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The Future of Woodworking – Conclusion & Prequel

by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin


This month:

The Future of Woodworking — Conclusion & Prequel

Oh, Those Legs...

The Old Magnolia Tree


The Future of Woodworking — Part 3

Many fellow woodworkers have provided comments, encouragement, and ideas on the subject of our hobby’s future, and for that, thank you very much! Now for some predictions, recommendations, and good old-fashioned speculation.


New Products  


No one can predict the future with certainty, but given the current state of the industry, technology, and the pressing need for woodworkers to spend their increasingly limited “hobby” time productively, here are some product announcement headlines we very well might see in the near future.

Electrostatic Precipitation Plate Ionizer Revolutionizes Workshop Dust Collection – A new low-power electrostatic air cleaner with laminar airflow technology imparts an electrical charge to incoming air and an opposite charge to metal plates. Dust and other pollutants attach themselves to the easy-to-clean “stators.” The new system removes 99.97% of dust, runs silently with no moving parts, and is very energy efficient.

Auto-Dimensioning System Debuts at Woodworking Show – Woodgadget, Inc. today introduced its latest system upgrade, featuring grain-visualization, sector analysis, and consumption optimization software. Any type of rough lumber can be loaded into the system. An enhanced image of the piece post-planing (or after finishing, with the V26.5.6 upgrade) is presented on the 31-inch plasma screen. The intended cuts are then layered over the image. Using a joystick, simply move the cut location(s) over the desired grain pattern, press the button, and the machine will mill the part(s) to perfect size and flatness, ready for finish. For commercial operators, the unit can be programmed to auto-decision cut locations, optimizing for grain pattern, for maximum utilization of the lumber, or a pre-calculated blend of both objectives.

Touch Pad Optimized Interactive Woodworking Plans Debut – If you sometimes stray from the exact path, this new software is for you. After milling and cutting tenons you find your stretchers are a quarter-inch shorter than the plans call for, just touch the part on your touch pad plan, enter in the new “actual” dimension, and all other part dimensions will automatically readjust to make your project come out perfect.

Molecular Reorganizer Eliminates Tedious Sharpening Chores – Using a laser excitation system, A2 or O2 steel molecules are evaporated and re-deposited in a computer-controlled pattern yielding a perfect edge on any cutting tool. Reforming an edge takes only minutes and is accomplished automatically. Users can select from a variety of programmed edge profiles, cambers, and micro-bevels or can develop their own profile using the included software.

Google Sketchup Announces “Real to Virtual” Drawing Enhancement – Google’s latest version of Sketchup Pro processes multiple digital images of any object into complete 3D drawings and plans. For woodworkers who would rather build than draw, the new system will produce complete drawings, plans, parts lists, and 3D views from a series of digital photographs.

WoodMover Vacuum Handles Eliminate Chance of Splinters, Ease Workshop Chores – With these new auto-adjust vacuum handles, woodworkers will never have to touch a piece of wood again. Perfect for feeding lumber into auto-dimensioning systems and auto-jointers.

RF Curable Adhesives Come to the Home Workshop with New Portable Safe Handheld Curing Guns – Long available for high volume commercial applications, new Radio Frequency (RF) curing systems are now available for the hobbyist woodworker. Hold a joint in place and zap it with the curing gun and these new permanent but reversible adhesives bond virtually instantly. Promising the near elimination of clamps, the company says woodworkers can now assemble complex furniture pieces with ease.

Festool Unveils New Plunge Cut Dado-Making System – Based on their popular plunge-cut track-guided circular saw, Festool announced a variable width dado cutting version designated the DC-5555 that will be available soon. The system will produce perfect splinter-free dados up to ¾” in width and up to ½” in depth. Company officials declined to speculate as to the price.

Integrated Wood Pre-Scanner Detects Metal, Measures Moisture, and Pre-Maps Grain Patterns – Mount the Pre-Scan “halo” at the feed side of a jointer or planer and wood entering the machine is scanned for metal and shuts down the jointer or planer before damage to the blade can occur if any is detected. The system also measures sub-surface moisture content and pre-scans the wood’s grain pattern, developing a “grain map” for cutting and design optimization. The “halo” transmits the grain picture to a laptop or handheld device that can then be integrated with a cut list or plan. The system will then optimize cut locations for looks, strength, and warp resistance or the user can easily experiment with their own cut location choices. Using the data gathered, the system will also warn of lumber that needs further acclimation or drying and will predict wood movement through an on-screen 3D model.


