Jun 12 2015

The Ethos of Woodworking Precision and Accuracy

There are a lot of different opinions floated out about accuracy and precision in woodworking, and further, about how it applies in handtool woodworking. I’d like to take a few moments and help add some additional perspective from a toolmaker, and from someone who has also had a long career as a journeyman tradesman. This read is a little long, but I feel the perspectives will be helpful to us as we develop our craftsman skills.

I don’t want to overstate what others I’ve read are saying, but cumulatively I read a lot of woodworkers who write say things like: “wood has too much movement for a need to work accurately”. “Measuring is unnecessary, just match things up so that they are good enough”. I could go on, but I am sure we are all aware of what I am referring to.

On it’s face, sometimes these statements may be true, maybe only true for those who state them, but they can be precarious things to say in a context where the reason why is not well prefaced. Let me explain.

First, I’ll share something with you about the trades. Today, the craftsmanship ethos is not the same it was “back in the day”. Corporate mergers, profitability for the company and it’s shareholders and the need to work quickly so that more dollars can be gathered in less time is the ethos that rules a lot of the built environment today. Don’t believe this? Go shopping. Sometimes the designs and the materials are on the cheap, other times the workers are pushed to produce faster than high quality craftsmanship can provide for, so the final quality has suffered, and “Good Enough” is what has become acceptable. Acceptable because this is what is made available. It’s what you can get. period.

And is why some people become woodworkers.

When I started in the trades, the old school guys still ruled the day. Many were high level craftsmen and you were an apprentice. Job one for you was to catch on fast to the ways of doing precision work as quickly as it can be made, if you wanted their respect and recommended for advancement. If you had the wrong attitude, which was any attitude other than the one they wanted you to have, you would find yourself eating lunch by yourself. It was accepted by leadership that quality was first and they were happy if everyone was doing their best to achieve this as far as possible. The crew’s output was quality first, and if you needed more production, then you added more craftsmen.

Today, I am addressing woodworkers, so I’ll say; we work wood in our shops and we are each free to choose where we stand between these two philosophies and adopt some resemblance of them for ourselves. We may not add people to the mix, but we may adjust our speed to meet the needs of the quality or production of our work output. Fair enough?

As a maker, here is a helpful sense of what accuracy, measuring and precision develop into.

Working wood is about working to the line. There is more to it, but this is the essence of how things come together. Remember Coarse, Medium, Fine? It’s pretty self explanatory. Usually we start with raw boards, often with a rough surface quality and only roughly dimensioned. Then as we work towards the pieces we intend them to become, we also work them closer to their final dimensions and surface quality with all the necessary detail. This is putting the “fineness” into our work.

We know, based on what parts we are making that we should proceed in certain ways, based on what wood will naturally do; like cutting to a dimension a bit large and allowing for the wood to move a bit before continuing, Knowing that this is a coarse cut, and there still needs be material left for working to a higher surface quality that arrives at the necessary dimensions.

Other times we know we are to leave a board longer than final dimensions because the planing process does not finish the beginning or end of a board as well as the rest of it and we may also need to account for marks left from workholding. In another operation, we know we need to leave a board long if we intend to chop a mortice into it’s end, or we risk damage to the part. It’s something worth keeping in the fron of your mind.

Consider the making of a table leg. It can be tapered or cabriole, or what have you. We start with stock larger and longer than we need. Longer because we know we need to for mortising and final length matching adjustments. Wider because we know that for the saws to cut, we need wood enough to support both sides of the saw while in the kerf.

We would make our mortises while the stock is still rectangular because this facilitates orientation for layout, cutting and stability for the work. After we finish the mortise, we may saw off the extra material beyond it because it has done it’s part in protecting the leg from damage while the work was done. depending on the design, there may be several shapes used in ensemble for the joinery, and the rectangular shape of the stock helps us reference the layout to get the desired shapes onto the legs final orientation.

Then we may move on to the shape of the leg. We would saw larger than our final intended dimensions, because we still need stock remaining to improve the surface quality with, yes? We may even need to tape the sawn waste parts back onto the workpiece to help us properly orient the stock for final shaping as we go. This is a way of retaining the precision and measurements we need to help get us there.

