Thursday, October 25, 2012

Moral superiority in the wood shop

I've gone back and forth on writing this for months, now.  Maybe I'll delete it later.

This is long and ranty.  You've been warned.

My shop has been mostly packed up for over a month so I can move, so I've been thinking and reading more about woodworking than I have been doing it.  Maybe that's not really much of a difference from how things usually are... I'm not sure.

Anyway, I keep reading about how working with hand tools is "more pure" or better, and people who use machines -- like tablesaws, or routers -- aren't woodworkers, they're "machinists."  That last is usually said with a sneer, as if they're saying "Well, he calls himself a woodworker, but really he's cheating."  I've heard at least one say that those who use power tools aren't woodworkers, they're machinists, as if that's a biting criticism.  One author in particular actually states (I don't have the book with me while writing this, so I can't give you the exact quote, but it was what got me going on this rant) that working with hand tools is morally superior, and that you can't have good craftsmanship if you use powered tools.  Really.  I'm not naming names:  I thought the rest of his book was fantastic intro to unpowered woodworking tools, and I learned a lot from it.  It was that one paragraph that bothered me.

A disclaimer here:  I use whatever's easiest.  I frequently find it faster to grab a hand saw if I just need to make one cut, and for small jobs I'd far rather use my Yankee screwdriver or eggbeater drill than my impact driver or electric drill.  But two nights ago I needed to make a bunch of cuts in larger lumber, so I used the chop saw, because it was faster and, for me, more repeatable.

Then there's the other camp, who don't understand why anyone would want to make rip cuts by hand, or cut a mortise with a chisel instead of a mortiser, or really do ANYTHING without a powered machine.  "It's faster!" they say.  "It's more consistent!" they say.  "It's faster and more consistent, and therefore better!" some of them say.

So I find myself thinking about it.  Is one way really "better" than the other?  Is it POSSIBLE for one way to be morally superior to the other?  What would that even mean?

Well, let's start with the OED.  It has lots of definitions for moral... surely we can make one fit.  Here are the three I thought were most likely.  (Italicized text taken from the OED)

a. Of or relating to human character or behaviour considered as good or bad; of or relating to the distinction between right and wrong, or good and evil, in relation to the actions, desires, or character of responsible human beings; ethical.

b. Of an action: having the property of being right or wrong, or good or evil; voluntary or deliberate and therefore open to ethical appraisal. Of a person, etc.: capable of moral action; able to choose between right and wrong, or good and evil.

Really?  Good/Bad, Good/Evil... I don't really see those having much to do with woodworking.  I suppose some of the stricter environmentalists might say that anything that uses electricity unnecessarily was evil, but I don't think you'll find that in any philosophical or religious text.

That first definition points to "ethical"... what's the definition there?

a. Of or pertaining to morality or the science of ethics.

Right.  Well, without an ethics textbook I can't give you quotes, but I'm betting none of them mention the use of power-tools versus unpowered tools.  What else do we have?

d. Designating the incidental effect of an action or event (e.g. a victory or defeat) in producing confidence or discouragement, sympathy or hostility, etc. Cf. sense 8.

This one is interesting.  Do people have more confidence in things made by hand?  Does furniture made with power tools evoke hostility, or something similar.  Certainly I find being in a room full of shrieking power tools (even when they're mine!) isn't very restful, while the sounds associated with hand tool use are.  I think my neighbors appreciate not hearing power saws as often.

So maybe there's a little bit of grounds there for claiming hand tools are "morally superior."  But it's pretty shaky.  So what's going on here?  Why is one side trying to claim moral superiority?  I think part of it is the tendency most people have to want to be Right.  I see it a lot in my field (IT), but it's everywhere;  My way is Right.  Therefore, anyone who does things differently is Wrong.  And when you're one of the only few people doing things your way, it's even easier to fall into that trap.

I think there's also some ancestor worship in there.  People worked wood with hand tools for thousands of years.  We've only been using powered tools since the industrial revolution, so, what... 200 years?  (Wikipedia confirms my shaky "about 1800" guess by saying 1750-1850.  I'll call it 200 years.)  And home users have really only had mass produced electric power tools for under a hundred.  That's a lot of tradition to throw away there.  And while it's not going to show up in the OED, a lot of people use "Morally right" to mean "The way it's always been."  So maybe that's where the argument comes from.

But I think it's a bad road to steer down, especially if you want to convince people to try your way.  Telling people they're wrong, morally inferior, and unable to make good products isn't going to convince them you're right.  Point out they can build things without waking up the baby, or drowning out the sound of the phone.  Have them hand-cut some rough dovetailsIf you want to convince people to try hand tools, demonstrate that it's not much slower, and that it's more fun.  The first time they see those wispy shavings coming off a hand plane they'll be hooked.  And maybe they'll go all the way through the change, or maybe they'll wind up somewhere in the middle.

Either way, they'll still be woodworkers, as far as I'm concerned.