Chaised by the machines

Machines have long had a place in any woodworker’s workshop, but rapidly evolving technology raises questions about the meaning of ‘hand-made’ and its value.

Paul Chilton hand sketch

Automation has long lingered as a risk to livelihoods – from the Luddites burning weaving machinery 200 years ago, to the looming prospect of the transport industry giving way to driverless vehicles and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in general taking on more and more work. Today, even white-collar workers are looking over the same precipice of job insecurity that blue collar workers faced decades ago. Even those careers that are often held up to society as representing the aspirational pinnacle of normal human achievement, like doctors and lawyers, will not escape the incoming disruption. (For anyone still in doubt, watch what machine learning could do five years ago, and think what the next five years will bring along the exponential productivity curve.) The common denominator of risk to both ‘collars’ is, I think, two-fold: a high degree of repetitiveness and process, and a low degree of creativity and originality.

Being in the business of making expressive custom furniture should fall outside, for the most part, this theatre of risk. However my experience of late designing a recent piece – a chaise longue (literally ‘long chair’ in French, sometimes also Anglicised to ‘chaise lounge’) – has made me question not just how immune I really am from the aforementioned job insecurity, but more importantly raised philosophical questions about what I’m in the trade for.

I wrote very early in my journey as a woodworker about the importance of mastering a craft and using your hands to the sense of satisfaction and meaningfulness that one extracts from their work. Making is half of the intrinsic satisfaction of being a ‘designer-maker’. It’s also easy to argue that in search for a more authentic connection with material products, the customer is increasingly demanding ‘hand-made’ as opposed to mass-produced. Machines have long had a place in any ‘hand-made’ workshop – think routers, table saws and band saws. As technology evolves, the difficulty lies in where to draw the line between pragmatism and romanticism, and my chaise has brought this consideration to the fore and revealed tensions I hadn’t previously noticed.

My training as a maker in the UK focused on the ideal of chasing perfection, whether it be in the flatness of surfaces, the tightness of joints or the quality of finish. Being a commercial workshop and not only a school also meant a focus on efficiency. For these reasons the preferred approach to making usually required forms and jigs that were used in combination with machines to create smooth refined curves and tight joints. Hand tools had their time and place, particularly for applications such as a small set of dovetails, or a bespoke edge treatment, but these hand tool operations often didn’t do the heavy lifting. This reality for many, including me, comes with some sadness as you are introducing a degree of detachment between you and the wood. Your hands have become insulated from the feedback of the hand tool against the wood and instead is replaced by the high pitch hum of a rotating blade. The hobbyist, on the other hand, has the luxury of ignoring efficiency pressures and can indulge in the use of whatever method of making gets them in ‘the zone’.

Having accepted this reality of machine efficiency, I feel like I’m on the slippery slope to further detachment in the making process. At the school, I was one of the first students to not only design in CAD (computer-aided design), but more importantly have the forms and jigs cut with a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machine, saving several thankless days of hand-shaping MDF. Having decided to continue this method for my chaise, I started to talk to my local CNC shop about fabricating my next set of forms and jigs, and was blindsided by his casual suggestion to have everything cut on the CNC… “What, the wood too?” I asked, in disbelief. “Yep, I can even fabricate the mortises.” I shouldn’t have been so surprised – people have being using CNC machines to cut wood for a long time, even organic shapes like this stool that look to be done by hand are in fact the result of CNC.

Often the up-front cost and time of committing to going down the CNC path has been the excuse of some to stay put with their tried-and-tested regimes. However, as with any technology cost curve, this barrier is vanishing quickly. You can now get yourself a hand-held CNC machine, rather than committing to the conventional CNC machine that is the same size and cost as a small truck. Even more exhilarating is an open-source CNC machine that you put together yourself for the princely sum of $350.

As the cost of production falls, the value proposition to customers of bespoke furniture will be questioned more intensely and we will get closer to understanding just how important the ‘hand-made’ attribute is. What I feel is more important is the quality of the design and to that end the integrity of the design is not only maintained but possibly enhanced. New technologies allow designs to be less compromising and more attainable. Of course, the corollary is that designers fall victim to temptation to become too loosely expressive or abstract resulting in indulgent gimmicks.

After having just received back my test component (one of the back legs) from the CNC machinist, the result was impressive, not only for its speed but its accuracy. There are some patches of tear-out that were expected when the cutter went against the grain, but these can be relatively quickly cleaned up with a card scraper – and for that task I did still relish the opportunity to pull out the hand tool and have the edge on the machines. For now.

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CNC-cut test leg component.