Tuesday, August 17, 2010

How Things Get Made in My Shop

Before explaining how a "Jesus woodworker" can be detrimental to a shop such as mine, it is first necessary to explain how things actually get made around here.
Most woodworkers doing the kind of custom work I do tend to function as a one person shop. This kind of arrangement works well if you're making furniture as a sideline or hobby, and not depending on it as your primary source of income. Ideally this kind of set-up also requires an extremely low to non-existent overhead, which usually means working at home out of your basement or garage. Under this latter arrangement it would be difficult, but not impossible, to eke out a living in most circumstances.

In my own situation the economics of being a full time furniture maker requires me to operate on a less than tiny scale. This means I need to have people working with me to help defray the costs of running a shop such as this.

In 1992 I was working with a staff of 5 people, namely 2 cabinet-makers; 1 helper/machinist in the woodworking area; 1 finisher; and 1 finisher's helper (who also did polishing). Although I was tremendously hands on with all pieces being made, my day to day reality involved many distractions including telephone calls with customers and suppliers; dealing with quote requests; creating/revising drawings; ordering materials; and general day-to-day trouble-shooting.

Although the 5 people working with me were doing their various assignments independently, they were not really doing things on their own as much as they were doing things by extension from me. For example, let's say I was looking to build a custom dining table. I would make drawings and give them to one of the cabinet-makers - explaining how I wanted it made; what wood to use; how to run the grain; where to put mortise and tenons, etc. Typically this cabinet-maker would already be familiar with most of the nuances of what I wanted done, so he could pretty much proceed on his own without too much hands-on direction from me.

The helper/machinist wouldn't report directly to me. Instead he mostly worked by extension from the cabinet-maker who was himself working by extension from me. I would oversee the cabinet-maker, and the cabinet-maker would oversee the helper/machinist.

My finisher also worked independently, but also by extension from me. I would explain to him what kind of colour/finish/sheen I wanted and he, in turn, would work his magic to tangibly create whatever it was that I wanted to have done. His helper, in turn, would work by extension from him - often to sand and prep things as required by the project.

Collectively the 6 of us functioned as a team, which meant that I effectively had 6 pairs of hands creating my work, instead of just one.

Over the years this type of dynamic has usually worked well for me, provided I could maintain a shop size of roughly 7 people. This number always seemed to be the proverbial sweet spot for some reason, and I invariably learned that once that magic number of 7 got exceeded speed wobbles would usually appear somewhere in the shop.

During the 1980s when we were extremely busy we often had as many as 20 people working in our shop. Although the extra manpower did result in higher output I also found that the larger staff size created inherent inefficiencies. For example, a productive cabinet-maker who could easily manage one or two helpers could quickly be overwhelmed if he was called on to manage a small crew. With large numbers of projects being in the shop at one time details would sometimes fall through the cracks and mistakes would inevitably get made. These mistakes then required either me or one of my more experienced people to make things right again.

Finding a happy balance was always difficult during these times, because there was never any way to accurately predict how much work was coming in. Although we did occasionally not take on work, turning customers away was always something I tried to avoid as much as possible.

When we were at our busiest in the 1980s I began to explore the idea of integrating some CNC equipment into our shop. CNC is an acronym for Computed Numerically Controlled, and this is essentially a machine that utilizes a computerizer software package to generate code the will accurately cut and/or rout parts to particular shapes and sizes with extreme accuracy and efficiency. The precise logic of CNC appealed to me immensely, because the only mistake it could ever make was the one you programmed into it.

For me to admit thinking about CNC, let alone using it, is considered heresy and sacrilege to many in the studio furniture community. However in my mind a piece of CNC equipment is merely the latest advancement in the evolution of tools used by an artist or craftsman.

Today, for example, there are many studio furniture makers who feel quite comfortable using hand chisels to craft their work. To the furniture makers of ancient Egypt, however, the iron chisels of today would seem like advanced technology compared to the crude and soft copper tools they had available to them. In a similar way one can look at a table saw as a major technological advancement compared to the old way of hewing wood by hand with an axe.

I spent many years ruminating over the idea over going CNC, but it was never with an eye to automating my work. Rather, I ultimately viewed this technology as merely another tool that could also be utilized as an extension of my own hands.

Given the nature of the work I do, there always has been and always will be a considerable amount of hand work required in the making of one-of-a-kind custom pieces. These aspects of craft can never be automated cost effectively on a one-off basis. And having said that, I really don't think that using CNC to cut a table top into a perfect elliptical oval shape is in any ways compromising the integrity of the work just because the same shape wasn't created using the old school string and pencil technique.

Times change and we need to change with the times. Otherwise we as a species would still be hunkering down in caves, grunting back and forth in debate over the relevance of rubbing two sticks together for fire.

But I digress...

I ended up spending the better part of 5 years agonizing over the thought of going CNC.

Thanks to a "Jesus woodworker" I finally saw the light.

1 comment:

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