Woodshop News

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If you have never visited a modern "production" shop, you might be surprised at how little resemblance it bears to what most of us visualize when we think of a woodworking shop. From the loading dock to the shipping department, computerized, automated equipment is everywhere.

Panel processing areas look like enormous shuffleboard tables with robotic arms equipped with vacuum pods to move full sheets and cut parts from one conveyor to another. There is nothing in sight that looks like a table saw. Sanding stations resemble huge steel buildings with "rough" parts disappearing into one end to emerge at the other sanded and ready for finish. Parts then travel through another structure in which they are given several coats of finish (on both sides!) and sanded in between.

By the time the parts get to the assembly area they have been drilled for construction dowels and shelf pins, and have had any hinge baseplates and drawer hardware mounted. Assembled cabinets are clamped in a giant "case clamp" that is wired to electronically cure the glue that was squirted into the dowel holes just a few moments prior so that clamping time is reduced to a few seconds.

Over in the door department (if the shop does not buy ready made doors from another vendor) you might actually see some machines you recognize. But even here you may well see wood vanishing into an enclosed machine to emerge on the "outfeed" side coped and stuck and sanded and ready to be put together. And even when you do find a table saw or a cutoff saw, it is inevitably connected by an umbilical that is plugged into a computer workstation receiving cut lists from the main office and dutifully moving the motorized stops to the correct position plus or minus one or two thousandths of an inch.

Actually, what I am describing is, in many cases an over simplification because virtually everything in some shops is computerized and automated. The one thing they seem to not need is skilled craftsmen. People are required but they spend most of their time loading and unloading machines that do the actual work.

So far I have been able to survive without having to "cave in" to this compulsion to computerize everything and automate everything. In my shop a woodworker still has to know how to work wood. I have no positions for CNC programmers and I still draw "plans" on the back sides of the sheets on paper on which I write my cut lists.

I guess I am "old school" and that is pretty much OK with me. I don't even like the "computer controlled variable speed" thing that now seems to be "de rigueur" on everything from routers to palm sanders. Maybe one day I'll get a planer with a motorized table so I don't have to crank it up and down "by hand" or a shaper with programmable height settings for precisely repeatable set ups. Maybe ... I'm still thinking about it.

D.D.

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