s always a detail somewhere that you forget. Once the project is more complicated than simple and box-shaped, it’s not biologically practical to try to work from memory. The mind simply can’t hold all of that information. That’s why you need an accurate drawing, and it’s why you need to work the details out in advance.
Working things out on paper in a three dimensional way will stretch your capacity to envision something in three dimensions. This will help you work out how to put it together, and that’s very useful when it comes to ‘knowing your enemy:’  breaking the project down into simple steps, and thinking about what's involved, so that you know exactly what you need to do when you step up to the bench. Writing a procedure will give you a list of everything you need to do to complete the project, and it will help you focus on problem areas, and new skills when it’s required.

‘Knowing yourself,’ means knowing what you can do, both in terms of skill, and in terms of your machines' capacity. As you're planning out your procedures, you will see potential problems crop up, well before you start cutting anything. If the boards you need to mill down are too wide for your planer, if the carving requires carving tools that you don't have, if the joinery is too far beyond what you've successfully accomplished so far... these are the sticking points that will cause trouble. And typically, those points are what lead to having to improvise. Fix the problems before they become problems: either modify the design, or modify your tool or skill set.
Once you have a drawing to work from, writing up a procedure is mostly working backwards. For example:

-The final step in assembling the drawer is sliding the bottom into the grooves in the sides and front of the assembled drawer box. It will slide in past the back of the drawer, which should come to the top edge of the grooves in the sides.
-Before I assemble the drawer, those grooves need to be there. 
-Before assembling the sides, front and back, I must cut dovetails.
-Before cutting dovetails, I must lay them out.
-To lay out my joinery, I must establish accurate reference surfaces, and make sure that the joinery will not expose the grooves in the front and sides. (this should be worked out in the drawing.)
-To establish reference surfaces, ends must be cut squarely to finish length, and inner surfaces must be planed to the final finished surface.
-To make sure the joinery clears the grooves, the grooves must be cut.
-Before I can cut to finish length, I must mill the stock down.
-Before milling stock, I must cut pieces to rough length from rough lumber.

Reading the list up and down, it takes time to spot details that have been left out... like cutting the back to proper width, after the grooves have been cut in the sides. Going over your procedures carefully, a few times, will help ensure that the final draft of all of the necessary steps are accurately described. Accurate procedures will provide a road map to guide you through building your project, so it’s time well spent. It's certainly better spent than the time it would take to modify finished parts or assemblies when you realize that something has gone awry
To paraphrase Sun Tzu, if you understand how the project needs to come together, and you're competent to make that happen, it should all come together well. If you don’t understand the project fully, but you understand, more or less, what you’re capable of, you will probably be able to put something together that’s decent, with a few fixes along the way. If you don’t know how everything is supposed to come together, and you’re not sure how you’re supposed to make it fit, chances are very good that it will take you a few failures to arrive at success. And nobody likes to waste that much time and money.
My Zen moment comes when I’m standing at the bench and simply working. Sometimes that means following a line. Or laying out the lines that I’ve decided upon. Or making the pieces that will then have the joinery laid out... and so on, up the ladder of the procedure. I find that moment when I can just work, without having to think about the work. My worst moments are when I find myself standing in front of the table saw, while it’s on, trying to do the math for something I haven’t really wrapped my head around yet, feeling like I should hurry, since the saw is on and the clock is running, not sure where I’m going, not sure how to get there... That is the time to go back to the drawing board. If I have to second-guess what I’m doing, it means I'm lost in the woods, and my Zen moment is ruined. I’m only human, and I ruin my fair share of moments. But I can trace them all back, and work my way back to solid ground.
Organizing Shop and Mind means organizing and assembling a shop that will support your work. It means setting up your work space so that you can work easily. And it means planning your work.
Then, there is only the simplicity of working.

Chris, at work on his table


Space and Mind Part I
Space and Mind Part II
Space and Mind Part III
Space and Mind Part IV

Monday, January 9, 2012

Organizing space and mind, part III: 3 simple rules of good work flow

The essence of working smoothly is very simple. You sit down, do what you need to, and you get it done, without too much effort. The work area should be clear, and the necessary supplies should be at hand to make this as easy as possible.

Sounds simple, right?

When I started learning woodworking, my projects were small, and so organizing them wasn’t really so hard. But over time, with bigger, and more complicated projects, I learned that there’s a lot more to working efficiently once the project is bigger than the bench can handle.

Rule 1: Work space is not storage space.

