Why do I call it manual labor? Because it is. Oh sure, one can buy all manner of tools that will do the work for you but why wouldn’t you want to do as much of the labor yourself? Why would you want to point to a chair and say,”I’ve a machine that does everything for me, I just push the button. Didn’t I do a great job?” Ah, no, the machine did all your work for you, you only pressed the start button., The whole point of working with one’s hands is figuring out how to do “stuff”. Some crafts are very difficult to learn to do well, such as relief carving in wood or stone. Those crafts take a bit of an artistic eye, judgment that comes for years of experience. It also means learning how to measure correctly and interpret those measures into three dimensions. As a Nobel Physicist once said the fun is finding out stuff..
Whether one is doing woodworking, metalsmithing, pottery, jewelry, or any other craft, the first thing you learn is how to set up your workspace, how to set things out and get the work ready. Any fool can toss a lump of clay on a wheel and start the machine. But the master starts by measuring that lump, weighing it to see that it is the right amount (close enough since throwing a pot is both a subtractive and additive process). Then he or she goes through the long process of cutting and kneading the clay to get all of the air pockets out of it. There is nothing worse that having a piece explode in the kiln and damage the other pieces being fired. The wood worker selects his lumber with care and stores it with care, the price of good lumber is not cheap. Tools must be sharpened or maintained, depending on the trade. Clean up may be a drudge but it is a must for good work in the future. One doesn’t need to be spotless but neatness counts. JUst as an artist must clean and care for her brushes, cleanse her mixing pallet, and make sure her canvas stock is clean, so to the metal worker must clean his files, sharpen his shears, and oil his equipment. Welding rods don’t work well when left to the elements or kept in damp storage. Set up and clean up are half the job and one comes to do it willingly and with a little joy, the pride of a finished job well done.
Today I am making a full shutter for the back door of my stone house. I really need a new door but the ones I can buy ready made are expensive. So I’ll keep the one I have for another year or two while making a shutter that will serve two purposes. The first is that it keeps the wooden door from deteriorating further and the second it that it secures the back entrance. When complete and stained, it will look good, too. I have some saw horses, commercially made, cheap things, really. But the work for many jobs around the house. The one problem is that they aren’t wide enough. So I had to modify them. Simple enough, drill a couple of holes for pegs and add the length of material I need to the horse. So I found some scrap lumber, cut the lengths I needed, the ran them on the table saw to true up the face that will support the work. Next I clamped them exactly where I wanted them to be attached to the horses and drilled two holes for dowels. add glue, inset dowels and let dry. Now my saw horses are wide enough to support my work. These are little things you figure out for yourself. You don’t need to buy all the toys and aids and what not. That is part of the joy, learning how to make jigs that aid your work. It’s part of that creativity that comes with understanding a craft. And every time you think of what kind of jig will work and make it you learn more about the work. Perhaps you’ll improve upon that jig in the future or think of a new variation that will be useful on a different job.
Power tools are nice and I really don’t want to give up table saws and power miter saws for large work. But there are times when I want to use only hand tools. Box joints (finger joints is another term) are best done with either a table saw with special blades or a router. And to do them you need a jig. The jig can be a commercially made tool that costs hundreds of dollars. Or you can make the jig yourself out of wood. On the other hand, I have a project in mind where I will be using blind dovetail joints and that can only be done by hand. My English neighbor, Del, went to university near London. His course of study is what Americans use to call Industrial Arts and Engineering. He became not only a master joiner (we call them cabinet makers), but he also taught the subject in various schools. One of his final projects for his degree was designing and making a piece of furniture. The plans had to be exact specification blueprints (this was before CAD even existed) and then at every stage of work his professors had to inspect the work. The joinery called for multiple blind dovetail joints, about half a dozen I believe. And before he could finish assembling the work his professors measured everything and found the joinery to be perfect. When put together there is no hint of a joint. The grain matched very well. Del says he sweated that joinery for about two weeks, making all the measurements time and time again. The old saying, measure twice and cut once applies here all too well.
But this is why I love to look over old wooden structures that were build by master joiners. Mortise and tenon, dovetail, all the other joints that are used. Then there is the science in such construction. Here in France one finds timbered building all the time and one simply marvels at the work. No machines were used, it was all done with hand tools, and precisely at that. You can see it in the stone mason’s work. Climb to the top of the bell tower of any cathedral and look at the carved stone figures. The work was perfect because it was closer to god’s eyesight. Anything less would have offended both god and the master craftsman. Yes, it is Old School”, as if old school ever went out of style. No short cuts, just plain old fashioned quality and pride of workmanship. It’s a shame that our public school systems no longer teach such precepts.