Seeds: From Analogue to Digital Workshop

In my retirement, I am currently a denizen of an analogue world that that roughly approaches my teenage ideal. In that world, Plywood, marine plywood especially, was the material I preferred to shape. The preferred shape being that of a hard-chined sailboat. The radial arm saw was, unquestionably, the most exalted workshop tool. Yes, Roy Henderson had one that occupied a central position in his workshop. When I think carefully about it, that is where my idea of a line of tools, Machine Alley, has come from. He had few options, as an under-used recreation room occupied most of the basement. It was in the rec room that his son, Grant, spent his time, building and painting plastic model cars from kits.

DeWalt Radial Arm Saw 1957
A 1957 De Walt Radial Arm Saw, largely as I remember them, although I cannot recall any red sawblades. (Photo: https://vintagewoodshop.wordpress.com/1957-dewalt-10-radial-arm-saw-gw-i/ )

Roy’s shop was one of four that has influenced me. The second was a commercial workshop run by English immigrants building hard-chine, plywood hulled Enterprise sailboats from kits along the shores of Blind Bay, on Shuswap Lake, British Columbia. The third was the school workshop at Vincent Massey Junior High School, where I learned to use assorted woodworking tools, and found that mastering the jack plane was harder than mastering the band saw.

The fourth was the unloved workshop at my parents house in New Westminster. Its tools seemed to be from a previous century, and many probably were. They had belonged to my father’s Uncle, Thomas McGinley. He was the same uncle that had participated in the Klondike gold rush, but had otherwise worked as a carpenter. These tools were all rugged and heavy, designed for work on ship’s timbers or log cabins, rather than more delicate objects. I never saw my father use any of the tools. I’m not sure if it was from a lack of skills or a lack of interest. When my parents sold their house in 1972, these tools were disposed of.

These days I am more moderate in my opinions, but more excessive in my purchases. I am fortunate in being able to buy the tools I want. Yet, I hesitate to buy the best quality. I am buying the equivalent of Craftsman tools: Good, but not great. I don’t mind the challenges of working with imperfect tools. The fact that I may have to use extra time to adjust the table saw’s fence rather than have it snap into a precise position is a challenge with its own reward.

As I approach 70 years, I realize that the time I have to use analogue tools is limited. Yes, I am focusing on analogue woodworking tools. I am more comfortable working with wood than metal, or textiles or plastic or clay. In five years time, the worst of my infatuation with band saws, sliding compound mitre saws (UK)/ chop saws (US), spindle moulders (UK)/ wood shapers (US) and lathes should have eased. That is tomorrow. Today, I want to master this analogue world around me.

Because it is so many years since I used analogue tools seriously, I have to rebuild my skills. At the same time the workshop is being formed. The wisdom of what I had hoped would be a single line of stationary tools along a wall, Machine Alley, is being questioned. The table saw, an essential tool for transforming plywood, MDF and even OSB into useful components is demanding a more central placement. Already now the as yet un-purchased lathe has been repositioned in Machine Alley. The prudence of purchasing a separate thickness planer, rather than one in combination with a jointer, is being questioned.  While tools are cheaper now, it doesn’t mean that they are easy to come by. I regret Norway being outside EU’s Customs Union. It makes my purchasing decisions more complex and expensive. Because importing goods is an expensive and bureaucratic hassle, Norwegian tool retailers and importers can ignore people like me, and just offer a selection of popular tools. All of the tools that I want, but cannot find in Norway, can be found stocked in Ireland.

At this point I would like to comment on my feelings in relation to my fate. It is complex, combining regret with acceptance, even contentment. Yes, I regret never having built my own house. Yet, I am sure that I could never build one in Norway, in a way that I would like to build it. Norway is a country without building inspectors, that allows each trade to police itself. A loose canon, such as myself or anyone without trade qualifications, would never be given permission to build such a major undertaking. In Canada, anyone can do anything, but it has to be inspected, to ensure that it meets the standards. I am equally sure that I would find it equally frustrating to build a house in Canada. I am not sure that I could regress to 24″ from 600 mm.

A lack of house building means that my workshop activities have limited scope. The workshop will ensure that improvements are made to the various rooms of the house, including the kitchen and living room. A minor addition or a shed will be added. Siding will be replaced, possibly with stucco. Furniture will be built. That could take up to five years. What will happen after that? Unfortunately, many makers do not plan for their future. They see their activities proceeding linearly, forever.

What I do see happening is that at some point old age will demand a transition away from analogue tools. My eyesight will worsen, and some of my skills may degenerate. Yet, hopefully, working in the workshop will keep my strength up. I am giving myself five years to accomplish my analogue goals. Everything has to be finished by 2022-12-31, although that date may be extended, health permitted.

Let me repeat that comment about my feelings in relation to my fate. “It is complex, combining regret with acceptance, even contentment.” What I am looking forward to is replacing analogue with digital, working more with workshop automation, home automation and robotics, including robots for the elderly.

I am not quite sure what this world will look like. Yet, in my later retirement years, I am looking forward to being a denizen of a digital world that is vastly different from my teenage ideal. In this future world, I may still be using plywood, but my table saw will be replaced with a CNC machine in the centre of the workshop. It will allow me to work with different processes, simply by replacing a head. It will work with different materials, some currently unknown.

CNC Router Parts 4896
CNC Machine kits are available from many sources, including CNC Router Parts. (photo: cncrouterparts.com )

Yet, transitions have to be planned. An analogue workshop will neither appear nor disappear by itself, a digital workshop has to be planned and implemented.