This continues the series of guest columns about how technology is reshaping people's hobbies and passions – fishing, basket weaving, community service – whatever.
This time it is good friend and fellow blogger. Jeff Nolan, He pleasantly surprised me with the column this week. When I approached him as I started the series a few months ago he declined as he describes below. I am delighted he changed his mind and is sharing his fantastic skill at woodwork.
“I grew up in a construction family and when I went to college I worked as a union carpenter during the summers - it was one of the few jobs I could get that would allow me to earn enough money in the summer to get me through the school year. I guess you could say I’ve always had a knack for building things, not only from a mechanical standpoint. I also enjoy it.
When my wife and I bought our current house it needed a lot of work, having been originally built in 1959 and with very little done to it since, well 1959. This was the house we could afford and knowing that we were not going to take on more debt to renovate the house I resigned myself to the knowledge that for the next couple of years I would be working a second job on the weekends and vacations. I was also faced with the prospect of furnishing an empty house, which given a few years I was able to do with a stack of hardwood, a shop full of tools and machinery, and a lot of patience.
In order to do trim and finish work you need a woodworking shop and the skill set is more akin to furniture making than construction. It is detailed, precise, and most of all technically challenging. I setup a shop in what was previously known as our two-car garage and to this day a vehicle has not seen the inside of that garage. (Vinnie’s note – and Jeff has some cars that absolutely, positively deserve to be sheltered in a garage) Every piece of millwork and cabinetry, as well as most of our furniture, was built in that shop, saving us at least $100k and giving us the satisfaction of knowing that we got exactly what we wanted as opposed to selecting from what was available.
When Vinnie asked me to write a post for this series I initially resisted because the fact of the matter is that technology does not play much of a role in my workshop. In fact I am going in a completely opposite direction by using hand tools with greater regularity - tools that are based on designs that are a hundred years old. I don’t think I am all that different from other woodworkers when I say there is very little technology in my workshop and odds are that there is a very small likelihood that technology in the workshop will expand.
However, after giving the subject some more thought I realized that I benefit greatly from the role that technology plays in globalization. Today it is possible to get high quality, professional grade machinery from Asia for a fraction of the cost of what the same equipment would have cost (adjusted for inflation) 15 years ago. It is not just Asia that benefits as a result of global trade either; woodworking machinery from Italy, Austria, Germany, and Eastern European countries is also available in the U.S. market, made explicitly for the U.S. market.
Technology has also resulted in CNC (computer numerical controlled) machinery becoming available to the very low end of the market. CNC machines that would have cost $100k twenty years ago were $20k ten years ago and today can be had for $2k, well within range of the serious hobbyist.
Affordable 3D CAD programs are available (by affordable I mean free… Google’s Sketchup is a highly regarded application that is available for free - photo credit ) and many woodworkers and craftsman use CAD applications to do the work that was previously done on a drafting table in two dimensions, not three.
On the other end of the spectrum, a growing industry of small boutique hand tool manufacturers has been growing as a result of the direct to market capabilities that the Internet presents. Disintermediation it the marketplace is alive and well, enabling an industry that otherwise would not exist.
It is the broadening of the woodworking tool and supply marketplace that I most appreciate. Thanks to the web I can get finishing supplies from my preferred supplier in Ohio, period specific hardware from a number of specialist online retailers, tooling from several suppliers that offer a better inventory and lower prices than any local retailer could muster, and lastly, specialty tools that are available now because online direct to consumer retail makes such businesses possible.
I am positive that the power tools and machinery I use takes advantage of technology that only the engineers who designed them know of, and in many ways the hidden hand of technology to make existing tools better is the best case for technology.
There is one very large category of tools that simply would not exist were it not for modern technology - cordless tools that are a staple in any shop. First appearing in the mass market in the early 1990’s, battery powered tools have transformed the tool market and the innovations in batteries designed for cordless power tools have led the industry. In fact one of the highest tech products available today, the Tesla Roadster, uses a battery pack assembled from over 6,800 battery cells originally designed for power tools.
As much as I enjoy my woodworking hobby because it is so far removed from technology, I recognize that my ability to enjoy this pursuit at the level that I do is a function of the technology in the supply chain as well as in the products I use. “