W&WP April 2003

Woodworking: It's Time for a High-Tech Industry to Be Proud

I am tired of the perception that woodworking is not a high-tech industry, and I am going to dispel that notion now.

By Tom Dossenbach

There is a wide-spread perception that woodworking is an outdated industry. To many, it is destined to be relegated to overseas manufacturing companies where there are millions of people without jobs waiting with carving tools to make whatever the market demands.

For reasons that have been formed over the years, the term "woodworking" evokes a vision of dirty, dark and noisy shops where only those who cannot find a better job work. It is as though the industry has been necessary yet embarrassing to our country's manufacturing base.

Of course, you don't find this attitude about the automobile industry or the steel industry. The manufacturing of tires, appliances, shoes, processed food and thousands of other not-so-glamorous industries do not share the same dark corner as woodworking.

We here in North America think this has been our problem and ours alone. Unfortunately, this is not the case because it is actually a challenge around the planet.

I hear the same story over and over again on all six industrialized continents. The story is this: Those in the woodworking industry are just waiting for a better job "in computers." Whatever that means! It is as though there is some fantastic job inside those boxes just waiting to grab you and pull you in to some glamorous high paying, high-tech job.

I am tired of hearing that woodworking is not high-tech and I am going to prove otherwise. So feel free to show this column to any skeptics you may meet.

Wood — A High-Tech Material

I can imagine as I write this that some people are thinking that I have lost my mind. Wood is a high-tech material?

I am no wood technology expert. But my studies many years ago and my 42 years of experience with the material since then have brought me to a higher level of respect for the major raw material we call wood. We take a completely renewable living plant and turn it into a beautiful table that will last a lifetime (or longer).

Have you ever paused to review this process in any detail? I don't mean just marveling at CNC routers; I mean the entire process from start to finish. If you are like me, you have taken the technical aspects of our industry and our material for granted for too long.

First, to get the material the tree has to be harvested and taken from miles deep in the forest. The logs then are transported to a high-tech factory where these behemoths are handled with equipment and conveyors like they are no more than mere twigs.

Then, a highly trained and highly skilled operator sits in a digital operations center and manipulates the saw via a computer to make lumber out of what was just a tree only hours or days earlier. The sawmills of today have lasers, metal detectors, defect sensors, in-line moisture detectors and other high-tech equipment used to produce a high quality raw material we call lumber.

Because of all of the automated, value-added steps that come into play, I consider wood to be a high-tech material.

Now advanced science enters the manufacturing process in full force. This tree that was over 60% water must now be dried to a level that makes it a material suitable for "woodworking" to turn it into a useful product. To dry the wood without it cracking, checking, warping, twisting and all of those other dreadful things that wood does is truly a high-tech challenge. Fiber saturation point, tangential shrinkage, cell structure, and a host of other technical terms have meaning and purpose in the ensuing process for each individual species.

The dry kilns of today fall into several categories. Some are essentially vacuum chambers and some are conventional temperature humidity dryers. Whatever the case, we have found another highly sophisticated process using high-tech machinery to continue the manufacturing of value-added wood products. Today's dry kiln is a complex computerized piece of equipment requiring a well-trained operator. What — another computer?

This computer controls not only numerous kilns, but also a display screen, which rivals that of a global positioning display in an automobile and lets you know what is going on in real time. The graphics show you the exact temperature and humidity at different places in the kiln as well as the moisture content of the lumber in six or so points within the kiln.

This sophisticated drying equipment is needed to stabilize this high-tech material — WOOD! Are you beginning to get the picture?

Cutting Wood — A High-Tech Process

Now that we have dry lumber, we have to convert these boards into something that the average consumer wants and needs. It may be a piece of furniture with hundreds of different parts. To us, it is obvious that we must cut the lumber into usable widths and lengths. I admit that in the old days, Joe used a saw and his keen judgment to make decisions on how to cut the material. We still need extremely skilled and trained operators, but what kind of machine are they using in today's factory?

Once again, computers! (I am already beginning to wonder why there aren't people knocking on our door to work in this high-tech industry.) Again, we have machines with sensors, computers and people working together to convert that material we all love into usable pieces. Following the initial cutting, we take our high-tech material to a variety of high-tech machinery that shapes it and bores it and carves it and does other wonders to the wood.

While some operations are still done "the old way," some machining is done on computerized machinery that can read bar codes and automatically machine a completed part or set of parts. Other machines perform fewer operations but are computer controlled none the less.

Many of our machines are actually robotic. Yes, we use robots in our industry. They may not look like C3PO or R2D2 from Star Wars, but they are robots nevertheless. They automatically place parts within a machine and remove them after processing into neat stacks.

Have you gotten the point yet?

Gluing Wood — A Science

Machining wood is child's play compared to the process of gluing wood to make a higher value-added product. Consider, for example, edge gluing previously cut material into a wider panel for use in the manufacture of curved chair back posts. Obviously, these individual wood elements must be joined with sufficient strength or serious harm can come to the users of the furniture if there is joint failure.

Gluing wood together is a high-tech science in itself. The equilibrium moisture content of each hardwood element must be held to a close tolerance of about 6 to 8 percent. If it is too low, there may be a "starved" glue joint; if too high, the wood cells will not be able to absorb the adhesive. In either case, failure is likely.

For those woodworking companies that edge-glue material, especially thicker parts, the challenges do not end after the successful completion of the gluing process. End cracks may occur in the joint or the ends of the wood after a few hours or days.

To investigate the causes of the problem involves the consideration of several variables: the moisture content of the wood, the quality of the glue joint, the glue itself, the glue application, the pressing operation, the humidity in the factory — just to name a few. Moisture meters and a magnifying glass are just two tools that are often needed to find all of the contributing factors of the failure. The answers are found through experience and the use of the knowledge of wood technology, which in itself is a high-tech subject.

I'll bet you are finally getting it.

Summary

There is just not enough space allowed in this column to fully explore all of the "high-tech" elements of our industry such as finishing. Maybe I am preaching to the choir and all of the regular readers of this magazine realize most of what I have mentioned above. But, sadly, many do not.

The unfortunate fact is that the technological evolution of our industry has not been communicated sufficiently to dispel the perception mentioned at the beginning of this article. That is our fault. Consumers, workers, and children in primary school, need to learn about this.

Our future in the woodworking industry relies on our ability to attract keen minds to further our technological advancement in this industry. We need to realize this is a high-tech industry and that it is up to us to leverage that to attract good young people into the industry to help revitalize it.

Let's get on with it!

Personal Note: As I began writing this, I thought of the many years Jerry Metz contributed to the advancement of our industry and thus dedicate these thoughts to his memory.

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