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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.

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