Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Jesus Woodworker and the Decision to go CNC

After reading the last 2 posts you're probably wondering what a "Jesus woodworker" is.

My friend Lee Weitzman and I jokingly coined the term many years ago to describe a type of individual who would sometimes come into our employ as cabinet-makers.

It has nothing to do with religion.

To hear Lee describe it, a "Jesus woodworker" is a person who is so caught up in the craft of woodworking that they are oblivious to the notion of producing anything in a timely fashion. Taken to the extreme this type of artist/craftsperson will consider it their sacred duty to spend countless hours in meditation with a tree in order to intuitively discover what the tree wishes to be made into. Upon discovering this Truth in a moment of Zen the artist/craftsperson will then embark on a painstakingly long and time consuming process that will one day (hopefully) result in an actual piece of furniture being made.

If this happens to be the kind of furniture making process that stirs your gravy - no problem.
But do it on your own time, and don't pursue it as a vocation on someone else's dime.

My definition is a little simpler than Lee's because it simply acknowledges the Biblical Jesus of Nazareth as a woodworker who had the ability to walk on water.

In that context a "Jesus woodworker" is a person who feels that they too have the ability to walk on water - if only because they too are woodworkers.

Over the years I have met more than my share of cabinet-makers who suffer this affliction. Sometimes it comes from one who is older, and already set in his ways.
Other times the attitude would come from one of the young bucks - fresh out of school.
With diploma in hand they figure they already know more than I ever could.

In my lifetime the greatest archetype of a "Jesus woodworker" to ever cross my path showed up at my shop in late 1994. For the purposes of this post I'll refer to him as "Tom" (acronym for The Omnipotent Master).

By late 1994 we had so much work coming in that we were compelled to hire more people.

Tom was one of the applicants who showed up looking for a job as cabinet-maker. His resume seemed to check out, because he had worked at some of the better shops in the area. I still remember the interview, because my heart went out to him as he told me his sob story about being out of work for so long and not having money to buy Christmas gifts for his kids. I too had young kids and had suffered the downturn, so I decided to give the guy a chance.

Tom had more than his share of trouble getting up to speed. At first I tolerated his mistakes in the belief that our processes were new to him and he simply needed time to adjust. But even the simplest of tasks were tripping him up.

One day we were making Concerto Tables, which have a round wood top set into plywood rings. The grain pattern of the inset tops were diamond matched (as illustrated below) and in order to make them round we used a brad point bit to partly drill a 3/8" dia. hole into the underside of the top at the point where the veneer seams meet. This hole was then used to set the top on a pin, where it would be spun on an overhead router to make it round.

I gave Tom clear instructions on what to do, and left him to complete the job.

Upon my return a short while later I was shocked by what I saw. Each of the tops had a 3/8" dia hole drilled clean through the face.

"What the heck did you do?" I asked.

"Oh, I thought it would be easier to drill down through the face rather than measure from the underside" was his reply.

"But you drilled a hole clean through every top. What are we supposed to do about that?"

"Umm, maybe we could just putty it in."

"Are you nuts? This is high end stuff. You don't putty that in. And besides, where did you get it into your head to do it this way? I clearly explained what to do, and you didn't do it. Why?"

(What comes next is Tom's answer to this question, and I am not making this up)

"These tops getting screwed up are actually YOUR fault, because nowhere on your drawings does it say NOT to drill a 3/8" hole through the face."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. He was blaming me for his own incompetence.

At this point I had to take a deep breath because in this moment of clarity I found myself fully aware of the fact that I live in an egalitarian country where it's not against the law to be stupid.

However, it is against the law to slap someone upside the head for being stupid.

With that in mind my thoughts suddenly raced to the world of mathematics. I knew how much I was paying Tom per hour, and how much his drug, dental and medical plans were costing me. Add in the statutory holidays, sick days, EI insurance, EHT, pension plan contributions and all the other costs of keeping this guy in my employ - and when my mental calculator punched out a total I suddenly realized that the hourly cost of giving this guy a paycheck every week was virtually identical to the financing costs on a 5-Axis CNC machining centre.

It was not difficult to figure out what my next decision would be.

Considering that I have always been an equal opportunity employer, I decided to give all the other employers an equal opportunity at Tom's services.

To use a sports analogy, Tom was now an unrestricted free agent.

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