The first, simplest, and (for me) least obvious rule of work flow is that the work area is not a storage area for ANYTHING, and that includes parts for the current project. It always seemed natural to me, if I was building a table, for instance, to have the parts at hand. The problem with this is that if they’re in the way, they will either get bumped, or need to be shuffled around to somewhere else. Even with an eight foot bench, this is logic. The face vise is at one end, the tail vise is at the other, and if I’m moving from one operation to the next, then the stuff in the middle of the bench is in the way, and probably sitting right on top of the dog hole that I need. An auxiliary table to hold parts, or even just a pair of sawhorses, is part of good work flow, because you’re free to do what you came to do, without having to rearrange piles of crap.

This is something I noticed in my kitchen while I’ve been musing over this entry. The actual work space is a small butcher block island that’s two feet by three feet. Pots, pans, knives, and ingredients are all close at hand, but on the block, I only work, so it doesn’t bother me that it’s so small.

Without the compulsion to cover your bench with stuff, the work area only needs to be as big as necessary to perform the task at hand. That’s worth thinking on, too, especially for those of you who are dreaming of expansive work benches. Once you learn to keep your functional work area clear, you may find that you need less of it than you think.

This rule isn’t just for bench work, it’s for the machine room, too. Each machine has a platform for doing work, but not to store parts. And there aren’t many other horizontal spaces in the machine room, except for infeed and outfeed tables. So I built a rolling work table with shelves underneath, that’s a cross between a cart for moving parts and assemblies from one station to another, and storage for those parts. It helps me to keep the working spaces clear of junk... sometimes. I was also lucky enough to have the foresight to make the height of the table match the height of the band saw table, so that if I’m resawing something heavy, the cart can support the other end, and roll along as I feed the wood through the saw.

I’ve seen one shop where the work table didn’t move, everything else did. Rather than move pieces from machine to machine, this guy moved the machines one by one to the table, where all the parts were sorted out. Ingenious system, really. It was a very small shop, and he didn’t have much space to speak of. But he had enough space to move the machines around, and careful planning of the work kept things moving smoothly along. For those who are partial to machine woodworking, the Festool system of tools lends itself to this very nicely. No infeed, no outfeed.

Rule 2: Work space should be functional and easy to use

Basic functionality is easy: everything that you need to work at that station should be there. As an example, I have a drill press station with drawers to hold all of the various bits and gizmos that I use at the station. Lathe tools are next to the lathe, bench tools next to the bench, and water stones are in the bathroom next to the sink.

Easy to use is a little harder to define. One my earliest learning moments on this subject happened in my basement. I’d set up lateral lumber racks against one wall, and set up my chop saw against the other wall, with my bench in between, because that’s where things would fit at the time. But once I started to work, I realized that I had a problem. Every board I pulled down that was longer than a few feet had to be ‘helicoptered’ overhead while I turned around to put it down on the bench. Heavier or longer pieces were even worse, because I had to hold them up without swinging them around, while I did a pirouette underneath, trying not to drop the board on my head while I shifted my grip around. Putting the chop saw under the lumber rack solved that problem. Reach up, pull down, chop, was much simpler. In my next shop I set up the chop saw underneath the lumber rack. And I set up my jointer and planer very close to my chop saw.

Rule 3: Keep the walking around to a minimum.

One of the exercises that I read in The Toyota Way involved drawing a map of the shop, and tracing the footsteps involved to bring a product from raw material to finished product. This is one very good reason to keep all tooling and accessories with the tool that they belong to. But there’s more to it than that.

After I bought an 18” bandsaw, I started to resaw lumber. The bandsaw was on one side of the shop, and the jointer and planer were on the other, very close to the chop saw. And I had my sawhorses set up in between. As a result, the process of resawing and milling up lumber involved taking a board from the pile, cutting to length on the chop saw, walking around the pile, cutting it apart on the band saw, walking around the pile to get to the jointer and planer, and mill the board. Put more simply, every time I resawed a board, it meant making a lap around the shop. This particular shop space was less than 800 square feet for bench space and machines, and I was astonished at how much walking I was doing in such a small space. Moving the big band saw closer to the jointer and planer saved me hours of work on some jobs, and probably a mile or two of walking.

After this, I started to lay out a basic flow for most of my work. I really wanted to lay the whole shop out to minimize the walking around, but I ran into problems with this pretty soon. In short, a custom shop is not an assembly line, and after milling and dimensioning rough lumber, there’s no easy way to know what’s coming next. So, most of the other shop equipment is on wheels, and I can roll related workstations together when I need to. I also use the rolling work table with shelving underneath, that can be rolled around from station to station if that’s easier.


There’s more to good work flow, obviously. This is just a decent starting point. The Toyota Way is a great book if you really want an in depth look at keeping a shop running smoothly. Not everything applies, but enough of it is relevant that it’s worth reading.


Space and Mind Part I
Space and Mind Part II
Space and Mind Part III
Space and Mind Part IV

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Shop tip: Keeping assemblies from tipping off the bench

Back at school, the teachers advised us to clamp fully of partially assembled projects down to the bench, to keep them from being accidentally knocked over. But, half the time we were clamping one hand screw to the piece, and then clamping that hand screw to the bench with another hand screw, and it always felt really improvised.