But here is where we need to remain mindful of what we say. When people say they do not need to be mindful of precision and measuring in woodworking, well, that isn’t patently true. The caution here is that you may have lost the baby in the bath water. I remember reading something recently where a woodworker was saying how he wanted to work quickly like the woodworkers of Roubo’s time, Whoosh, Whoosh! “There are too many unnecessary tools for this!” Au Contraire. It is not whoosh-whoosh because of unnecessary tools, it IS whoosh-whoosh because developed craftsman skills have taught the worker which tools are the right ones for when they are right, and how to wield them. This doesn’t mean you need every tool unless you intend to make every thing, but proficiency and some mastery over your own kit of tools sure helps you be productive and precise. Whoosh!

The craftsman develops knowing where this matters and where it doesn’t. Even a story stick is useful if it was measured and laid out correctly in the first place, yes? If we make a square or straight edge from wood, isn’t the highest usefulness in the straightness or squareness in reality? Remember, Most any joinery works because of close tolerance fitments. This means a couple things. You don’t have to measure them, but you can. Depending on the tools you choose, you may need to know both ways!

Here is another conundrum and we can ignore it, but if we do, we do so at our own peril. If you are a strictly handtool woodworker, then you perhaps can enjoy compensating for all kinds of things in your work. All the dimensions can be a little unlike the other and you can just move a layout line here or there or set the fence on your plow plane a little wider or narrower and roll with it. But the Hybrid Woodworker using machines is not going to find this nearly as enjoyable, and the professional who requires repeatable production and maximized utilization of materials isn’t going to have this luxury. At times, we may find ourselves being all of those people along the way.

Productivity works when a lot of throughput is made uniformly. Designing all the mortises to a single size where possible means a machine needs fewer bit changes. It also allows the tenons to be made with fewer machine changes, and prior to the tenons being made it will also mean that all the boards that will be tenoned will work best if they are machined to the same dimensions so the woodworker will not have to chase all these compensations around.

A good many woodworker uses both machines and hand tools as they work from coarse to fine so it is really important to realize that in reality, there are times and places where we all do pay attention to precision. To some degree, our handwork has to match the precision we get from our machines, and visa versa. Dick Proenneke once said this about craftsmanship. “I don’t want these logs looking like a Boy Scout was turned loose on them with a dull hatchet”

Sizes are relative and that choice is yours. This is why we can make with difference in design – from Stickley to Chippendale, but the fitment between the parts must be always a close match, and this means precision, or the joint won’t support, and the look will suffer. If we were measuring, we would need a few thousandths of an inch of room for glue between the parts. We could check this and compensate to make the fit correct. Other times, our craftsman skills develop an “eye” for and the “feel” of what this is, and we proceed forward knowing we have what we need. We develop a sense of this need for precision over time, and we do what is necessary to make it reality when we know the where and when.

Something I have realized, is that no matter how much I think I know about making after years of doing it, the material and craft can still humble me at times, so I try to remain mindful of my steps.

Here is another concept where we benefit from paying attention to precision.: Have, Want, Need.

In the trades we used this concept a lot. What we have is the coarse end of the job or task. The beginning. What we need is the fine end of the job, and what we want is the work we do to proceed from what we start with to what we finish with.

The details are in the “Want” Ok? there is material between the have and the need portion. We have to determine the differences here. You know, removing everything that is not the finished item, and assembling the parts that make the whole. Here is a scenario:

I “need” four legs for my table, and I’d like grains to match well. So let’s look in our stash for the right board. The four legs finish to a given dimension, so I “need” 12/4 stock. For my design they finish at 20 inches long so I need 22-23 inches per leg. So I hunt for a board that will accomodate.

I find the board and I “have” the wood for the start from rough work and I cut for the four legs. Then I “have” those. Then my design is applied to what I “have” and helps determine the work I’ll “want” to do, to get to the finish pieces I “need”. To be certain, we will “want” a precision fit for our joinery, so let’s not kid ourselves. It’s careful work. We will also want the legs to look alike. This doesn’t mean laser precision, but a discerning eye will see if you are off in places by an eighth of an inch or less, (Trust me, you’ll not want to test this with discerning clients) and if we are using the machines to help us, they will naturally produce uniformity to a pretty high level anyway.

“Want”is the work we perform on our journey. So overlay them like this: “Have” = “Coarse”. “Want” = “Medium” “Need” = “Fine” The journey of every finished product from beginning to end. Trust me, when you find yourself making duplicate multiples of anything, your measuring and precision will come to mean a lot more to you, because that is what is productive, and you’ll want to get on with it with minimal fuss after awhile. It is a good habit to develop your skills in this area, because if you do, the finish products coming from your hands will be completed with higher quality and much greater ease.