How Likely?  


These imaginary new product announcements may seem fanciful or outrageous, but consider this… With the exception of the Festool Dado Saw (which I will be first in line for), every technology and innovation mentioned above already exists in varying degrees and in other industries. Grain mapping software could be simple modifications made to facial recognition or terrain mapping software. Computer-aided cut visualization is already in use in some sawmills. RF adhesives are in widespread commercial use, and most technology eventually filters from commercial to personal use. Vacuum handles for moving products are widely used in manufacturing and distribution. There are some very interesting technical papers on molecular reorganization available and research and experiments are ongoing. Electrostatic air cleaners are common in high tech assembly areas, medical research, and other “clean room” environments.

Technology and innovation will continue, and the most likely defining marketability parameter for our hobby will be “does it save time?” As we steadily progress toward 60+ hour workweeks, our precious and ever shrinking “hobby time” must be better utilized.


Defeating the High Cost of Entry
& Filling the Pipeline With New Woodworkers  


A teacher once told me there is something to be learned from everyone and everything. I suspect no one would imagine that I could or would recite a lesson learned from illicit drug dealers, but the fact is, they know that they have to make the first “dose” affordable or free in order to get a new person “hooked.” I am feeling so guilty and out of my element right now for using this as an analogy, but I will, red-faced, proceed...

As woodworkers, it is in our best interest to get more people “hooked” on our hobby. Their first taste of woodworking simply cannot be prohibitively expensive, or most will never try it. As we know, shop class in school was great because kids could learn the joy, thrill, and satisfaction of woodworking without huge tool and machinery investments. As schools eliminate shop class, it is up to the private sector to fill the gap.

Parents spend billions of dollars a year on extracurricular classes. Judo, Karate, Ballet, Piano, and so many more are an ingrained part of our everyday culture. Would parents pay to send their kids to an afternoon woodworking or craft class? There are already some scattered successful programs available, but the availability is far too limited. Talk to your local school principal, school board, or parent-teacher association and get started now. Is there really any reason you have not started a local woodworking class for kids?

A quick internet search will reveal a handful of businesses that provide shop time, space, and equipment by the hour or for a monthly membership fee. Some even offer locker space where a customer can store their partially finished woodworking project. Imagine now the enterprising homeowner that wants a special size and shape bookcase. Lacking funds to have a custom furniture shop make it, our intrepid future woodworker signs up at Acme Rent-a-Shop. There he or she can get advice, help, and access to all the machinery necessary to build a nice piece of furniture… for a fee, of course. But said same beginner will likely get “hooked” and eventually start to buy tools. Likely, she will buy the same brand of tools in the rent-a-shop. Are the wheels starting to turn?

As kids’ classes begin to proliferate and newbie hobbyists begin to obtain access to shop space and tools, the market will rush to fill the next yawning gap, that of entry level and age-appropriate tools. Will we see a Highland Woodworking special edition “kids’ catalog?” Will Lie-Nielsen offer a “My First Hand Plane” bundle with a low angle block plane, combination water stone, honing guide and DVD? Will Festool introduce an entry-level line of tools that do not require a second mortgage? Could a new manufacturer surprise us and grab market share by offering lower cost versions of popular power tools with real quality and ease of use?


The Retail Link  


The way we buy everything is changing. The acquisition of our hobby tools and supplies will also evolve. What will the future of retail look like?

Likely, if history is its usual reliable indicator, survival will require growth and expansion. Growth and expansion may involve “chaining” or the establishment of multiple locations. Mergers and acquisitions may well occur. There may also be an evolution into “category” sales. What is now our woodworking store may morph into our “craft” supplier, a specialty big-box store with woodworking equipment sharing space with sewing machines, pottery wheels, and artists’ paints and canvases.

