I got an email from a friend this morning asking me what I thought about Festool’s Domino joinery system. I told him I thought it was an incredibly ingenious solution for rapidly cutting mortises and that the machine itself is a marvelous (albeit expensive) tool. When I reread his email before sending my reply, it was interesting to find out that he wanted to buy the Domino specifically because he had to make a dozen or so mortise-and-tenon (M&T) joints for an upcoming project. I asked if he planned to do a lot more M&T work in the future and he said he suspected as much, but wasn’t sure.
I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised by my friend’s readiness to buy such an expensive tool, possibly for a single use. After all, if you have a task to do on your computer, iPad, smartphone or other electronic time muncher, you simply buy the right software, application or peripheral device, right? I suppose it follows that when a modern woodworker needs to cut a particular joint, they buy the machine or device that’s designed specifically for that purpose.
But has modern woodworking really come to this? I remember when I was a teenager just getting interested in furniture making, I read a story about a church on an island in Lake Onega, Russia. It is said to have been built by an anonymous master craftsman using nothing but a simple axe. The story goes that after he finished building this amazing structure, he looked at his hand holding his axe and, unwilling to consider that this same axe might create such beauty elsewhere, flung the axe into the lake! Although the story is almost certainly apocryphal, I found its tale of doing great work with simple tools inspiring.
Making something with only the tools you have on hand is not only challenging, but it can help you to become a better woodworker. This certainly has been my experience. Way back before there were fancy mortising machines, we learned to chop decent mortises with a basic chisel and mallet. I remember drooling over the cool dovetail routing system that the Canadian company Leigh introduced some decades back. As a fledgling furniture maker, I was perpetually broke, so I had to cut all my dovetails by hand. It took a lot of practice, but let me create dovetails in sizes and proportions that fit the furniture I was building — not just the capabilities of the jig.
Speaking of which, lack of money and special tools also led me to design and build many of my own jigs and fixtures. For example, I had a commission to build a sleek mahogany frame for a daybed. I wanted the piece to feature box joints in all four corners. But since the members were way too long to cut on the table saw (using a dado blade), I created a router jig to guide all the joint cuts. The jig worked so well that I ended up using it on dozens of other projects, eventually making miles of tight-fitting joints before the jig wore out.
Such circumstances not only helped me develop better hand-eye coordination, but cultivated my concentration and patience as well. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have acquired the majority of my woodworking skills if I could have just gone out and bought a new tool or ready-made jig every time I needed it. And as an added bonus, you get a lot more physical exercise sawing, chiseling, drilling and planing your joinery into existence than you do simply pushing a router around. That’s a lot more important nowadays, as I’m not as skinny (or as poor) as I used to be!