The eighty-twenty rule of traditional craft

I have been building a tool carrier this week, a wooden box with splayed sides and a handle like every carpenter had a hundred years ago, long enough for my hand saws and my jointer plane, designed for easy carrying. This was supposed to be a simple project, which was my first mistake — but I’ll get to that later, in another post, after I’ve finished the thing. In addition to being more complicated than I realized it has turned out to be more work than I’d expected, for a couple of reasons.

First, a tool carrier needs to be as light as possible, because you’re going to have to carry it, potentially for some distance. Any unnecessary wood has to go. Standard three-quarter-inch stock, is thicker than the box needs for strength; half an inch would be plenty.

The trouble here is that you cannot buy half-inch pine boards. You can buy one-by stock, which is actually three-quarters of an inch thick, or you can by five-quarter stock, which is actually an inch; the listed measurement is what it’s sawn to, before it’s planed smooth. But half-inch stock you have to get sawn specially for you, which is complicated, expensive, and a long drive to a good lumberyard. For small quantities it’s easier to buy one-by stock and plane it down myself. (If you’re buying lumber off the rack, you probably need to resurface it anyway, because it’s been surfaced indifferently and stored stupidly.)

If you have a machine planer, thicknessing lumber is quick enough — if you don’t account for the time you spend working to pay for the thing, or the time you spend setting it up for a small job, or the time you spend planing the burn marks off your lumber, or the time and money you spend building a bigger shop to house the thing. (They edit those parts out of the television shows.) I don’t have a machine planer; I use hand planes — a scrub plane to take wood off quickly and a smooth plane to clean up the surface. Once you get the hang of using the tools (and once you learn to keep them sharp) they really are more practical for small jobs.

The other thing I didn’t see coming is that the tool carrier needs wider boards than you can usually buy off the rack. The carrier doesn’t look that big — the bottom is only eight inches wide, and it’s six inches high — but the angle of the splayed sides means that the boards have to be ten and eleven inches wide. So I had to join narrower boards into panels. For that I use a jointer plane; what I said about machine planers applies doubly to machine joiners, because it’s really very quick to plane the edges of boards by hand.

So I had to join a bunch of boards, glue them up, wait for the glue to dry, then thickness and surface them. All that paneling and thicknessing takes time, however you do it, and with hand tools they mean work and sweat, especially in North Carolina in June. On this project, in fact, they’ve taken me far more time than laying out the pieces and actually constructing the tool carrier.

This often seems to be the case in traditional woodworking: the bulk of the work happens before there’s any visible progress at all. (And I didn’t even have to saw the boards myself. Or cut down the tree.) That’s exactly the opposite of the way the work happens in, say, web development, where the “80-20” rule prevails: You do 80 percent of the work in 20 percent of the time, and then you do 20 percent of the work in the remaining 80 percent of the time. That’s an exaggeration, but it gets the point across. The interesting, creative work comes first and gets done fairly quickly, and then you spend months chasing down details and testing and killing bugs. That is, I think, why web development is seductive, and also why it’s so often done poorly. Somewhere in that last phase people figure it’s good enough and move on.

I’m realizing that this is one of the reasons I like woodworking better than web development. You put in the hard work up front, and then later you get the creative, intellectually interesting work as a reward. It’s more honest, and ultimately more satisfying. Maybe this is true of any traditional craft, in which the craftsman or -woman has to spend a great deal of time prepping materials. And then I wonder to what extent doing that sort of work, day in, day out, affects people’s attitude about work and profit and money. Web development feels an awful lot like buying on credit, come to think of it. Maybe instead of teaching courses in financial literacy we ought to just put kids to work on traditional crafts, apprentice-style, with raw materials and hand tools.

Hell, maybe we ought to apprentice Congress out, too, while we’re at it. I’ve got some more boards that need planing.

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