Is Digital Manufacturing a Friend or a Foe?
We are at a pivotal time in furnituremaking history, where fewer people than ever know how to build things by hand but new technologies can turn out one-off pieces days faster than the most skilled craftsman, and in fact, produce forms not possible by any other means. Is this a threat to all things handmade–to our concept of perfect imperfection–or are the CNC and 3-D printers just exciting new tools? Longtime studio furniture maker Scott Grove, who has run everything from a large-scale operation to a one-man shop, was nice enough to share the thought-provoking discussion that he presents at schools around the country. No one has all the answers, but Grove asks all the right questions.
“Ever since I started woodworking I have always wondered: Is using technology comprising my craftsmanship? I would buy a new tool, the latest and greatest gizmo that would give me a better cut, quicker and more accurately, and then a friend would jokingly say, well, that’s just cheating.
So the age-old question is: Does technology take away from true craftsmanship?In recent years this has become more and more of an issue or dilemma as advanced technology is becoming more accessible. With the use of CNC machinery, wood can now be cut, carved and shaped more accurately and quickly than one could hope to imaging. As a business man, I embrace this efficiency but sometimes wonder if I am losing touch of my craftsmanship. Am I still a maker? Or now redefined as a designer and assembler?
Why do we seek more advanced technology to create? Certainly the bottom line is an easy answer but isn’t it also to reach perfection? As a hands-on craftsman, I strive for it, to make the perfect joint, seam, cut curve, carved pattern and finish. That new piece of equipment that cuts cleaner, faster and more accurately will always to be selling point. In Western society, we dwell on imperfection as a flaw and often consider it a failure or subpar, shoddy craftsmanship. Certainly the world of craft is starting to have a negative connotation. Poorly handmade. Are we missing the fact and appreciation that these flaws might be a human touch? OR do we and society want perfection do matter how it is achieved? We are now at a stage in the game where furniture can be completely designed and created with the push of a button. Some will argue that the design and even the manufacture is still a craft, but is it? Really?
When I started to deliberate this question, I began by breaking it all down. What is technology, and what is craftsmanship? Technology means using advanced machinery and knowledge often associated with science and math. Craftsmanship means creating by hand, actually touching the material. Sounds easy enough, but where is the line between the two? How advanced can the process be before the piece is no longer handmade?
Looking back there has always been advanced machinery, from chisels made from bone, to steel saws powered by water, then electric tools, and so on, each advancement allowing us to work a little more efficiently. However, in most cases we still directly controlled the tool and the material with our hands. For me this is an important distinction. With hands-on control, I have the option to spontaneously react to the material and the tools performance, change in midstream, go with flow, this relationship I have is intrinsically intimate. Machines simply can’t do this.
On the other hand, I see many “craftsmen,” myself included, using advanced technology to produce furniture–laser-cutting veneer, using CNC lathes to turn precise duplicates and mill high-tolerance joinery–and these furniture makers are considered some of our best. Are they the best craftsmen? Or, are we now seeing a divide between true hands-on craftsman and now, designers?
So a question is IF one is able to cut a perfect dovetail, then is using a machine to do it OK? Possibly a bigger question: Is machine-quality better the handmade quality? Do the patrons care? Does the public appreciate handmade work? Are they losing touch with it?
What is more valuable (and/or satisfying), a perfectly hand cut mortise joint or a perfectly machined one? A symmetrically handcarved texture or a similar one created by a machine?
More than ever it seems to me that true craftsmen are responsible for educating the client on how pieces are made. But how much hands-on is handmade anyhow? I can have a machine spit out all my parts and I simply glue them together with some hand sanding and a little futzing, say 10% handwork. Handmade?
Another issue is how much does a master craftsman have to touch the wood as opposed to an assistant? It is common practice to have apprentices, interns and employees assist or completely make a piece under the supervision and title of the notable craftsman, who adds his signature with final inspection. Still all is relatively handmade and acceptable. What about items that are handmade by children in a grass hut on the other side of the world? Certainly handmade. Which is “better,” to use advanced machinery or third world labor? I am in awe and also sympathetic of these third world craftsmen which I have personally witnessed. They obtain an amazing level of craftsmanship with a minimal use of technology, and are in horrible working conditions. This opens up another Pandora’s box, which only an individual can resolve within themselves when purchasing these items.
Are we at a crossroads dividing designer/maker/craftsmen from designers /engineer/ assemblers? Do we need a new certification defining such hands-on craftsmanship, similar to FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) providing the terms or parameters of handmade and the use of technology? How about ‘CLAH – cut by laser, assembled by hand’?
Obviously there are more questions than clear answers here. But one thing is for sure: Technology is here to stay and will keep advancing, becoming faster, more accurate, cheaper and easier to use. The technological craftsman is a reality and our trade is splintering in two.
The dilemma is how to use technology without losing touch with our craftsmanship. Or is that just cheating?
–Scott Grove, ScottGrove.com
The dovetail jig makes a difficult process quick and easy.
While some fine woodworkers avoid dovetail jigs, most would use a template to rout duplicate curves. Is there really a difference?
This plywood cabinet can be made quickly and cheaply on a CNC router, with sustainably harvested wood.
The Domino XL can create strong mortise-and-tenon joints in minutes, and no one will know the difference. Is it cheating in some way?
These routed dovetails are different than handmade, but still beautiful. Would anyone but a fine woodworker mind the dovetails on the left?
Designer Judson Beaumont assembled this chair/table from dozens of CNC-cut layers. The piece is nearly impossible to make any other way.
The wood shell of this cocoon chair was made on a CNC, and the soft massaging pad inside was 3-D printed to fit, from material of varying density. The piece cradles the body perfectly while keeping out sound.
The same goes for this coffee table.
And for these chairs.
CAD software lets you design quickly and easily for the CNC.