Monday, June 20, 2011
Woodworking Machinery Renaissance
It's been said before, we are living in a woodworking machinery Renaissance (insert sound of a turntable needle scratching a record here).
Okay, that's mostly untrue. Manufacture of fine, cast iron woodworking machinery in America has all but died. There were once thousands (yes, that many--have doubts? see this) of companies manufacturing heavy, cast-iron machines all over the country. The choices were astounding. Today I think I could count on one hand those companies who are still at it. Northfield Machinery Builders, is one that is still alive and well, for example. Two of my old machines are 50+-year old Northfields that I bought from a high-school auction in Minneapolis.
Why did I say mostly untrue? Dozens of cabinet and furniture making companies are closing their doors, either closing completely or selling off the assets and setting up shop on the other side of the planet. And herein lies the machinery Renaissance. Many of these companies have been in business for decades, and some going on a century or more. The machines they outfitted their shops with back then are in most cases, still running strong. They are widely available and generally inexpensive through auctions and sales.
Over the past year I have been slowly replacing my modern, Asian-made machines with older, American-made machines. In most cases, I've been able to obtain these machines for much less than a comparable modern machine. And they are better machines in every way. I say this without hesitation.
Back when Americans were making machinery with pride, the folks at the drafting table knew what they were doing. They actually designed machines to work properly, keep settings, and last. They didn't simply use an established blueprint, start up the assembly line, and bank on good sales and repeat business as a predetermined given. The bottom line wasn't the at the top of the list. Making quality machines was.
Sound familiar? It's the same philosophy that's driving the current American hand-tool manufacturers and the very real hand tool Renaissance. Tom Lie-Nielsen, Konrad Sauer, Dave Jeske, Joel Moskowitz (and many more) have dedicated themselves to the notion of making things here, and making them with lasting function and beauty as the driving force.
Since last September I've replaced my jointer, multiple drill presses, and I have an 18" planer, 24" cast-iron scroll saw, small shaper, and a 1916 auto-reciprocating Greenlee mortiser waiting in the wings. For every one of these machines I paid less (and not just a little) than the smaller, cheaper, inferior machines they replace or will replace, and when I sell off my "old" machines, I'll have money in my pocket.
All of these machines were found within a half-day drive of my shop, and most of them less than an hour away.
We may not be able to purchase new, high-quality, American-made machines anymore (I wish it wasn't so), but from my perspective as a blended woodworker, we are living in a sort of machinery renaissance. And I can't think of a better place for these machines to end up than the shops of passionate amateur woodworkers who will carry on the craft and make real, lasting furniture with these machines instead of purchasing curb fodder that is modern factory furniture. After reading Christopher Schwarz's latest tome, The Anarchist's Tool Chest I'm convinced that I'm right in searching out these old, American-made gems and putting them to good use in my shop. If you're not sure what I'm talking about, read the book. It's his best to date.