Not Everything Should Be Easy


The video I posted the other day showing the Shaper Origin handheld CNC machine generated a number of thoughtful responses. The narrator made a few interesting assertions, but the one the was most peculiar was the first: “Making things should be easy.” This seemed to function as a premise for the sales pitch for a machine that, although pushed by a person’s hands, would “continuously fine-tune the spindle’s position” and in case the user wanders off course, “the blade automatically retracts.” This tells me that the express goal of the Shaper Origin is to ensure that “making things [is] easy.” 

It can’t be denied that technological developments such as this machine facilitate the repetition and speed required of large-scale production. But is that what most woodworkers are attempting to do? During my talk at Fine Woodworking Live 2019, I polled the 300+ audience members to see how many sold any of their woodworking projects. Less than five raised their hands. While there are folks out there who are doing great work in the trades, the vast majority of us who pick up tools and wood, are doing so for reasons other than the bottom line.

There are the engineer types who get a buzz out of developing an ingenious (and elaborate) process to ensure a reliable outcome. These are the folks who love inventing jigs as much as they do using them. I’m not cut this way, but I am happy that there are people out there who are. Mass manufacture would be impossible without them. But I would venture to guess that the majority of craftspeople who love wood for what it is and love shaping it with edge tools do so for the joy of the challenge. They want to be engaged in turning nature into culture, and they want to develop the hand skills to be able have that engagement.

If “craftsmanship” (Greek: tékhnē) is wrapped up with the concept of skill (which I think it is), then I believe “technology” (the systematic treatment of tékhnē) should be thought of as outsourcing. I see woodworking operations being outsourced in three areas: control (fences and jigs), energy (artificial power sources), and design (templates or plans). It should be plain to see that all tools and machines outsource work to some degree. We don’t drive nails “by hand,” we do it with a hammer. A handplane holds the iron at a fixed depth and fixed angle in order to make the outcome more reliable. (Try “planing” a board with a chisel!)

So, my point is that all tools outsource aspects of our work, not that any outsourcing is evil. But, we are left asking ourselves, “Why am I doing this? What exactly am I trying to accomplish here?” If your goal is efficient manufacture, you may be walking over to a thickness planer (or CNC machine), but if it’s the reward of developing hand skills, you should be rolling up your sleeves.

With this goal in mind, we should be aware that the further we outsource our work, the further we are from the creative process. We can understand our tools better by asking “Does this tool outsource control, energy, or design? If so, to what degree?”

The Shaper Origin is peculiar to me because it outsources all three categories (control, energy, and design), though it is marketed in a way that makes the customer feel as if the work is not actually mediated by the machine. If an aspiring woodworker watches this video and thinks, “Yes, I want to work with my hands, but I don’t have the skill yet. I’ll start with this and eventually develop the skill,” they will be sorely disappointed, because growth comes through challenge.

Not everything should be easy.

– Joshua


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