• 14 Jul

    Hand Cut v. Machine Cut Dovetails

    Let’s go at this in a slightly circuitous route, shall we?  Perfection is not necessarily what might, at first glance, be perfection.

    As I tell our design students here at the Ebanista School of Fine Woodworking in Seattle, there is a level beyond just the aesthetics of a piece of furniture. It is not necessarily what a person sees when they look at a piece, but, for me, what they feel. Their visceral response.

    Machine cut dovetails, say, done by the popular router jigs, when carried out to order, should provide the accuracy to strengthen the joint. The original ones, where the tails and pins are of equal size are, frankly, monotonous to look at. I believe there are newer versions of the templates where the woodworker has the ability to space them differently. But, they still don’t look right. They achieve sort of an uber-accuracy which makes even the casual observer shake their head. They are too stiff, too….well…..machine-like. It is much like walking down the street and seeing houses sided in vinyl or even the currently popular Hardiplank, which you will see papered all over nearly every new house these days. It has been embossed to (supposedly) look just real wood. 

    But there’s the rub. It’s a simile, not reality. It is like when my teenage daughter says, “Papi, I am like really hungry”. To me, that would indicate that she actually ISN’T hungry. I am hungry indicates a need for food. I am LIKE hungry is a comparison to hungry, but you’re not actually hungry. It is the same for me and many fine craftsmen with machine cut dovetails. They are supposed to look like hand cut, but they are not. So, why is it so important to me that they be hand cut? Because by doing so, you are leaving the very subtle signature of the craftsman. In much the same way I cannot stand leaving machine marks. You know, those tiny little ripples that belie that the last thing to pass over your work was a whirring machine. That really is standing up and pointing a bony finger at you and screaming, “You did not care enough to silently pass a sharp plane over me and leave a bit of glassy elegance for your client”.

    If you are working in a factory, you are by definition producing “factory made” quality. Factory made means fast and for profit. Where all their ranting and raving about quality is just that: ranting and raving. She doth protesteth too much.  If you do your work in a nice workshop, and you do it in your own way, consider leaving a subtle trace for future observers that lets them know (strike that), FEEL, that someone gave it their all.

    By Steve Hawley Thoughts Tools
  • 07 Jul

    What My Students Are Teaching Me

    Teachers teach. It is not a new concept. That information passes down from a learned person to a learning person has always been the premise. But some may not know just how much the students can teach their teacher. I am discovering that daily.

    The Ebanista School of Fine Woodworking is just completing its first year of welcoming students to the school/shop at the east side of Green Lake in Seattle, Wa. They remind me how ceaselessly invigorating it has been for me to be a furniture maker these more than 40 years. Many of the students have day jobs, and although most come in a little tired from work, they seem to leave class each time buzzing with new energy. Imagine that!  Work that leaves you more juiced than when you started. (And yes I am VERY proud of this, three have already told me that they are going to or have already quit their jobs to do “this” full time)

    I have learned that although some come to Ebanista with the idea that they are “not that good with their hands”, together we have put that misgiving to rest. There are some people who haven’t taught their hands to feel and touch thus far in their lives, but none that cannot learn.

    I am learning after a lifetime of willfully pushing myself forward to constantly be growing and creating, it is more than okay to slow down and listen to my students as I have learned to listen to my wood. 

    In the Design Studio, we are learning together that really good ideas can and often do arise from what seems like a harmless doodle, but is really rooted in deeper creative ideas that are seemingly less understood, but are instinctively gold. 

    And although I have never tired of hearing the sweet “shhiiikkkk” of a sharp plane slicing a gossamer shaving of wood, every single one of our students has felt that same satisfaction the very first time they try that at Ebanista. 

    And lastly, and I take great delight in this, so many processes I have done hundreds or even thousands of times have become so woven into my muscles and become so “natural”, when students ask me to explain them, it is like pulling the curtain from in front of the Wizard of Oz, and I am exposed (hopefully, not for a charlatan), and I have to rediscover why I do things the way I do. 

    I expect to continue learning with each and every student the way I have with each and every project I have completed, and this too is proving immensely satisfying.

    By Steve Hawley Thoughts