Although woodworking used to be all about traditional techniques and conventional tools, today, there is hardly a shop that hasn't brought new digital technology into the forefront of production.
The computer has become as essential as the circular saw was only a few decades ago. Computers do everything from simple bookkeeping to complex design and machine programming functions. Even if the cutlists generated by the computer are used only for conventional machines, those machines likely come with digital readouts and computer interfaces.
And more frequently, everything links to a CNC machine, and that old circular saw is no longer the center of attention.
Spark of invention
What would Tabitha Babbitt think?
She was the Shaker sister credited with inventing the first circular saw for a sawmill back in 1813. The story goes she was using a spinning wheel and watching a crew running a pit saw to cut timbers. She saw how much energy was wasted in the up-and-down motion and came up with the round spinning saw blade as the natural solution.
But she didn't stop there. She is also credited, along with Eli Whitney , for inventing cut nails, another technological advance of the time.
This story has always amused me because of the reverence many woodworkers still hold for Shaker designs. The clean and simple designs reflected a basic philosophy that was always open to efficient solutions.
The Shakers did not eschew technology. In fact, they were on the cutting edge (pun intended) of technology for their times. If Sister Tabitha were around today, she'd probably be discovering a host of new ways for getting the job done more efficiently.
But just as she looked past her spinning wheel to find a new solution for a different industry, she might also today look past the shop for new innovations. Today's shop owners need to explore technology outside of obvious production improvements. That means communication, marketing and information intelligence.
We've been fascinated by the organic growth of Sawdust Soup , the new networking community we launched. With very little publicity it has attracted hundreds of members all using the latest technology to share, network, market and explore new ideas. It shows the tip of today's technological iceberg.
Above the surface, we see the obvious new things: more and faster computers, mobile communication, video and image processing, the Internet, networks like Facebook and Sawdust Soup and a constantly widening array of things like Twitter .
But below the surface is a huge mountain of new ideas waiting to rise to the top.
Many of those ideas will rise or fall based on sharing and collaboration as one idea feeds off another. It becomes a ruthless Darwinian survival of the fittest as we watch many a seemingly good idea tumble out of the way so others with more energy can forge ahead.
Woodworking shops, no matter their size, need to be a part of this process, exploring what's new and using new tools that have little relation to the chisels and planes of yore.
As we contemplate this brave new world of constantly changing technology, think of one more trivia note from Sister Tabitha.
For all of her inventions, she never sought a patent. What she invented was to be shared for the good and profit of all. The challenge for the shop owner is to be able to reap new success from whatever technology or wherever the new idea comes.
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