Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Hand-Me-Downs of an all but forgotten industry

I remember wondering why they didn’t teach CAD programs at NBSS. Pencil and paper seemed very anachronistic, even for North Bennet. But looking back, it was also incredibly helpful, because we had to correct all of our mistakes, too, and come up with the details that a computer would simply have filled in automatically.  It taught me to visualize things better, and more clearly. That’s the first reason to practice hand-drawing.

The second reason is that the hard lessons are the ones that stick. I don’t want to have to re-work anything if I goof, so it behooves me to think things through. On the computer, it’s easy to draw things, so you don’t need to visualize, and it’s easy fix things, so there’s less incentive to pay attention. CAD makes it too easy to be sloppy.

Drafting programs make quick, clean drawings, but the accuracy is derived from the computer. When you go to the bench, the quality of your work is derived from your own attentiveness and care. And that’s huge. Drawing by hand engages the 'real, physical' part of the mind in a similar way to working with wood. It's a mentality builder, because you have to train your mind to visualize what you’re making ahead of time, and to execute that vision with care. That’s a mentality worth fostering, because it will really cut down on mistakes at the bench. The joke we used to make at school was: “Save a tree: Waste all the paper you need to.”

Thankfully, there are some really nice tools out there right now, for short money, that can encourage the process of learning.


I've been on a vintage drafting tool kick recently. What I've realized lately is that really, really nice vintage tools, tools that clearly have a history and a soul, are going for pennies on the dollar. Well, it may actually be pennies on the original pennies, given inflation, but they were clearly made to a much higher standard, and are remnants of a day when drafting was a serious trade of its own.

I was (am) using tools that must have been fairly pricey at the time. They're professional, well machined, well balanced objects that were designed and built for serious professionals. They are simply, and solidly built, and designed to solidly fill a need. And the more I use them, the more I'm starting to understand just how precise they can be, and it's pretty amazing. When I run my lead holders around in the cast iron sharpeners that I bought for $20 a piece, they come out SHARP. Much sharper than the .5 or .3 mm mechanical pencils I used to use, and certainly sharper than a regularly sharpened wooden pencil. And the ruling pens (and compasses with ruling pen points) are similarly cool. There's a learning curve to be sure, but the line quality has a character that I feel is missing in ball points.

Some of the difference is in the details. Here's a picture of a few different kinds of compass, two as built then, and two built and purchased recently.  (The one on the left is actually from a really nice beam compass, see picture above.) I suppose the new ones still function well, but they don't give the impression of precision that the other ones do. One example is the paper point. Originally, those were designed to penetrate in a minimal way, with a small point, and a big shoulder, so they don't go too far into the paper, and don't leave too much of a hole. But the versions in production today are huge, and the original intent of this kind of point (minimal damage to the drawing) has been forgotten. Anyone who has ever needed to make a few concentric arcs or circles (for drafting circular inlay, for instance) with a cheap compass has probably been frustrated by the size of the hole left in the paper. The vintage points are needle-sharp, but they're arrested in their penetration by a big shoulder that rests on the paper. Brilliance, I say. The picture is really fuzzy, but you can still see what I'm talking about.

While we're at it, notice one other detail on the compass on the left: The cutaway on the side. This is there so you can adjust the point, or the drawing lead, with your fingernail. The newer ones don't have that. It's a little detail, and one that I didn't pick up on at first. But it makes such a difference in use. I can't help but appreciate that this was designed for professional draftsmen... for people who would be able to appreciate the functionality of this subtle detail.

Then there are the horn centers. I have one of these in the old drafting set that belonged to Dad, and couldn't really figure it out. Then I was reading an old drafting book (circa late 1800s) that described their use.* Basically, it's a metal ring with small points to hold its location, and mounted in the ring is a clear piece of horn. (Or acrylic, in my case) The idea is that you can place the horn center over the center point, and then place the point of the compass on the horn center. That way, especially if you have multiple concentric circles, or arcs to draw, you can keep re-adjusting the compass, and not leave a huge hole in the paper from repeated penetration. AND, you get a more accurate drawing, because you're not trying to use a ragged hole as a precise center. Genius.

These are tools from over a hundred years of a serious profession, that have basically been dropped off at the flea market. Tools that were made with intent, and without patches or upgrades, are swimming in the purgatory of eBay, waiting to be useful again, even if the sellers don't always know what they're actually for. This is great for guys like me who can now afford really, really nice tools to draw with.

That said, it's a little depressing to think about. I'm working with tools that were made by people who took drawing seriously, in an age when most serious 'artists' are using computers. And it's getting to the point where some of them don't even know how to draw by hand. In short, the tools are evidence of human potential that used to be highly developed... and that we now choose not to foster... despite the advantages that it has to offer.


*Another tip from the vintage drafting book, draftsmen used to lubricate the pivot points of their compasses with hot bees wax. I gave it a try, just to see for myself. Unlike paraffin, beeswax is just a little bit sticky. It still glides smoothly, but it holds the setting of a set of dividers, for instance, very well. Much better than I'd have thought. It was another of those 'who knew?' kind of things for me. (Who knew? Professional tradesmen who drafted for a living, that's who.) It's been a game changer.


Finlay Hunter said...

I really love you blog. I discovered it a couple on months ago when I was searching for info on how to make a butterfly inlay. Your post about using the rotary tool came up. Over the past month I have read/skimmed everyone of your posts. I am hoping to start up my own shop in the near future. I am currently working for a cabinet shop/construction company. The plan is to be able to have my own shop so I can create a bit of extra income. I have really I joyed your stuff and have learnt lots . I would love to see a step by step on how you make your butterfly inlays, mostly how you make the actual inlay itself and how you get a light fit.

JW said...

Every one of my posts? Ye gads, even I don't have the stomach for that.:-)

The butterfly keys need to be thick enough to have structural relevance. The whole point is to provide strength where the wood needs help. On those tops, each key was a full inch thick. Other than that, the sides need to be square to the surface, however you can get them that way, and the sockets also need to go in squarely. That's all of it. And tight joints require a good, sharp chisel to trim accurately.

After 6 years of running my own shops... It's not for the faint of heart, and it's not a profession that suffers fools. It's been HARD, and unless your shop is in your basement, you should do the math first. Tools, regular shop rent, etc... It adds up, and that part of the expense never goes away. so, be careful.

Woodworking as a hobby has been plagued by the 'fun and profit,' shtick. I read old issues of magazines, and you'd swear the advertisers were selling printing presses to make money... And people bought into it. And they still do. People are still convinced that you can make it yourself for cheaper. I've sold people $60 worth of router bits so they can make $5 worth of molding, because they were so thoroughly hung up on that idea. Even with the math staring them in the face, they wouldn't look at what was really going on.

It's not that you can't make money. There's a guy I heard about recently who only makes wooden grilles for central heating and A/C. He found his niche, refined his process, and wrapped his business around that. But he knows it's a BUSINESS, not a hobby or passion. And he runs it accordingly. There's another guy in my building in Lawrence who only makes trunks. As in, the big, heavy cases that custom equipment comes in. Plywood with riveted hardware, and cut foam. It's all he does.

It's easy to drop 5 figures on a shop full of tools. It's easy to spend four figures a year, renting the space to keep those tools, and work in. There are no safety manuals that get handed out when you start a small business, and no safety belts. You can crash and burn if you want to, the world will not mourn your losses.

I carry a lot of karma with me for selling tools in the stores for three years. I write to inform and entertain, and to share my experiences. But I also hope to help people see some of the reality, and to get away from the hype and nonsense. There are things you need, and things you don't. You first need a head on your shoulders and a plan. Then go buy only what you need to execute that plan.