A Box Called “Necessessity?”

This is a long post. If you only have a few minutes, look at the pictures and read “The Point” which is almost half way through. I would also like to hear your reaction whatever it may be.

The purpose of this piece is to encourage us to examine the use of precision instruments in woodworking, a field where they have historically been absent.

The Background

“Tolerances have been at the forefront of my mind for months. Nowadays in fine woodworking, it seems as if everyone strives for perfection. Boards must be four-squared (faces parallel to each other and edges square to the faces), joints have to be seamless, and everything has to be perfectly smooth. That is the result of tight tolerances”. – June 6, 2009, from my write-up on the first piece in this series, A Box Called “Tolerences” as seen below:

Building A Box Called “Tolerences helped me address my thoughts on the tolerances used in woodwork, but I felt the need to go further. Looking through old woodworking hand tool catalogs from the past century, you will see a huge selection of hand planes, chisels, saws, squares, dividers, marking gauges, levels, and so on. You will still find all those in modern-day catalogs (though some to a lesser degree), but you will also find tools that used to belong only in a machinist’s tool chest: engineer’s squares, precision straight edges, calipers and indicators accurate to 0.001″; micrometers, granite surface plates, angle blocks and set-up blocks accurate to 0.0001″. If you aren’t sure what these numbers really mean, perhaps this will help put them in perspective:

1/16″=0.0625″ – I like sixteenths. I find that finer graduations only make a rule harder to read.
1/1024″=0.0009765625″ – This is 1/64 of 1/16” and close to 0.001″ which is 1/1000”

Skip down a few fractions to: 1/9216″=0.000108506944444″ – This is 1/576 of 1/16” and close to 0.0001″ which is 1/10,000”

I can say one eighth, one sixteenth and one thirty-second. One one-twenty-eighth and one two-fifty-sixth are a bit long, but not too bad to say. One five-twelveths, one ten-twenty-fourths, and one ninety-two-sixteenths? No wonder we say “thou” instead. But come on, is this really necessary?

We woodworkers have, for the most part, embraced this new level of accuracy. We use calipers to verify the thickness of the stock coming out of our thickness planers, digital angle gauges to set up our table saws, and granite surface plates and feeler gauges to measure the flatness of our hand planes. I’ve even talked to woodworkers who use a dial indicator to measure the projection of the blade from their hand plane. Is this really necessary?

For the record, in my shop you will find a 3″ engineer’s square, a pair of digital fractional calipers, one each aluminum and steel straight edge, a digital angle gauge (Beall Tilt-Box, similar to the popular Wixey model), a dial indicator and a digital protractor.

For the most part, I’m not sure they were good buys for me.

My 3″ engineer’s square was probably my best buy in this category. The engineer’s version cost me $12 while the same-sized “woodworking” square made of rosewood, brass, and blued steel would have cost me $20. I use it to set the blades of my power tools square to their tables.

The digital calipers weren’t a bad decision. I use them to check the size of the assorted drill bits around my shop, whose etched shanks I cannot read. They really have limited other uses because everything I measure seems to be in 128ths – how big is 23/128?

The straight edges get a fair bit of use… to draw straight lines and guide my glass cutter and utility knives. I certainly don’t need the degree of precision they provide. Their weight is sometimes a help, other times a hindrance.

I tried out the digital angle gauge the day I bought it but I don’t think I’ve used it since. The batteries were still good when I checked last, in January. The digital protractor runs on cell batteries which died and I never bothered to replace; I don’t think I’ve ever had an occasion to use it anyways – it was an impulse buy.

The dial indicator I have used, but I don’t remember for what.

Was any of this necessary?

The Point

Does all this extremely accurate technology make us better woodworkers? Does all this technology make our work better quality? I don’t think so. I think that these high-precision instruments have become common in the contemporary woodworker’s workshop mostly due to their gained acceptability, accessibility, and affordability.

To me, precision measuring tools have limited value. In my opinion, they are overused and their extreme accuracy is enough to make one obsessive about the most minute and inconsequential details.

