Saturday, February 20, 2010

I Don’t Wanna Build the Hammer

I build cabinets. They come in many shapes, colors, and styles. Each and every one is precious to me.

Despite how much I enjoy the art of cabinetmaking – yes, cabinetry is still far more an art than a science – I find building them has gotten harder and the process takes much more time and effort these days.

You see, I was originally trained with hand tools. I know how to use them and they feel very comfortable in my hands. But, I kept hearing about all these amazing new, modern tools and reading about how much more I could do with them than with my old chisel and rasp. I finally decided to try to keep with the times and convert to modern equipment. So, off to the hardware store I went to see what newfangled gadgets I could see.

Little did I know how many hardware stores there are these days: small mom-and-pop shops, national chains and megastores, even some which are strictly web-based. Since I didn’t really know what there was to know about the new wave of tool design, I figured I better look at them all.

Holy crud! What an eye-popping assortment of doodads, doohickeys, thingamabobs, and whatsits! You can twist and turn and join and curl and polish and trim any which way you might ever want. It looked to me as if there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do with a little piece of wood if I had a modern shop full of these fancy schmancy instruments.

The salespersons all showed such finesse in using these gadgets. With my extensive training in fine woodworking, I knew I could do much more still with these in my hands.

I asked about pricing: pretty steep, compared to my simple hand tools, but not unaffordable. (After all, I make enough cabinets to generate a livable income.)

I asked about training: regular classes, ongoing support, and even webinars were all available, though there were extra charges for some of these. (That was OK as I knew it would help me get up and sanding sooner if I had some personal instruction.)

I asked about productivity: as the sales people whizzed through their demos, they assured me I would be able to produce even finer cabinets at a similar rate, thus generating more income for similar effort. (My boys’ meager college funds would appreciate that!)

It all looked so good; I plopped down my plastic and went home to await delivery of my new, complete set of cutting edge, woodcutting tools.

Now we come to the rub, the glitch in this whole, new high tech gadget gitalong. After the delivery crew had dropped the boxes off on my woodbench, I learned a sad truth: every one of my shiny new implements appeared to have been designed by an engineer, not a craftsperson. Their instructions were written in tech-ese, not English. They seemed to have started with the assumption that the end user already had an in-depth knowledge of modern tool design and understood their inner workings.

After wading through pages and pages of almost indecipherable and convoluted instructions which asked me to remember minute details from chapters and chapters before, I finally realized that putting my new tools to use was going to be a phenomenal challenge, but, not for the reason you might think.

I can digest details and manage minutiae. (You should see some of the woodcrafters’ trade journals.)

I can learn new skill sets. (I’ve spent my life learning new ways to wrangle wood.)

I can even build a hammer if I have to. (I don’t want to; I prefer to use the hammer to create cabinets.)

The biggest problem? My new tool set came as a kit. All the pieces and parts are there, but to use them, to get on about the business of making cabinets, I have to put the entire toolset together. Sure, they’ve molded the plastic and hardened the handle shafts, but I am supposed to put the pieces together in a way they say “will work how I want them to work.”

(Shoot, my little Palm Pre is pretty complicated, but it only took a day to get fully up and running with it. Sure, I had to put the battery in and run through some guided setup routines initially, but they were “pre-thought out”; I barely had to think at all, just follow some very simple, well-designed, and regular human-ese instructions. It works how I want it to just fine.)

I am committed to mastering my new toolset. Overall, I love it and we will end up creating beautiful cabinets together. It’s just a lot harder than I think it should be. It takes a lot more effort because I’m still figuring out how to put the tools themselves together, which is not really where I want to be spending my time. I’m pretty sure most other cabinetmakers feel the same.

I want to create cabinets. I don’t wanna build the hammer.


From the trenches…

"Follow the grain in your own wood.- Howard Thurman


First posted on HIStalkPractice.com, February 19, 2010.

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