What is the Future of Handmade?
Tooling Wood by Hand
a didactic meandering by Maxime LeFevre
Look, I am not a robot. Robots can do amazing things with the carving and the laser printed elements. I, on the other hand, like the expression of what amazing things hands can do with wood in the service of gaming and storytelling.
Do not mistake my intentionality; we use machines to mill our wood into its initial shape. But I feel there is a balance to artisan work. Craft is a manifestation of both intellectual labor and manual labor in harmony. Powered tools offer the ability to reduce your manual labor without compromising your intellectual labor and growth as a woodworker.
Respectfully, a CNC machine or a laser printer, I feel, minimizes your manual labor, to be sure, BUT allows your intellectual labor in the abstract only, AND at the expense of your growth and learning as a craftsperson. You will never know the skill of marquetry or carving ON YOUR OWN when the machine crafts for you.
I understand others may feel the balance falls elsewhere. And that is to be respected. I am from an older generation, and as a Loremaster and a Frenchman, I am in love with the past as it is.
Let me not speak about this anymore, because, for the buyer of woodwork, this may not matter to them.
Of course, as different as we all are as artisans here at Item Woodworks, we all have the same love for hand tools. And, if you are still here reading, then perhaps you have a love for hand work too. So let me share the stories of four of the tools we often use in the shop and how that love expresses itself in the items we create.
A Low-angle smoothing plane: for persnickety wood.
Sandpaper is like combing the hair (fibers) of the wood. A plane is like a razor: it cuts it off, leaving an absolutely smooth feel. Baby’s bottom territory. Well, unless you have a hairy baby. NO judgment, of course! This was the condition of my infancy, my mother tells me. I was “a bit of an Esau” she would say: red and hairy.
The low angle plane handles the Esau-style wood grain. The wavy, burled, or figured wood that machines would just “blow out”, or ruin. All our figured and more delicate wood gets planed by hand with this tool. We have two different plane blades we use with different angles so that we can reveal the figure of even the trickest pieces we get.
2. A block plane
We use our block plane to create all of the chamfers you see in Svi’s Beholder Box and Norm’s Dice Dungeon. Chamfers are the 45 angle cuts we make on the edges of the bottoms and tops to create mystery with the shadows that fall on the finished work. No hand chamfer is exactly the same in execution, and that is what makes it special. The chamfers in our work are a bit like the bard of a party: a bit funky, not at all useful in most situations, but full of the beauty that gives a game and each of our pieces life.
3. A tiny router plane for channels
Isn’t this little chap cute!? But it also shows the utmost commitment to usefulness. This is the way we hog out all the wood in the card-holding version of Svi’s Beholder Box that the table saw can’t reach without cutting through the whole piece. It makes a perfect ⅛” channel every time. We also use this plane to cut down the angle the table saw blade leaves in the middle of a piece that does not get cut all the way through. And the cherry handles are certainly more flattering than the handles on my body as it has aged!
4. The “old German” gouge
We all love the wood gouge. It is probably the apprentice's favorite tool. Carving a bespoke pattern into his first box (reclaimed fir that used to be the flooring in the upstairs portion of his 1926 house) lit the fire to create offerings for gamers. It was the tool that made him feel he could make art with wood.
It is also the tool we use most often with the strop (a strip of leather with a buffing compound on it) to keep the blade sharp. Using a wet stone to sharpen a gouge is a chore! I no longer do this myself. We all make the apprentice do all the gouge sharpening and he has decided that sharpening with the strop more often to avoid the stone is preferable.
5. Our marking punch
Finally, we have our steel marking punch with our logo. We love the balance this piece represents between the permanency the mark left on the wood but the ephemeralness of the one strike you must perform with full commitment and accuracy to do it. This one hammer stroke, if done poorly can ruin a whole piece. Sometimes to work with wood, one must be fearless.
Art as work IS a beautiful game. Thank you for your interest in our expression of it.