To poke fun at this phenomenon (and put my dial indicator to “good” use) I came up with this conceptual piece. Without the measuring instrument, it is a simple drawer – a place to store things conveniently, yet out of sight at the same time. But I incorporated a measuring instrument, in this case, a dial indicator into the design. It translates the lateral movement, or play, in the drawer into numeric values on the indicator’s dial which has markings representing every 0.001″ of travel witnessed by the gauge head. In short, it answers the question: “how well is the drawer fitted to its opening?” I know that I don’t need numbers to tell if a drawer fits well or not. I suspect you don’t either. I invite you to join me in taking a step away from our precision measuring instruments and ask&, “Is this really necessary?”

The Process of Creating

The realization of this piece was not unlike most of my other works. It started with an idea, a concept which I wanted to explore. To demonstrate that concept, over the course of many months, I mentally worked to develop an effective design. In this case, I developed the concept of using a dial indicator to measure the movement of a drawer.

Initially, I thought about using the indicator to measure how far the drawer was pulled out, but the 1″ stroke of the indicator meant only 1″ of drawer movement. A lever-system of some sort would allow the drawer more motion, but the system would have been more complicated than I wanted.

I finally came up with the idea of positioning the indicator at 90-degrees. Not only does this design not limit the movement of the drawer, but it also means that the reading the indicator shows has some significance. With the mechanics of the design worked out, the aesthetic decisions remained and were relatively easy.

I knew that I wanted the piece to reflect the sharp, clean, industrial look of the dial indicator. I chose teak (or at least, I think it’s teak) and holly. The vivid colours and grain of teak contrast well with the off-white, understated grain of holly. I used through dovetails and tenons to construct the case; I used half-blind dovetails and through tenons for the drawer with a groove for the bottom.

I turned a tenon on the end of the knob and glued it into a hole bored in the face of the drawer. Because it’s what I enjoy, and happened to be the quickest way, all the details including the joinery and angled block were executed using hand tools. To ensure that the long hand of the dial indicator would rest in the 12 o’clock position, I secured the angled block with a pair of screws through a slotted hole in the base.

Cast Aside Craftsmanship – The Bigger Picture

Don’t get the wrong idea – craftsmanship was certainly very important in determining the end result of this piece, as it is in any piece. But the point I want to make is that the highest quality craftsmanship is not always what you think it is. Forget for a moment the complications of wood movement – pretend that wood does not move.

On that premise, the very best craftsmanship would manifest the finest tolerances, the most precise fit, right? Not necessarily. Maybe you’re thinking: “Okay, he’s talking about the parts that are not easily seen – the back of a bookcase, the underside of a table, and the inside of a carcass, for example, right?” Wrong.

In creating a piece, the idea behind the piece, the effect you want it to have must be taken into account. I almost forgot this as I built this box. My ego was in the way – I knew that I was going to put a dial indicator on the drawer, so I thought: “I should make the most precisely fitting drawer possible”. I even figured out the best way to do it.

hen I thought about it. While it would make me proud to have made a drawer that, as it was pulled out, caused the dial indicator to move not one bit, in doing so, I would not be helping the intended overall effect of the piece. To me, the whole purpose of the piece is to use a super-accurate tool to measure something which I feel it has no business in doing so.

That the long hand actually moves is very important in the effect of this piece. For one, it shows that the dial indicator is actually taking a reading of the drawer’s movement and adds a degree of novelty. But more importantly, it shows my defiance – that I don’t care what it says. I know when my work is fine and I don’t need a measuring device to tell me that it is or isn’t.

It is not necessary.


Nobody has seen this piece until now, aside from the few visitors I’ve had in my shop while it was being built and I don’t think that they knew what they were looking at (when asked what I’m working on, my usual response is, “I’ll let you know when I’m finished”).

I look forward to hearing your reaction to this piece. Please don’t be shy – tell me what you honestly think of it. Comment on the name, ideas, materials, joinery, my grammar or anything else. Art is subjective and the topic I have chosen is controversial. I expect to hear comments on both sides, as well as some fence sitters and will post them here. Just let me know if you’d rather your response not be posted)..

