Mark ( on August 28th, 2009

Recently, I was reading Doug Stowe’s blog: Wisdom of the Hands.  Doug had a post there about some testing of new tools he had been doing recently.  In the post, Doug discussed that he did not want his tools to allow his work to “self-identify” with the viewer.  His feeling is that if someone views his work and immediately identifies with some aspect of it as:  “oh, he had to use tool XYZ to do that” then he has missed the mark with respect to it’s design being a unique expression of his creativity.

I tend to agree with this.  From my perspective, when we design, we should  start with a blank canvas and design from the top down, thinking about the statement we want a piece to make as well as its function, as necessary.   We should design from the top down without undue constraints (as much a possible) and when we build (the implementation phase) that  should be done from the bottom up.  This is where we must exercise our skills and problem-solving abilities as we endeavor to realize the design that we desire.  For me, tools do not enter the picture until the implementation phase.  If I do not have the tool for the job, then I have to try to find a way to execute the design by some other means. or in rare cases by purchasing a tool.  However, I try to never let the tools that I have on hand limit what I design.  I posted a comment on Doug’s blog in response to his post that I’ll reproduce here:


Interesting thoughts…I agree with what you have said.

I am constantly amazed while reading at woodworking blogs and message forums about all the new tools and gizmos that woodworkers are buying with reckless abandon – often times with no real need!

It sometimes seems that tool acquisition (and display) is the goal as opposed to the use of the tools in pursuit of our craft. I routinely see shops full of all manner of new tools (both hand and power) and purchased jigs and often very little production of woodworking objects.

It is interesting to see woodworkers frustrated and avoiding building pieces that they perceive to require a specialized tool to complete. Ironically, many times all that is needed is to build a simple and quick jig or fixture to accomplish the task.

Woodworkers are missing out on an important aspect of the craft that requires developing skills of problem-solving and design when they avoid creating simple jigs and fixtures as part of their build process. As you stated, without the ability (and/or desire) to do this, our designs will become limited by what we have in our shops and/or what we think we can buy at the nearest woodworking tool outlet.

So, I thought I’d take the pulse of the internet woodworking community regarding this topic.  Please let me know what you think by responding to the poll.   More importantly, expand on your thoughts in the comments of this post.  This is an interesting topic regarding design that I think deserves some discussion.  So, don’t hold back, let’s hear your thoughts!

[polldaddy poll=1927691]

Tags: , , ,

19 Responses to “Do your tools limit your designs?”

  1. Mark,

    To do and complete a design, tools are just about nil in my shop, or at the table in the house, or…just about anywhere an idea strikes.

    If need be, I won’t use any tools at all when designing a new piece. In fact, I use my calendar book, maybe an engineer’s rule if it is a second or third pass, for then I can concentrate on the piece, not on the tools required to make the piece. The entire thing starts with a concept *sketch*, nothing more.

    I recently attended WIA, in St Charles, Ill. Jim Tolpin had a GREAT session about Measuring Not At All, which was fantastic! He designed a stool for a client using only his hands and one of his shoes. Your readers can view the 15-minute video I extracted from his 92-minute session on my blog, at .

    One interesting part of Tolpin’s presentation: He believes quite strongly that using hand tools frees one’s creative spirit, and encourages creativity. Can you imagine that?!

    Thanks, Mark. I hope your readers will enjoy Jim’s presentation. But one had to be there to fully realize the impact of his message.

    Al Navas
    Sandal Woods – Fine Woodworking

  2. I should probably take a moment to clarify what I mean by “self-identify.” And should state that there are times when in woodworking the markings of tools add interest. For instance, I like looking over a hand planed surface and finding the “ligature” markings of the hand plane at work. I will look at a surface of a piece of wood that self-identifies as having passed through a planer (you know those little marks that you try to sand or scrape away?), and find that far less desirable, regarding it as unfinished. In making a piece of rustic furniture, I will find the markings of a large circular saw on rough lumber to have formed a desirable texture. But in observing an “antiqued” surface in which I can clearly recognize the particular screws, nails and implements of distressing usedused, I would find it less interesting than a texture that has earned its own abuse.

    I guess some of it boils down to the question, “who’s in charge here.” I would rather see the surface textures (if they aren’t intended to be near perfect) controlled by some form of random act rather than overt deliberation.

    I find it dishonest when someone routs dovetails and then uses a marking gauge to mark them, implying that they were hand cut. I have no problem with the use of a router to cut dovetails, but I would desire that the craftsman at least be honest about it.

    The main point is that simple is best. Every tools leaves its mark, and simple tools leave the most interesting marks. As a box maker, I get asked a lot about the “lock miter bit”. And it is one of those tools that states, “production and expedience”. Someone not knowing how it works might feel intrigued until they realized that it was a technique intended to be fast and easy. Do I want my work to say “fast and easy” or are there more interesting stories to tell?

    Anyway, the lock miter bit, regardless of how you feel about it, for me is an example of what I mean by “self-identifies”. And I need to be clear that self-identifying is not always a bad thing… The question then, is the tool used telling the viewer the right thing about me, my intentions, and my work?