Here is something we can all enjoy. We all start with coarse and work to fine. The fine part really is short in terms of time, because we learn to work closely to the line. Usually we adjust our level of precision upwards until we arrive at the finish and stop, if we observe doing good prep work as we go. The finish is something we arrive at and stop. Depending on what we are doing, there is often a lot of room in the middle – medium ground. At the beginning we do not have to be as careful as we do towards the end, unless the work we are doing does not need to be fine. Your developed craftsman skills tell you when the time is right to shift gears and use a finer tool. If you reach for a fine tool too soon, you may rethink that as you learn from the experience.

Framing a building is not the same work as the finish carpentry of trimming or fireplace mantels… Applying the precision of finish carpentry to framing isn’t productive or necessary. Performing finish carpentry with framing precision will never look good. Jack plane work is not smoothing plane work so make no mistake. You can accept tearout from a jack plane because the goal is mass wood removal. This is dimensioning or thicknessing. Tearout from a smoothing plane can mean disaster for the finish of the final product. If you are not close to final dimensions, you won’t need to be quite as careful than when you are. You won’t need the smoothing plane yet either. Even in sharpening we learn that when we are needing to completely rebuild an edge, the 8000 grit stone is not the one we should choose to begin this journey.

As your craftsman skills develop, (this never really ends) you will find yourself thinking about all this from time to time. Your hands and eyes will continue to provide feedback to you. This is nuanced input and it all makes you better. It is good to have skills that can bring you to any level of quality that you want, and better to know where you are in the project and how good the precision needs to be for where your at and where you are going. Then you will know where and when you can be lax, or when you’ll need to “Tighten Up” You’ll also know when you were too lax from the beginning, and how that can lead to where you’ll never finish out with precision if you change your mind.

One more perspective. The Toolmaker’s.

The workman, or the user of any tool has a reasonable expectation that the tool chosen for the job will provide the necessary level of precision needed for the work. While a dull chisel will not work at the precision of a sharp one, you would expect a maker to provide a 3/8ths inch wide chisel at exactly 3/8ths inches wide. Otherwise, you’ll find your bets are off.

And so it goes, A good plane maker will provide you with certain precisions that your tool will need for the work expected from it’s type. Soles that are flat, sides that are square to the sole, specific bedding angles, precision surfaces that mate the frogs, chip breakers and levercaps. A molding plane maker will work the fitment of the blade’s bedding and wedge to 0.001 in wood and the sole to match the blades shape it is to house, so that your plane will do what is expected from it for years to come with proper care on your part.

A good table saw maker grinds the table flat and provides a fence that is straight. They give us the means to calibrate the accuracy of the machine to our needs now and in the future. The fence also allows repeatable accuracy to a given level of precision, and the blade can tilt to a specific angle that you choose, both arbitrarily or precisely.

Plane and Shooting Board

A good shooting board maker is paying attention to precision on your behalf as well. We have to make a tool at a level you might not make for yourself, because this is not our choice for you. That choice belongs to you. We would never want our tool to color your craftsmanship adversely. We want you to have all the room you need for performing your best work.

Fences are straight and square to 0.001, made so that you can calibrate the angle precisely to your need. The chutes are straight to 0.001 and coplanar to the top where the board to be worked rests, so that the plane maker’s square plane rests squarely with the work, and the rest of the matchup is up to you to set the planes lateral adjustment to your need.

In ensemble, the plane and shooting board offers a woodworker machinist level precision over wood. The precisions that are built into tools are the same precisions that are automatically transferred to your work as you use them to make. Our tools offer woodworkers even more options with that same precision than what was ever offered by a similar tool in the past. Why? So you can make what you want to, to any level of precision you desire.

A tool for precision, productive repeatability, because all tools have to be as good or better than the work you intend to do with them with your craftsman skills. Do you need a shooting board for precision work? The answer depends on who you are in woodworking and craftsmanship. If you think so, we can help with that.

So when you read a woodworker writing about precision and accuracy, and how it isn’t needed, keep in mind that he is saying what is true for himself, and he isn’t always speaking what may be true for the work of another craftsman. We do not all make the same things. Also keep in mind that the more you push yourself toward precision and accuracy, the easier that level of craftsmanship will become for you to perform. Soon what you work in that way will be something that comes from your hands because it has become your craftsman skill.

A lot of things change in life, but developed craftsman skill is something you’ll have for your lifetime if you develop it, so let that be your gift to you. You are the only one who can practice it for your developed skill, so make practice count! Do your best work always, using tools that will help take you to that level. Precision will come from your hands almost automatically, and your best work will just keep getting better.

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