Feedback: Fast and Furious

far too many words… Let the buyer supply the “why” he likes it.  If you narrow down WHY he should like it, it reduces the number of available buyers… Don’t tell the prospective buyer what to think.  When he says what he thinks,  say “Right on.  You got it.”… Let the piece speak for itself. If you have to supply the words, then the design didn’t do it for the customer, and you are reduced to telling them why they should find it interesting.   That is a lot like telling a guy that he should like this particular girl… the thickness of the box is too large for its small size.  It should be thinner… the box is too stark. It needs some sort of decoration… DON”T PAY ATTENTION TO FREE ADVICE… As usual, your work intrigues. Even the non-woodworker would have to stop, look, examine and ponder… it reminded me of a hammer that I once gave my Father for a joke gift.  It had an electric cord and plug extending out of the bottom of the handle… Because I know you, I know the work you’ve put into the piece is precision itself. To me then, both the guage and the base/drawer represent the same thing – PRECISION!  One is constructed out of steel by Man and the other is constructed out of wood by Man.  The entire piece represents Precision, in my mind… I’m also intrigued by why you used so many “s’s” in the title of your piece… Oh no. You misspelled “necessity.” Cool box, though… I think there is at least one very good reason for making items with a high degree of precision. Although this may not apply in your world, (of one-off unique creations), the rest of the world benefits from precise manufacturing where interchange ability and uniformity allows easy assembly of mass produced items as well as replacement of parts when items broken… Your latest work is a refreshing piece. Wood and metal, if mixed well as in your case, can provide a very pleasing contrast and appeal… Unless the dimensions are critical for structural integrity (e.g., joinery strength) or functionality (say, a drawer to fit into the case), I don’t worry about deviations (read: accuracy) of the actual stock from the original plan or design… If the stock I have is 1/8″ shorter than what my original measured drawing calls for, I’d rather make the final piece/project 1/8″ shorter than run down to the nearest lumber place to get a new piece… I trust my sight and hands as much as, if not more than, a straight edge to assess how flat the tabletop of the night table I recently made for my daughter… Questions like “How flat is flat?” are best answered not by engineers but by the owners/end-users, in my opinion… In fact, if precision were the overriding factor in people’s decisions to make or buy things, industry related to making things by hand would have died… I read somewhere that whimsy is good for the soul. This piece may fall into that category. For the precision-obsessed, however, the volume of data may fall short. You might, for example, add a gear track and a dial to show how far the drawer has been extracted, including a red zone on the dial to indicate that the drawer is about to fall out. One never knows what might be damaged, or who might be injured by a falling drawer of that size, for example… almost any one can be trained how to use a tool or machine but it takes a true craftsman and artist to create woodwork without these things… it is like comparing a painting to a blue print… great idea Chris and beautiful box… Whilst looking at the pics I had a mental vision of R2D2 refueling, or something… Of course you need dial indicators to set up tools that work best with tight tolerances. For wood… it is a wonderful joke… Great art and a some good fun… Interesting and well thought out idea Chris, a good visual commentary on an approach to woodworking and measurement. Given the inherent movement in wood, the accuracy and workmanship required for good & tight fitting hand joinery , it makes for a good discussion piece. Conatrasting woods compliment each other nicely as well. May be lost on some though… It’s an artful commentary on some of the lengths we woodworkers go to achieve “accuracy”. There are certainly times and places to use such instruments. I believe they do have their place in woodworking… But of course, only a woodworker would understand your piece in the slightest… Good to see someone poke a bit of fun at some people who can be a little anal about accuracy with a medium like wood… Great idea for the dial indicator and excellent execution… Bravo!!!  You have out done yourself on this box… I like it. Looks like the drawer is out a few thou according to the indicator though… indeed there is now too much belief in absolute accuracy. Our instructor in pre-app, made the point that accuracy of 1/64th of an inch was the basic standard of accuracy needed… you have done a very nice job. Using the dial gauge to show sizing changes as the drawer moves in and out would be interesting to watch, but as you say – what does that have to do with the construction of the drawer.  Drawers fit and work nicely or they don’t and if they don’t you need to work them some more and to that end there is no need for accurate measurement… young man – keep up the good work.  We need keeners to carry on with quality woodwork… I love it. That piece is exactly what I enjoy about woodworking. We can only ever achieve the illusion of perfection, and your piece illustrates that beautifully… I’m not sure what I like better – your prose or the box… what does it do? Chris, you’ve outdone yourself… So was this project the mothother of inventention? I can see a buyer for this in Academia. I bet it will go to someone in Missississipipi Univerversityty. It would look nice in the Dept of Redundancy Dept… The thickness of wood and dovetail structure is too thick and overbearing for the scale of the piece. The choice of wood is a little odd. Teak is associated with outdoor furniture… I think 1/4 sawn oak common in machinist chests or mahogany could have pulled it off much better… I agree with your thoughts and like your box. My reasons for agreeing are twofold: 1. Raising the level to ridiculous tolerances is a marketing ploy, in my opinion.  2. wood moves anyway…  Love it!  Great concept for the box.  I’m a recovering “over-accurate” addict.  Hand tools have actually helped get me over it.  I’m still learning to not measure the thickness of my plane shavings tho…  Interesting points.  The work I’m doing at the moment is fit where it touches!