    I hope this adds to the discussion.

  3. Al,

    Thanks for posting your thoughts.

    I watched the Tolpin segment at your site and it looks like it was an interesting lecture.

    It was interesting to see Tolpin contrast and compare the Industrial and Artisan approach to design. The industrial approach focusing on speed and efficiency and the Artisan focusing on the creative and innovative. I also thought his quoting Pye’s terminology of “the workmanship of certainty” and “the workmanship of risk”, respectively was an appropriate way to characterize the two approaches.


  4. Doug,

    Thanks for your additional points of clarification. I guess I’m with you in that “fast and easy” is not the story that I want my work to tell.


  5. Hi Mark…………..this all depends on what furniture design arena you are working in. The example that Al uses above, mentions Tolpin saying we are more creative with handtools; but he’s talking to his current audience of Popular Woodworking hand tool guys so of course he stresses “creativity and the hand tool”, but come on; anybody who has done this for awhile already knows that as you seek complicated forms, handtools are introduced but they are usually not used in a traditional manner. Again, he’s talking to an audience with a handtool bent that he wants to shape; but his comment short changes what is occuring with furniture design in Europe today. I doubt very much, Jeroen Verhoeven designs with his hand and foot, that’s actually just very silly showmanship.

    There are times when you design to existing machinery and times when you just design and figure out the necessary tooling later. Of course the internet woodworking community doesn’t deal with margins, but a good furniture design makes money for the manufacturer/factory.

    The US is way behind in furniture design because we over think everything. No different than your example of needing this tool and that tool. I believe the home based woodwoker is missing an unbelievable opportunity at furniture design right now because of over thinking and this constant gnawing that creats time wasting rhetorical rivalries. This tool vs that tool, solid wood vs plywood, it hinders what the internet woodworking community could be.

    When its all said and done, it is simply figuring out how to design manufacturable a form. Something that has dynamicness!!!!!!

  6. Hi Neil,

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    Tolpin may have been catering a bit to his audience however, I still think that there is something there when he quotes Pye regarding “workmanship of certainty” vs. “workmanship of risk”. My feeling is that without taking some risk in our design efforts, we will never stretch to reach our full potential.

    You said: “because of over thinking and this constant gnawing that creates time wasting rhetorical rivalries. This tool vs that tool, solid wood vs plywood, it hinders what the internet woodworking community could be.” I think that this is true and it gets closer to the heart of my post.

    It seems like there’s more debate and heated discussion out there over the best tools to have and less about what makes a beautiful design. Moreover, I think that there are woodworkers out there that are so risk averse that they will design a piece around the specifics of their tooling rather than by finding the most pleasing form.


  7. WOW……Mark….you got back fast on that. I had forgotten to mention at the end of my post having to do with what Al said about his starting point:

    “The entire thing starts with a concept *sketch*, nothing more.”
    ….Al Navas

    Although its been a very long time, I just reached for a copy of nature & Aesthetics by Pye, where would I find in Pye his thoughts on “workmanship of certainty” vs. “workmanship of risk”.”

    Over the past 18 months, I have been outlining risk and how the internet woodworker can address it. Each will be able to withstand their own level, and I do have thoughts on it. Recently, I just touched on a few points briefly with “The Inquisitive Woodworker”. I started with project size and that lead me to craft and since I’ve been off on my own flier with “The Folding Rule” but still maintaining my risk notes.

    I’ve had to keeping telling myself not to get caught up in and be frustrated by the “Rhetorical Rivalry” within my thoughts. :)

  8. Neil,

    I believe that the “workmanship by…” concepts are from Pye’s book “The Nature And Art of Workmanship” – which I have not read, bye the way. Though, after seeing these concepts, I’m very intrigued to do so.

    There is no preview I can find of the book online, but I did find a review at WoodCentral.

    In the review, there is a quote from Pye in the referenced book that seems to go straight to the heart of my post:

    “People are beginning to believe you cannot make even toothpicks without ten thousand pounds of capital. We forget the prodigies one man and a kit of tools can do if he likes the work enough.”


  9. Hi Mark,

    This is a very interesting topic and I have enjoyed reading the posts. I don’t consider myself an artist as much as I think of myself as a craftsman. That’s not to say I don’t apply creativity to my designs, because by definition since all my designs are original (though inspired by other designs) I am a creator, hence an artist.

    But most of our (woodworkers at large) creativity is limited by past artists and craftsmen. For example, has anyone designed a truly unique joint lately? Or a unique leg? I haven’t sen one.

    Mostly what we do is create new forms, functions and sizing. And this gets to my primary point. I view furniture cration as a three step process: 1) Form, function and sizing, 2) Joinery selection and 3) Crafting.

    To me the first step is the most, and probably only, truly creative one. I always start with a sketch, usually in a tool like SketchUp. But SketchUp is the only tool that comes to my mind for this step. I never consider what is in my shop and available to me, nor what I might have to purchase. It seems to me that doing so would be counterproductive to the creative task at hand.

