Friday, February 25, 2011

A few of my favorite non-woodworking, woodworking books

When I opened my first shop, I spent most of my time doing laps; futzing with this, fixing that, wondering where the time went, and why I hadn't gotten anything done. I compared that to my time at school, and it occurred to me that there was a lot more going on in the school environment that I hadn't really been seeing clearly. Like most well-executed details, all of the supporting elements were pretty much invisible, and streamlined enough that they did what they needed to do without calling attention to themselves. We had a machine room and bench area, with instructor supervision and tutelage, carts and machine room jigs, etc, and all I really needed to do was work.

In the pursuit of learning to be a better woodworker in the real world, I've had to reverse-engineer a lot of the supporting background details that I took so much for granted. But the process of learning how to build and run the rest of the machine takes a while to figure out. Making sure that I have what I need, where and when I need it, so that I can just focus on working, was a lot more involved than I thought, and these books have helped me to find my way.


-The Toyota Way by Jeffrey Liker

I'm not producing cars, I'm not in mass production, and I'm not doing anywhere near the kind of business that Toyota's doing. But this was still a great book that helped me become more productive. The core of Toyota's method is about slow, steady progress, and improving the end product by improving the process. Refining the process may involve procedure, shop flow, product design and design process... there's so much support work that goes behind any particular step. And I think that there's a lot for small woodworkers to learn here.

Woodworking is manufacturing. I don't think hobbyists want to see it that way, because who wants an industrial job for a hobby? But while many of them have a lot of fun shopping for new tools, I think a lot of them also end up spending a lot of time in the basement or garage futzing, and straightening up, and trying to clear off the bench, rather than actually working. I know I did. And I've seen a lot of pictures of benches... and shops... that were so clogged up with bits and pieces and half finished projects that there was no hope for any actual work to get done. It may feel counter-intuitive to apply a large-scale production mindset to a guy with basic tools in his basement. But the careful evolution of work habits, work space, and design is critical for lone woodworkers if they're going to get better. Setting up and maintaining a smoothly operating shop space is an ongoing process, and not just a series of attempts to fit 10 pounds of crap into a 5 pound bag.

This is a radical departure from the feeling I used to get from reading the glossy pages. ("Buy this machine, and you'll be able to build... THIS! In a weekend!") I really don't feel like there's a quantum leap to be made in the human ability to produce, no matter what the ads and articles are trying to sell you. Everything requires proper technique and procedure, and an appropriate amount of time. The tool store can sell you new toys, but they can't necessarily tell you how to incorporate those tools into your work flow and your shop in a way that will make sense. And that's the kind of problem that Toyota helped me to solve as things went on.

-The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam. Back of the Napkin is a treatise on visual problem solving. A picture is worth a thousand words, and the human mind's ability to interpret a well thought out illustration can provide insights that those same thousand words still probably wouldn't inspire.

Problem solving is part of the process of gradual refinement. Sketching things out is a normal way to solve problems, especially for jigs and procedures. But it's easy to get carried away and draw things that look remarkably like the things you've seen before... even if those solutions aren't that great. When I started redesigning my crosscut sled, I found myself redrawing it again and again, and listing what I really needed, and what was really critical as I drew it. I went through 5 or 6 pages of sketches before I really started wrapping my mind around what was going on. I'm still a novice when it comes to visual problem solving. But I've learned a lot from it so far.

-The Gantt Chart, a Working Tool of Management, by Wallace Clark. Despite a technical background, I wound up with an English degree. None of my classes taught me anything about time or project management. They just made the papers longer, and assumed we'd figure it out. This book presented the most straightforward way to plan larger projects that I'd ever seen. While my engineering friends all know about Gantt charts, I'm pretty sure they generate them by computer. This was written in 1914, and everything was being done by hand. And that's generally how I use them, since I don't have a computer in the shop. I can generally compile a pretty decent procedure, or at least figure out what's next. But that doesn't really tell me much about how deep into the woods I am, or where I am in those woods. This is a tool that gives me a much more visual, intuitive way to actually see just how much more I have to go, and where I am in the context of what's left to be done.

-Getting Things Done by David Allen. Gantt charts may help me plan out a project and keep track of where I am in the process, but I still need to actually get into the groove and make things happen. This book is more about how to form more productive habits. The way he wrote it, this really is a book about how to manage paperwork in an office, so it took a while to adapt to the way I work. But he makes some very good points about storing ideas in places where you know they'll be safe, and organizing a work area so that it doesn't get too stagnant. For instance, I used to lose an hour or two a day to some side-track project that was tool or jig-oriented, because I just felt like I had to get it done, or it would be lost in the cloud of things that never get followed up on. Now I keep a notebook handy to write down those little side track tasks, so I can immediately regain focus on the task at hand. It helps me keep track of those side projects, so I know they'll get done, and in the meantime I can remain focused on what I'm doing.


This is by no means an exclusive list, but this post is already getting too long.

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