The retail establishment of the future will provide a place and space to obtain “hands on” experience with tools, but will likely stock very little other than consumable supplies. With ever-improving supply chain logistics and mass customization, retailers may provide education, consultation, and even custom fitting, but the final order fulfillment will likely be left to the manufacturers or strategically located distribution and order fulfillment centers.

Manufacturers will compete to have their equipment in shop demonstration areas, classrooms, and rental shop space, knowing that their presence there is the McDonald’s Play Land of woodworking. They will compete for our dollars by providing training to, and making experts of, floor and phone salespeople, and they will offer increasing degrees of mass customization to make their offering more enticing.

Retailers will gather buyer data in ever more sophisticated ways, and provide that data in ever more cohesive and valuable form to manufacturers. Computers will track us and know when we have test sawn a board on their new table saw and our general reaction. Biometric readings will measure our heartbeat and blood pressure, and know whether or not we were “turned on” by a new piece of equipment. Tailored sales follow-up will occur.

Retailers will create custom credit offerings with all the well-established intrinsic advantages. Manufacturers will then subsidize special credit offerings like zero interest, zero payments, etc. for major tool purchases and frequent-buyer points will earn credits. Eventually a dedicated site for the exchange of used tools and power equipment will emerge.

Retailers will be involved with the efforts to lure new woodworkers to our hobby. They will sponsor local instructors and kids’ programs, provide space or tools, or even conduct classes themselves. Symbiotic relationships will emerge, no different than the local after-school piano instructor has with the local music store.

In the future, a section of the store will be dedicated to kits, enabling novices of all ages and skill levels with their first entrée to woodworking. Tools may be characterized as “good, better, and best,” or perhaps, “beginner, intermediate, and expert.” In addition to interactive displays, interactive “fitting stations” will measure hands, arms, and legs for perfect fitting tools, benches, and even shop aprons.


In 2014, I May Buy a New Saw  


Having done all the research I can on line, scrimped and saved for four long years, and recently expanded my shop’s square footprint, I’m finally ready for a new table saw. With no retailer close, I decide to visit Highland Woodworking and Craft Center’s newest store location in Chicago.

On entering, I see an establishment that is alive and vital and humming with excitement. In the back, a class is underway. In a separate room, a group of kids are sawing away, working on school projects, while their parents wait in a nice lounge, reading, watching television, or drinking coffee.

A salesperson greets me cheerfully and inquires, “How may I assist you?” To which I answer, “I am in the market for a table saw.” I am escorted to a separate shop demonstration area, where several brands of table saws are set up. I choose a board from the complimentary stack, and set up a rip cut on each. Then, with the salesperson’s help, I switch to a miter guide and make a few more cuts.

The salesperson shows me the decibel measurements he has been taking at each saw, then a printout of the power consumption for each saw during the actual cuts. We then look at the measurement of residual sawdust and compare the cut quality for each saw using a videometric-enhanced computer imaging system.

Sensing that I am swooning, the astute salesperson advises, "I have some video of you making cuts at each saw, and it appears you might be more comfortable with a slightly higher table. Each of our saws can be custom fit for height, and we have all our saws mounted on a hydraulic lift mechanism to demonstrate. Let’s raise them up an extra inch and try another cut and see how that feels."

“I’m falling deeply in love with this saw, but it is a little out of my price range.”

“Oh, not to worry. Do you have our Woodworkers Club Card? With that card you will get six months with no payments and no interest, and reward points that you can collect and use for classes, supplies, or more. Do you want to see if you qualify for that card? It will only take a minute.”

After being approved for the card, the salesperson advises me that my new saw can be shipped within 24 hours, with legs adjusted to fit me perfectly, and as a bonus, they will emblazon my name, in the script or font of my choice, across the side of the cabinet. “Where do I sign?”

While my order is being processed, I enjoy a fresh cup of coffee (in a special mug they let me take home), and watch a steady procession of people. Crusty old lifelong woodworkers and neophytes fill the aisles. For some reason, my eyes fall on the mid-thirties, well dressed, well connected and overly wired professional who just came in. With my old biases, he at first seems a little out of place in this bastion of sawdust, wood smells, and machine noise, but I am struck by how he instantly seems to fit in, be accepted and welcomed, of course by the staff, but also by all the other shoppers. As he winds his way toward the “beginners” section of tools, he appears confident, at home, and at ease. It’s the atmosphere, obviously, and the spirit of the place. Woodworking is alive and well. I think I’ll wander over and watch some pottery being made.


