Woodworking Digitally is More Convenient, But Not Better

What Do I Mean By “Woodworking Digitally”?

First, let me define digital. I don’t exclusively mean the use of measuring tools with LCD screens. I mean the use of any numbers at all, whether Metric or Imperial, decimals or fractions. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

digital: of, relating to, or using calculation by numerical methods or by discrete units

Pros and Cons to Using Numbers

Whether following plans or making your own, numbers play an important role in communicating sizes. Of course, communication is not a bad thing. However, the disadvantage of building using measurements is that sizes of the things we design and build tend to be based on convenient numbers (e.g. 42-1/2” or 850 mm) rather than sizes best suited to either the materials being used or the product being built.

If you are designing and building the item yourself, why not build without numbers? There is no rule that says a board 3/4” thick is the ideal balance between strength and weight, or that it a 1×4 is perfectly proportioned.

A Few Examples of Not Using Numbers

Numeric values are not required to build a good chair. A chair seat should be deep and wide enough to sit in comfortably, and at an appropriate height. Stack some toolboxes and plywood and try sitting on it. Add or remove layers and experiment with different heights. Do you want your feet to rest flat on the ground? The chair height you find comfortable likely isn’t an even number.

Move forward and sit on the edge of the seat. Move backward until you’re comfortable and make a mark where the back rest would be. Or start with a chair already made, and test it to see if you would change any proportions.

Already have your materials on hand? Maybe your project allows enough flexibility to use the wood to its fullest. Pick the best boards for the table top and arrange them for the best grain match. Then cut the table top as big as possible. Maybe it’ll be rectangular, or maybe it will be elliptical.

This table was made for a cherry crotch slab, and I made it as big as it allowed.

Building a cabinet for a specific spot and need it to hold dishes? Use a straight scrap of wood to make a story stick. Simply make marks on it indicating the length, width and depth of the cabinet. Line up your plates and bowls on the counter and figure out how many shelves you need, and how much headroom is required for each.

Flip your story stick over and make additional marks on the back for the location of each shelf. Then transfer these dimensions either to the material or directly to the saw.

Story sticks are also ideal for replicating something. You never have to ask – is this shelf 14-7/8 or 14-15/16 inches wide”, or “is 14-3/4 inches close enough”? Instead, it’s just a definitive line for the width of the shelf. Better yet, if the shelf is removable, you can use it to set up a stop block or rip fence to produce an identically sized part.

How often do you need to find the middle of the board? This is a task that I do very frequently, and there’s no reason to bring numbers into the mix. A common approach is to set a combination square so that when the stock is against one edge, the blade is locked near the middle of the board. Make a small mark along the end of the blade and flip the square so the stock rests against the opposite edge. The middle of the board is equidistant from those two marks, and you can readjust the square to be as precise as you need.

Never forget, invert, or mix up numbers again. Never make a rounding error and stop working with convenient dimensions. Work to a level of precision beyond what is practical with numbers. Save the digital for reading blogs.

Measuring

While touring California and Arizona last month, I must have been asked about eight times whether I use the Metric or Imperial system of measurement in my woodworking.

Here’s my stance: neither, if I can help it.  If I absolutely need to measure something, I’ll use the Imperial system because nearly all my measuring tools have Imperial scales and I prefer to see smaller numbers rather than big ones (29 inches rather than 737mm).  Fractions don’t bother me.

I find that working without numbers is plenty accurate and very easy.  Sometimes that means just eyeballing it, as I did for this box which was commissioned.  (After several people asked if I designed it using the Golden Ratio, I checked the measurements and found the proportions to be very, very close.)  If it looks right, it’s right.

Other times, not using numbers means measuring directly from existing project parts or tools like dividers, story sticks, or marking gauges.  I explore this side in my article Working Without Numbers in issue #83 of Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement, on newsstands now!

Exactly as Precise as Required

If it looks right, it’s probably right.

In my work, I’ve always tried to avoid numbers.  Mostly, I used numbers to communicate with the rest of the world.  For example, it was more helpful to tell you that Relationship Study was about 45 inches wide than to gesture with my hands.

Recently, I made a simple shop modification – installing a bolt to hang two GripMate hold-downs, using my typical no-numbers method.

To figure out where I wanted the bolt to be installed, I dangled the hold-downs from my finger and put my finger against the cabinet, adjusting the position until the hold-downs hung freely.

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I focused on that point, then drilled a hole at that point.

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Finally, I installed the bolt and hung the two hold-downs.

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With the bolt positioned here, it is not so high as to have the highest point of the hold-downs above the top of the cabinet.  The bolt is also far enough forward to make the hold-down posts stand proud of the cabinet face so they are easy to grab without getting in the way.

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The position of the bolt was entirely dependent upon the hang of the hold-downs and involving numbers would have only added unnecessary complication.  How far, in numbers, that the bolt is located – down from the cabinet top and in from its front – is really inconsequential.

Tools I Use Daily

There are some of the non-powered tools which I use nearly every time I work in the shop. These are my necessities, tools that make my work so much easier and most are a joy to use. Some are expensive, some are not. All are worth every penny to me. Here’s the list:-COMBINATION SQUARE: I’m happy with my 18″ Empire Pro model – it goes for less than $20. I also own a few smaller 4″ and 6″ models (combo or double squares) and they are handy. They cost me from $25-50 each.

-STANLEY LEVERLOCK TAPE MEASURES: Some people find the locking mechanism awkward, but I love it. I found a 3-pack (30′, 25′, 12′) on sale for $10. I keep the 25′ and 30′ tapes scattered around my shop and the 12′ in my pocket. I also carry around a 6′ Tape-in-a-can which used to be made by Veritas. Good luck finding one nowadays though.

-STRAIGHT EDGE: Not a machinist’s precision-ground straight edge, just something to draw straight lines. A 1/2″ thick, straight piece of wood is a good size and costs me nothing. Aluminum or steel rules are nice too.

-MARKING GAUGE: I like the micro-adjustable wheel type. I don’t think graduations on the rod are that useful. Mine set me back about $35.

-0.5mm MECHANICAL PENCILS: They make a fine line and don’t need sharpening. Cheap too. I also use carpenter’s pencils a lot for less critical work. Their lines are less accurate, but I use the scales on my power tools to provide the accuracy.

-MARKING KNIFE: I have a bunch I use: one made from an old jigsaw blade (thank you Derek Cohen), an X-acto, a couple for carving, a spear-point. They all work, some better for certain tasks than others. I don’t like a knife with bevels on both faces for marking. None cost me more than $20.

-TUCKER VISE: Patternmaker’s vices are not cheap or easy to find, but they are very versatile and very useful. I use all the features – the quick-release, the rotation, the tilt, skewing of jaws – regularly. The quick-release foot pedal which I believe is exclusive to the Tucker is a real bonus and I am lost without it. It last retailed for about $700.

-SAFETY GOGGLES: Not glasses, goggles. They’re actually called Chemical Splash Goggles. I like them because they fit comfortably over my glasses, plus they protect from riccochets. $20 and worth every penny.

-EAR MUFFS: Easy to put on even over longer hair. The downside is that in the warmer months, the warmth they provide is unwanted. To keep cooler, I like Zem’s hearing protectors. Either type costs less than $25.