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Tools & Craft #5: Doing Things by Hand and Eye vs. Doing Them With a Machine

In the early 19th century everything was done by hand. From the engraver carving a family crest on a pocket watch to the seven year old assembling fusee chains for tuppence a day (or thereabouts). Woodworking, metalwork, it was all the same. Hand work, under various working conditions and repetition. Practice, by the way, really makes perfect and you can go faster.

Then along came machines and hand work was replaced by machine work. Where in the old days a machinist would have to hand scrape a valve facing to ensure accuracy in joining, now a surface grinder does that in a trice, with just a machine operator to run the machine. The skill isn't in the "doing" anymore, it's in the "figuring out how to do". This frees the "figuring out how to do it" guy to make stuff to very high repeatability and accuracy at the expense of some expensive tooling. And it means that the "doing it" person needs to have a lot of practice before they can do repeatable work, but they don't need to have all that expensive equipment.

And right now it occurred to me between the blogs of Konrad Sauer and Karl Holtey you can see both philosophies at work. Both guys do really, really wonderful work. Karl can set up his machines to produce planes that are so exact in dimension that he can pin them together. Konrad on the other hand can do all sorts of custom designs and tweaks because there is no tooling and setup time to worry about.

Karl needs a shop full of expensive equipment, Konrad needs time and practice. Karl can run a batch of identical planes extremely efficiently to an incredible level of repeatability. But customization means new expensive tooling.

Each plane in Konrad's shop is slightly and unintentionally different, and he has to custom fit each part to every plane, but special orders are easy to deal with efficiently.

Which approach is better? Well I think both guys do great work and both of them found a work method that works for them. So that's not the issue.

Why is all this important? Because modern amateur woodworking has a very distinct slant in the machine approach. Your average woodworker who wants to do something just buys a machine and it's done. There isn't much call for basic skills. The goal is to produce something. Folks like me are more interested in learning the hand skills, just like people want to learn how to play the guitar. 

Both approaches are perfectly valid. I can list the advantages to both but it would take hours. The trick I think is not getting buttonholed. And every once in awhile someone reminds me that finishing projects is also important, good power tools can help you do that, and compensate for lack of professional speed and 18th century hand skills. 

So if you use machines a lot—try taking the time to learn classic hand skills—you might find it relaxing and more productive than limiting yourself to what your machines can do. Relish the freedom not having to do only what the machine lets you do. Work to fit, making pieces as you go. 

If you use hand tools for everything, remember that certain tasks a machine can do faster and better, and there is no reason to get discouraged if you find that certain hand operations are beyond your current level of skill to do efficiently but can easily be done by machine. 

It all comes out the same. In the picture above one piece of wood was cut by hand and shot on a shooting board (using a dullish Bedrock 604), the other was cut using a Festool Kapex chopsaw. I needed a bunch of pieces for another blog entry I am working on, time is short, and I was glad I had the machines available.


This new "Tools & Craft" section is provided courtesy of Joel Moskowitz, founder of Tools for Working Wood, the Brooklyn-based catalog retailer of everything from hand tools to Festool; check out their online shop here. Joel also founded Gramercy Tools, the award-winning boutique manufacturer of hand tools made the old-fashioned way: Built to work and built to last.

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Yea or Nay? A Hands-Free System for Smartphones and Tablets

In recent news, a California man staring into his phone accidentally walked over the edge of a cliff and fell to his death. A week later, a woman in China staring into her phone fell into a canal and drowned. There is also a disturbing video making the rounds on social media that's a supercut of people staring into their phones, walking directly into speeding traffic and being violently run over.

That people stare into their phones and devices and stop paying attention to their immediate surroundings is not in question. Neither is the fact that they will continue to do it. The genie's out of the bottle. So my question to you is, should people design objects to fulfill unmet needs in these device-starer's lives? That's what I thought when I came across this Kickstarter:

To be clear, I think this product is horrific. (And at press time would-be backers seemed to agree, with just $424 pledged on a $2,500 goal with 35 days to go.) Perhaps I'm clumsier than most of you, but if you've ever fallen down a flight of stairs while carrying something—raise your hand, don't be ashamed, no one can see you—you know that you don't want that thing you're carrying attached to your neck by what appears to be a garrote.

But those are my personal biases. There's no question that this device solves some kind of ergonomic issue for device-starers, no matter how ridiculous it looks. And as difficult as it is for me to imagine, there are probably some folks that want to walk around a library—a library—while yapping on their phone and having a book float in front of them. So the question is, ought we design devices that suits people's behavior, even if we consider that behavior asinine? Is it our job as designers to steer things towards our own personal ideals, or are we merely here to serve and produce?

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A Hyper-Realistic Look at Our National Parks, Instagram Reimagined for Windows 95 and Behind the Design of a Long Overdue Memorial 

Core77's editors spend time combing through the news so you don't have to. Here's a weekly roundup of our favorite stories from the World Wide Web.

The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks

Advanced technologies like VR can be quite isolating, sometimes making you feel as if you're venturing further and further away from reality (I only tried Google Cardboard for the first time a few days ago and it completely tripped me up). On the other hand, these technological advances in some cases can make us feel even more in touch with our world. In celebration of the National Park Service's 100th anniversary, Google Arts & Culture has created a beautiful series of immersive HD and 360 degree films that give us a hyper-real, almost superhuman look at some of the best and brightest of America's national parks.

—Allison Fonder, community manager

How Design Heals History

This recent profile of the life and work of Alabama-based lawyer and civil rights activist Bryan Stevenson is both moving and inspirational—his decades long dedication to bringing justice to prisoners on death row is unparalleled. But it is his most recent project to spark a public conversation around the history of lynchings and its legacy in the American South that highlights the way that design can be a poetic and powerful vehicle for reconciling our relationship with history.

—LinYee Yuan, managing editor

Remembering a Design Legend

This week we're remembering designer, urban planner and editor Jane Thompson, who passed away on August 23rd. Thompson was the founding editor of Industrial Design magazine (later known asI.D.) and a strong advocate for women in the architecture and design fields. Her long career took many interesting turns, and as journalist Alexandra Lange points out in Architect magazine's tribute, "Any one of her careers, as an editor, as a planner, and more recently as an advocate and historian, would have been enough to make her a legend."

Rebecca Veit, columnist, Designing Women

Instagram 20 Years Ago

Russian designer, Misha Petrick reimagined Instagram as a Windows 95 .exe program, and I couldn't be more intrigued. #foodporn would not have been appealing 20 years ago...

—Emily Engle, editorial assistant

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We believe that a truly good product is inherently beautiful and useful. This kind of beauty does not happen by accident though! At Formost we do not only find good products for you but we test them and tell the stories of the people behind these products. This way you experience a story while receiving something which shall last for generations and accumulate some nice stories itself.

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