14 thoughts on “A Box Called “Necessessity?”

  1. great box chris i love it. both the idea and the piece. i wrote a bigger comment but it will not let me post it so i will just leave it at that

  2. Cool Box and great topic. It’s funny you mention tolerances. I was in a debate with a rep about their windows. I asked why they didn’t have adjustments on a bay window. He said it was because during the construction phase of the window, they make the window so precise they didn’t need them. To make a long story short, he was there to fix the window because they didn’t open. Oh, he also said that it is a common problem with that type of window. So in my opinion, n wood working, you don’t need to be that precise.

  3. Just my opinion, but that is the perfect use for a dial indicator in woodworking. What else would you do with it?

  4. Great blog Chris. Thanks! Fun project. I have converted all of my woodworking planning, measurement, and execution to metric. My intuition is following along as well. What do you think of everything is in metric? I use mm for everything. No fractions and i am less error prone. Nothing I do requires sub mm planning but often I do other techniques to ensure accuracy (like transferring measurements and keeping tool setups.

    In my work, everything is nm :)

    Anyway, what do you think of all mm in woodworking?


    1. Cyrus,

      Most often, I only use measurements when necessary, such as building a table to a standard height (inches). Otherwise, I size parts according to others or what feels right.

      I am familiar with and do occasionally use metric, though I only have a few scales with metric in my shop.


  5. I use a dial indicator to check the table saw trunnions are parallel to the miter slot – critical
    I use vernier dial and digital callipers to check bolt and drill bit sizes (both imperial and metric)
    I use Wixey digital read-outs to repeatedly set router bit height on the router table and stock thickness on the thicknessor planer. The cr@ppy plastic gauge on the front is useless.
    I use a digital angle gauge to set my table saw blade angles, again the gauge on the wheel is not accurate.
    Does all this make me a better woodworker? Debatable of course but it makes me feel better and provides a known base to work from. YMMV

    1. Hilton,

      Just for a contrasting viewpoint (not saying my way is better), I:
      – clamp a piece of wood to my crosscuts fence (mitre gauge) to check that the blade and fence are parallel to its slide;
      – use a drill gauge to measure my drill bits up to 1/2″ (I have no metric bits);
      – eyeball router bit heights and check them with a test cut. I just run material through my thickness planer until both sides are smooth and seem to be the right thickness. It’s rare that I actually even look at the scale or measure the thickness of stock coming out the end; and
      – use a T-bevel to draw the required angle on my wood, set the blade with the bevel, and confirm with with a test cut. A tall piece of test material ensures greater accuracy.


  6. An awesome piece Chris, while I actually have spent some time machining metal to tolerances of .001 I have also been known to measure wood by the spam of my hand from little fingertip to thumb tip about 8 inches, the span of my arms almost 6 ft, or the length of my thumb from tip to bend, 1 inch.

    It is interesting that 200 years ago or more, timber frame buildings which still stand today were built with hand tools and nothing more, but today we need lasers to verify level.

    Hmmmm….. Sorta makes you think about the whole idea of perfection

    Bring on the wabi sabi I say!!!

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