    Step 2, choosing the joinery, is a place where I do consider my tools. It seems to me it would be foolish not to. I have a bent toward hand tool joinery, especially dovetails which I always do by hand, but if several forms of joinery might work equally well then it is foolish not to consider which joint might work best with my tool set. However, I am by no means a slave to my tools and I have enough that I can’t conceive of a shape or joint I can’t craft with what I have. I would argue that hand tools give you much more freedom in shaping or cutting difficult joints, and more pleasure too. But that is more a personal view and choice than a given.

    Step three is simply the using of the tools you have to craft your design, the most important one being your personal skill and craftsmanship. This most important tool is not one you can buy.

    I guess the bottom line for me is I don’t consider, or limit myself by tools while creating a new piece, but I might while designing it. The thing I try to consider most during crafting is my skill level; how can I challenge it and improve it. Simply using it without a challenge or improvement is static and not enjoyable. That’s what volume manufacturing is. Craftsmanship is continual improvement of one’s personal skills.

  10. Joe,

    Thanks for posting your thoughts.

    I think that the first steps are the most creative as well. That’s not to say that there is no creativity in later aspects of a project (joinery, wood selection, etc.) but the first step gives you the concept and for of a piece.

    I always start with sketches as well (Sketchup for me is less creative that a pencil and paper – though I do use Sketchup to sometimes detail out a design). This is the step that I was referring to. If, when you sketch, you worry about how you will build or which tool you have to do it, you will avoid taking risk with the design to ultimately chase the most pleasing form.

    For me, I’m free with a pencil to design anything I want without undue constraints. Then When I like the design I must go figure out how to build it.


  11. Mark,

    I use SketchUp for my sketches because neither you nor I would be able to decipher my sketches. My handwriting is the same way.


  12. I have always had a hard time imagining things without mentally using tools. Looking through tool catalogs always fills my head with ideas, and adds to my enjoyment.

  13. Hi Mark

    I really enjoy your posts; not a woodworker, have dabbled, but very interested in how advanced skills are learned, so I’ll be following your posts for that slant.

    David Pye’s Book is definitely a classic, a rarity in how he describes the relationship of the craft worker with the designer; and with tools, and also working creatively with material that a lesser worker would have rejected.


  14. Dave,

    Thanks for visiting the blog and for your comments. I try to write about aspects of design every once in a while because it is an interest and also is under-served in the Internet woodworking community.

    UNfortunately, I have not yet read Pye’s books, though I’ve read much about them and have seen excerpts. They definitely seem intriguing. Do you have any specific recommendations? I was thinking the first one I will try to find is “The Nature And Art of Workmanship”.

    Again, thanks for visiting and commenting and please continue to do so.


  15. Mark,

    Wow, this has definitely spilled into quite the conversation. Sorry it took me so long to join in. What this all comes down to is fear. Fear of inability, fear of failure (if you even believe failure exists), fear of “not good enough.” Fear restricts us to design within our visible self-imposed boundaries.

    The woodworker should instead be designing according to inspiration and influences. Yes, consider if it’s able to be produced in a timely fashion, but we all start out slow. Constantly challenging and stretching our skills makes us faster and more adept at them. Design for the pleasure of producing the piece. Letting your tools dictate design limits your growth severely.

    Good thoughts.

  16. Adam,

    Thanks for your thoughts on this.

    I think you are right…”fear of failure” and/or “fear of not good enough” is something that definitely inhibits our efforts to design and build things. We can easily become so paralyzed that we fail to act at all!

    I think that we all need to keep learning and trying to move out of our comfort zone to grow as both woodworkers and designers. For me that means using new techniques, solving new problems, building in new styles and even working in areas that I had not worked in before.

    For me this is all part of the process. We all struggle with the possibility of failure, but if we can push past those fears and try anyway the end results can be more than we imagined we could achieve – this is something that I always try to remind myself.


  17. Interesting to reread this thread a couple months later. It’s my hope that the current interest in skills will foster some real interest in the wisdom of hands,as opposed to purely intellectual or athletic skills. A Russian neurophysiologist about 60 years ago recognized that dexterity produced a level of neurological development that the repetitive nature of sports training can’t. It’s approximate to the contrast between running down a stony trail and doing laps on a closed track.
    I’m looking forward to Nicholai A. Bernstein’s work finally making a difference in how we view hand skills. Not ordinary; rather, extraordinary.

  18. I’m a product design student, about to graduate. one of our professors speaks adamantly about how machines don’t know what they make, they don’t care. Antithetical to the Machine Aesthetic, we’re taught to envision and bring that image into reality rather than work with easy to make forms. I believe that doesn’t exclude process showing up in the final piece visibly in some way. We pride ourselves in picking up random objects and debating the parting lines, mold quality, solder points, and any other tell-tale manufacturing clues. Handwork can free itself from the blatancy of industry produces objects, but people, especially those familiar with the craft love to figure out how somebody “did it”.

    I think tools and techniques can suggest beautiful forms, and beautiful forms can highlight some particularly amazing operations.


  19. Trevor,

    Thanks for your thoughts on the subject.

    Seems to me that you hit it on the head with “we’re taught to envision and bring that image into reality” – that, to me is the essence of design!


Leave a Reply