The Helpful Yellow Machine

Or: Confessions of a reluctant machine owner

Nearly all of my tool purchases are carefully planned over a period of time, with a certain amount of questioning before I put any money down as to whether I really need that tool. As a result, I rarely feel conflicted about a tool when it arrives, because I’ve made sure that it fills a genuine gap, and it’s at a price point I can afford. Last summer, there was one tool which I felt horribly conflicted about ordering, even though going through that same thought process left me in no doubt that placing an order was exactly the right move. That tool was a 12″ thicknesser by DeWalt. After 7 months of using the machine, I thought looking at the reasons why I was reticent to purchase it, and whether those concerns were reflected in reality, would make for an interesting blog post.

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The cause of much soul searching and angst, or a helpful apprentice?

I know what you’re thinking – you don’t expect to read much about machines on OtW. And I do wonder if this post will result in a reduction in my regular readership (there’s nothing like living dangerously on a bank holiday weekend, is there?). But I’ve always aimed to be honest about my approach to woodwork, and while I remain hand tool focused there are some machines I wouldn’t be without (I love my drill press and band saw, and fear my router wth every fibre of my being). So here goes.

I first started considering investing in a thicknesser during the Policeman’s Boot Bench – processing a number of sizeable (and often unruly) oak boards entirely by hand turned out to be a much more time demanding process than I had anticipated. Now, woodwork for me has always been as much about the process as the finished article (let’s see how many craft-based cliches I can fit into one blog post shall we?), and handwork is really where I find my satisfaction at the workbench. But ever since the Apprentice arrived, there has been a constant tension in how I feel about being in the workshop, which I’m sure will be familiar to many other woodworking parents.

Most of my waking time is spent thinking about what I will do when I’m next in the ‘shop, mentally rehearsing tricky operations or techniques, running over designs or new projects. And then, when I am at my bench, I wish I was with the Apprentice. So there is a palpable tension between the need to be productive and build things with my hands, and the need to be a hands-on, and present, father. It’s a tension that has had me chasing my tail for nearly three years, and I confess there have been times when I’ve seriously thought about shuttering the workshop permanently and dedicating every waking moment that I’m not in the office to fatherhood. That doesn’t sound like a bad way to live at all. Dr Moss is a lot smarter than I am, and she disagrees. I think, because she recognises that if I did not have some opportunity to pursue this vocation, and to satisfy that need to build things, that I would eventually turn into a withered husk. And withered husks are not generally much good at being decent parents. So it is a case of balancing parenthood and the workshop, which requires a degree of time efficiency.

I’m not saying that handtools are slow, far from it. Having dedicated 2016 as a year of unplugged work focusing on fundamental hand tool techniques, and working my way through two thirds of the Joiner & Cabinetmaker, I can process stock by hand pretty swiftly. And if I were building small pieces, or still focusing on lutherie, then my stock preparation would remain handtool only. But for the larger furniture pieces that I seem to be building at the moment, flattening a large board by hand and then thicknessing it mechanically is definitely a time saver.

Ultimately, after much soul searching, it was words of encouragement from Jim and Chris that convinced me I wasn’t committing a grave sin by ordering the helpful yellow machine. And as Chris pointed out, thicknessing machines have existed in various forms for at least 400 years. One of my concerns was that a thicknesser would encourage me to become lazy, and also de-skilled. That might show a very specific handtool prejudice towards machines (and I know machine-orientated woodworkers who produce incredible work), but I’m glad to report that it has not been the case. Flattening the reference face of my stock keeps those handplane skills sharp, and I still thickness the occasional board by hand to keep that skill set current. Also, some stock exceeds the capacity of the DeWalt, which means that I have no choice but to process it entirely by hand. What the thicknesser has allowed me to do is move through the stock preparation stage of a project more swiftly, which increases productivity in the long run, and aswages any guilt about being away from the family for a morning. That peace of mind alone means that the cost of the DeWalt was a worthwhile investment.

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Munching 12″ wide boards down to thickness saves time which I can then spend on cutting joinery

So will you see my workshop trading out the hand planes, back saws, and brace and bit for a collection of shiny powered contraptions? Not at all. My focus will as ever remain on traditional handwork techniques and tools. And this is a focus which means that the workshop is an appropriate environment for the Apprentice to spend time in, should she wish to in a couple of years time. But for the grunt work of bringing boards down to the required thickness, I’m glad to have a helpful yellow machine to assist me.