Thursday, April 5, 2012

On toolmaking and design

As I continue to plow through back issues, I came across an article on a Vietnamese cabinetmaker named Cong Hoy Vo who was working in a shop in Portland, Oregon, in 1980. The focus of the article was on how he’d arrived in the states with nothing but his own skill, and had to make his own tools to work with when he started working.  Hand planes, chisels, gouges, etc... he made them all himself, by hand, because there weren’t many tools in the shop to work with.

It was clear that Cong Vo was a no-nonsense woodworker who got straight to the point and got things done. His story sounds more like descriptions that I’ve read of Sam Maloof, than of the fussy behavior I’ve seen in school, and in some of the things I read in the message boards.

The second thought I had was that I really enjoy making my own tools, and my own jigs, because it strips away the non-essential. Vo’s methods for making tools were straight to the point, and purely functional. And that’s part of the challenge of tool making. Before anything else, the result has to be functional, or it’s not a tool. And it takes some thought to tease out what’s really necessary. And after that, you have to figure out how you’re going to design and build in all of the required elements.

One of the things that I liked about the recent winding stick/straight edge project is that, for all intents and purposes, a straight edge is one of the most fundamental tools that cabinetmakers and draftsmen really need. To be functional, the edge has to be as straight as it can be made to be, and that project provided a method to accomplish that.

Growing up, I wondered how some of the tools we take for granted came to be. I knew that iron ore was melted and poured into molds, and hammered over an anvil. History class covered that part. But in terms of how the tools evolved from there, I was curious, but went through life feeling generally unenlightened. A straight edge is a fundamental tool of precision, but I had no idea how to derive one in the wild. So, I was excited to have a little bit of light shed on that topic.

Deriving something like my cross-cut sled is obviously more involved. I drew a bunch of sketches, and eventually I started focusing on what I needed the thing to do. What do I really need from a cross-cut sled? What are the elements of the design from which everything else must derive? And that question really drove the process of design and construction in surprising ways. The final result doesn’t look much at all like the sled we used at North Bennet, but that’s actually a good thing, as far as I’m concerned. In the tool-making realm, form necessarily follows function, because if it’s not really functional, it’s basically just folk art.

The point I want to emphasize is that designing and building tools is a useful skill on a basic level. But it’s also a really good exercise in thinking methodically about a project, because those necessities of function take priority over everything else, and that clarifies the process enormously. It clarifies the ultimate goal in a way that nothing else really can. The problem-solving and brainstorming part is still an effort, but with a little bit of patience, it’s surprising just what will float up out of the mental fog. (The problem-solving is a topic I’ll cover soon.)

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