This is a minor refinement. My rolling shop table has a couple of threaded inserts in the top, that were there to mount a jig that I don't use anymore. So, I drilled a few holes through a hand screw, clamped it to the project, and then used a jig bolt to hold the hand screw down. Now I can roll the shop table around without worrying that this thing will come crashing down.

Step One: Close the middle section of the hand screw to fit the piece in question.

Step Two: Using the handle on the end, clamp the rest of the hand screw around the piece. Note the threaded insert in the surface of the work table, to the right of the hand screw.

Step Three: Bolt the hand screw to the table.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Cartesian Conundrum

Once upon a time, RenĂ© Descartes predicated a whole line of philosophical reasoning on the notion that all of his senses had been corrupted by a daemon "as clever and deceitful as he is powerful, who has directed his entire effort to misleading me." And he set out to logically prove some of the fundamental truths of the world, exclusively in his own head, to prove that the foundations of math and science could make sense, even if you had no direct knowledge of the world. I wonder how long ‘Cogito, Ergo Sum,’ must have echoed around in that skull  before he realized he was so alone in there that he needed to verbalize his existence to another human being, imaginary or not. After Descartes came David Hume, and other cerebral thinkers who continued to pursue the notion that logic and science was to be grasped on a mental level, and that the real and physical world was unimportant in this endeavor.

Around 300 years after Descartes, vocational training was instituted to help produce more competent workers for the factories. And over the course of the next century, the notion that shop classes were only for the disreputable blue-collar working class persisted. When I was in High School in the early 1990s, the local Vo-tech school had a reputation of being part school, and part dumping ground for children that the ‘real’ high schools considered undesirable or incapable. A few years ago, a friend of mine worked at a vo-tech school as a substitute teacher, teaching math, and was told not to worry too much about the work, because most of the students would never really need to understand the subject. (This seems really backward to me.)

Meanwhile, the students at ‘real’ high school continue to learn subjects like physics, algebra, calculus, etc... And most of them complain that ‘This is nice, but when will we ever need it in real life?’ This tells me two things: One, they are finding the classes hard to wrap their minds around, and Two, they don’t have any context within which to use them. Ironically enough, this is exactly where shop classes would come in handy. It’s hard to make up a decent stock list without algebra. It’s hard to understand a lot of shop jiggery, or how to design really solid furniture without an understanding of basic physics. And one of the reasons I think kids have such a hard time wrapping their minds around the subjects is precisely because they haven’t used any of it in context, let alone used it enough to know that physics and algebra are remarkably useful things to understand. And I think that given the right mentality and approach, the shop could possibly be the best place to learn and use math and physics in a real-world kind of way.

But I think that teaching and learning is more than just context, it’s about sensory experience. There are things that our hands can help us comprehend that the blackboard simply can’t. Any child who’s just learned to pull a nail with a hammer has gained a visceral understanding of leverage that’s based on feel, and that makes natural sense. Anyone else who’s used a block and tackle to lift something heavy will have a different understanding of what it feels like to use pulleys for mechanical advantage. And that’s an understanding that’s much different than anything that comes out of a book: It’s not bound up in logic, and it’s no more intellectual than walking. For myself, I can say that there are times when I need to close my eyes, and feel, to understand what's going on with a project that's not coming together.

I don’t think that combining math, science, and woodworking would help make most normal students into better woodworkers, but that’s not the point. The point is that it’s easier to wrap the mind around basic mechanical processes when you’ve actually felt and seen them work. That kind of thing doesn’t necessarily help with shop productivity. But it would probably help a lot of kids learn math and science more cleanly and clearly through application, than they currently learn through ‘word problems.' I think it’s more practical than the idea that physical subjects should or could be taught by ignoring the physical world.

Micrometer as drawn by Robert Hooke
I also think it’s important to remember that many of the scientists that students learn about now; Newton, Hooke, Galileo, et al, were all very well versed in how to make things by hand. They had to be, to construct the experimental apparatus and instruments that they used to prove their theories, and to modify them as needed. It wouldn’t surprise me if the process of designing and building these devices contributed a fair portion to the theories that were being tested. Just a thought.

Needless to say, I'm not a fan of the continuing epidemic of school shops getting closed down, and good, old machinery going off to the salvage yard. I think it's a waste on so many levels, but I also think that it really does a disservice to the principles of the movement that brought school shops (and home economics, and a few other subjects) into being in the first place. Sloyd classes, as pioneered in the west by a man named Gustaf Larsson, were designed to develop students as a whole, and not just to instill vocational skills.

This is another subject that I'm going to expound on in the future. Stay tuned.

Happy New Year.