A Chorus Line of Legs

Sometimes with tables, we start with building the top. There is a sort of “instant gratification” factor. The problem, of course, is that once the top is made, we are constrained to build everything else to fit. For my new desk, bookcase, and credenza, I am starting with legs. After the legs are completed mortises can be cut, then stretchers, braces, drawers, shelves, panels, and other pieces can be individually fitted, and the tops can be made last.

A couple of sketches and a few basic measurements are all that are guiding me. My “mental” design calls for beefy cherry legs, maybe 3” X 3” or a smidge less. To build up leg stock to this dimension, I started with 8/4 X 7+” stock. The first step was to hand plane the surface just enough to knock off the high spots, clean up the surface, expose the grain, and allow a pencil mark to show. For this I used a jack plane set to take a fairly aggressive cut, and made several passes at roughly a 45-degree angle across the boards. Then I turned the boards end-for-end, and made a few more passes. Pretty soon, things were starting to shape up, flatten out, and the grain was plainly exposed. Planing both faces of seven boards, some as long as ten feet, took me only about two hours. It would have taken less if I were not taking pictures and making video at the same time.


The next step was to mark any gross defects or areas to avoid, strike a pencil line down the center of each board, and use chalk to mark the faces for re-matching later. My portable table saw would be underpowered and scarily dangerous for ripping boards of this size, so I turned to the band saw. With a ½” Wood Slicer blade installed, a fence is really unnecessary. It was easy to “freehand” the cut, following the penciled line. After ripping, I was left with fourteen boards, each measuring roughly 2” X 3½ - 4”.


I went through a rather arduous and deliberative process of “mapping” out from which sections of which boards each leg pair would be cut. My “plans” call for four legs each cut oversize to 30”, 26”, and 42” in length. I also wanted to have a “spare” leg in each length, too, for tests and “mess-ups.” That’s a total of fifteen legs, about half the chorus line of the Rockettes.





As I was obsessing over grain patterns and marking lengths for my chorus line of legs, it appeared obvious that all the day’s planing and ripping had released a lot of internal tensions in the wood, so I decided to let things “rest” for a couple of days. It is really critical that this leg stock be stable.

After a couple of days of rest and reviewing the location of the cuts one more time for best grain pattern and overall “look” of the wood, I cut the ripped pairs of wood to rough length.


With some 30 pieces of wood, it was critical (at least for me) to develop a strategy for staying organized. I marked all the desk leg pairs with a circled “X” and used a “C” and “B” to mark the legs for the credenza and bookcase. The faces of the boards were marked previously so that I could re-match the rip cuts, and it was those partially-planed faces that I concentrated on next to prepare for glue-up.




I used the jointer to achieve relatively flat surfaces on the previously planed sides and to establish one straight adjacent edge. Finishing up with a jointer plane made the surfaces “glue-ready.” I then turned these faces toward one another (being sure to keep the orientation the same and the grain lined up) and glued them together. Again, straight and stable is the key here, so I slopped the glue on both faces pretty liberally and clamped them tight.

After I am sure the glue has set up solid, I will use the reference edge established earlier and the jointer and then the thickness planer to arrive at square, symmetrical legs.

To see a short, 2-part video of the entire process, click here and connect to the Highland Woodworking YouTube site. You'll have to advance to part 2 yourself by clicking the link below part 1 when it is finished, or just click here for part 2.

I am still trying to decide whether to taper the legs or leave them square and use a surface device (cove, inlay, etc.) to achieve the appearance of a taper or “flow” with the arched stretchers. That decision can be deferred for a while, since I will cut the mortises and make the stretchers first anyway. If I decide to taper the legs, I can do that later.

For now I am going to set aside the leg stock for the bookcase and credenza, and concentrate on the desk. My shop simply isn’t large enough for three big projects at once, and my brain isn’t large enough to keep all the different measurements straight.

