Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Business of Custom Work

     As I've been working in the shop these past couple of days, things have been going around in my head!  Maybe it's the 100+ degrees, high humidity, or the Woodshop News article asking how we're coping with the record heat this summer.  Don't get me wrong, this isn't a rant, just miscellaneous observations I've made these past days.  Doing custom work, creating one of a kind pieces just can't be compared to the mass produced (mostly Chinese these days) offerings you find in any of the big box stores and even many of the so called "high end" furniture stores.  We had a demonstration last night on using Google Sketch Up to design projects.  I hate to sound like a dinosaur because I know that it definitely has it's place but I couldn't help but think how computers can stifle your creativity.  Similar to the feelings I had when calculators first came into the schools.  They're great tools to speed up your math process but if a student didn't understand the process in the first place it becomes a crutch for them and the problem is that they fail to grasp whatever concept there is.  They knew that Mr. Eugster didn't allow plastic brains!  The problem I'm ranting (whoops, said this wasn't one) about is that the average person doesn't understand what goes into making the items we use everyday. With a program like Sketch Up you sketch what you'd like and "it" designs it.  You can then take this sketch, put it into a program, and your parts can be made from metal, wood, glass, etc. just by computer control.

   Let me use the grid I'm making for the bottom of the two bar stools I've been commissioned to make.  On the surface this looks pretty straight forward, the two maple pieces at the ends or the stretchers for the stools themselves while the grid of Chakte Kok is not only a decorative element but supports the foot rest at the front.  A 1" copper pipe will be attached to those half round recesses for that purpose.  What you may not realize (or care about) is the setups and time it takes to create the lap joints holding the grid together, then drilling counter bores and pilot holes for the screws which will be hidden or plugged.  This requires careful measurement and inventing ways to make the cuts all the same on each piece.  Then there's the tenons at each end of the stretcher and the chamfers I cut on the ends of each piece as a style element and also to minimize splitting on the ends of the pieces.

To cut all of those chamfers I made this jig and guide block to have some control.  When only a couple of chamfers are needed it's easy enough to eyeball them but with multiples it's best to make a jig.  When your mindset is to "let the computer" do the design work then you're at "its" mercy and limited by what it's programed to do.  If, on the other hand, you understand the problem, then you can figure out how to solve it based on experience.

     So, what's my bottom line, purpose behind my blog today?, not really sure!  Must be the heat because when I know I truly enjoy the work and process behind making things.  I'm afraid that much of what I do is a dying art.  My last years teaching woodshop showed me that these traditional skills, those that take time and effort to perfect are not that appealing to the general public.  I hope this art form will never be lost.  Diane and I like to watch American Pickers.  A recent conversation we had is what will happen when the people that can recognize "junk" that we produced here are gone?  Who will carry on that tradition of knowing that the engine block you found is one of a few produced and worth thousands?

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