Next month follow along as I cut some mortises first and then the matching tenons (my preferred way to work), but also as I cut some tenons first and then fit the mortises (a little trickier, but sometimes necessary). With the straight and arched stretchers cut and fit, I can then start on the internal components for drawer supports. We might even get far enough to start scoping out the perfect boards for the top!


The Old Magnolia

Ever since I overheard my Dad say he was going to cut down the old Magnolia tree by our house, I was excited as only a small boy can be. The thought of my father swinging his giant double blade axe, chips flying, and that giant tree crashing to the ground while I yelled “timber” at the top of my lungs, filled my daydreams.

Saturday finally came, and my Dad led me to the tool shed where he put a new sharp edge on both sides of the axe. Then we walked out to the tree, but rather than starting to chop, he sat with his back to the trunk in the long morning shade and patted the ground next to him and said “Sit.”

“When are you going to cut it down, Dad?”

“Oh, maybe in a little bit. You know, I’ve seen you climbing this old tree before. Aren’t you going to miss it?”

“There’s lots of other trees I can climb.”

“Yeah… but none just like this one. You know, son, I’ll bet this old tree is close to a hundred years old.”

“You think so, Dad?”

“I suspect so. You know, if it’s a hundred years old, it was here during the Civil War. It was here at the turn of the century. It would have been here before your Granddaddy was born.” He paused to let that information sink in then continued, “You know, if we left it alone it might live another hundred years.”

Even at six years old, I was starting to have second thoughts. “You think we should leave it?”

“Well, son, you know its roots have been growing into our sewer line. I’ve been paying a plumber to come out here every six months or so to clean out the pipe. I can’t afford it anymore. It’s kind of come down to me or the tree.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“But, I’ve been giving this a lot of thought. Much as I hate to cut it down, we won’t let any of it go to waste. We’ll cut some nice lumber out of it, maybe make something pretty for your Mom. We’ll use some of it for firewood, too. But I’m not sure that’s enough.”

“What do you mean, Dad?”

“It just seems to me that if we cut this tree down, we ought to plant another tree someplace to replace it.”

“Hey, that seems like a great idea!”

“You think so? Then that’s what we will do. This old tree will be sacrificed, but we’ll put it to good use, and we’ll plant another tree to make up for it.”

It was quiet for a few minutes. I guess we were both lost in thought, but I remember asking, “So how old do you really think it is?”

For two hours, we talked. He explained how we would soon know exactly how old the tree was, by counting the growth rings. We talked about the Civil War, the invention of the cotton gin, penicillin, the Great Depression, and more. My Dad spun stories about cowboys tying their horses to the tree and young boys carving their initials in its bark. He wondered whether or not he might cut into an old fence wire that was nailed to the tree in some distant farm past, and whether or not the wood would smell as sweet as the Magnolia blossoms.

Finally, my Dad said, “Son, I think it’s time. You still think we should cut it down?”

Hesitantly I said, “Daddy, we can’t afford the plumber, remember?”

True to his word, a couple of weeks later my father came home from work with not just one, but a dozen, sapling trees in the back of his truck. We dug holes, planted, and watered the trees. I climbed other trees, had other exciting adventures, and forgot all about the big Magnolia. But a few years ago, I had a chance to go back to my childhood house. Those trees we planted are fifty years old now, and probably as big as the big Magnolia was in its day. Those trees are beautiful, the blossoms are sweet, and I’m sure some young boy has climbed them all.

It was, it turns out, my father’s trademark… and his legacy. Not just to leave every place a little better than he found it, but also to leave a young boy with a lasting memory and a lifetime appreciation for history, nature, trees, wood, and the things we make from wood… to sometimes take what we need, but to always give back, with interest… to slow down sometimes… to talk, to listen, and to think. I hope, that among many other things, you were thankful this Thanksgiving for whatever, or whoever, got you started in woodworking. I know I was. Thanks Dad!





Steven Johnson is recently retired from an almost 30-year career selling medical equipment and supplies, and now enjoys improving his shop, his skills, and his designs on a full time basis (although he says home improvement projects and furniture building have been hobbies for most of his adult life).

Steven can be reached directly via email at sjohnson13@mac.com.

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