Yesterday I finished a weeklong class at Anderson Ranch on designing and manufacturing a piece of wooden furniture using modern tools. The class‘s purpose was to learn to design 2D shapes in a software program called Rhino, and to build a piece of furniture out of plywood by cutting the designs using a CNC router.
The whole week was a terrific experience. Below are some of my reflections on the week.
1. It’s highly rewarding to make things
Since teaching hands-on engineering classes with Spokes America three summers ago, I have barely used digital fabrication tools. This week I focused on designing and building a stool with integrated serving trays.
First, we had to develop multiple ideas for pieces of furniture, sketching with pen on paper. After several well-structured critiques, digital designs, prototypes, and a full-scale model, I produced a final full-scale version. Once my full-scale model was assembled I was amazed that the object in front of me had been no more than an idea a few days before.
2. An expert coach can greatly accelerate your learning
For most of the course we worked independently. We only had two short plenary sessions on how to use the digital design software. Despite that absence of lectures, I felt greatly supported in my learning. Whenever I was not sure on how to do something—copy an object in my design software or set a path for the drilling bit to follow—my teacher was there to help. There was little waiting time between wanting to do something and learning how to do it.
This is not generally the case in learning! One of the frustrating things in learning to program online is that you can get stuck for hours trying to understand how to issue a certain command. The internet is a resource for learning, but there’s nothing like asking a human being, skilled at the craft at hand, sitting next to you.
The condensed nature of the program also accelerated my learning. I worked in the woodshop for 5 consecutive days from 8am-10pm, taking only short breaks to eat and answer important calls. This made the learning much more sticky than if I would have taken the equivalent amount of classes spread out over two months.
3. Getting to a beautiful product requires tests
On Thursday morning I milled and put together my first full-scale model. At this point, I had already designed and milled several test joints—I had put a lot of thought into my design, making many calculations to ensure everything would fit. However, once I put the full-scale model together, I saw many design elements that could be improved: the trays could slide in more smoothly, the trays could be supported by tracks so they wouldn’t fall down, and the seat of the stool could be less wide. The observation that my stool was not perfect did not disappoint me, in stead, I felt empowered to know how to improve.
Similarly, when you use a computer to control a mill (CNC stands for computer numerically controlled), the mill cuts exactly where you tell it to. For pieces of wood to fit together, though, you need a little bit of space between each piece. The exact amount of space depends on the wood quality, the bit of the drill, and other factors. To know exactly how many millimeters of “extra space” you need in wooden joints (known as tolerance), it’s good practice to design and mill test joints, where you increase the width of mortices (a hole) by a few tenths of millimeters per test.
I think it’s valuable to take the concept of building prototypes and testing early and often into our professional lives. It happens too often that we think we have a perfect idea, then invest weeks or months to build it, only to realize later that our idea doesn’t work as we had planned.
4. Learning a new tool influences how you think
Having just finished the course, my attention is now caught a dozen times a day by the details of wood joinery (e.g., how my kitchen drawer slides into its cupboard). Before the course I would have never noticed such details. What you spend your time doing greatly influences what you think about.
5. A new tool has great benefits, but you must overcome the learning hurdle
When I first looked at the CNC-mill, I felt daunted. Would I be able to control this complex machine? I had to learn three new types of software: one to design my furniture, one to set the path the drill would follow (known as toolpaths), and a third to control the CNC-mill. The first time I used the machine, I was very hesitant, and had to look at the checklist many times. I also made several errors. The second time was easier, but it still required my full brainpower. On my third go, things went more smoothly, and if you’d ask me to mill something now, I could do it while answering a phone call. As with any learning, there is a hurdle to overcome (and arguably, the hurdle to use the CNC-mill was minor compared to learning a new language). But, there are great benefits to overcoming the hurdle: I can now mill pieces of wood and make my own furniture.
6. The art of making can be quite egocentric.
The activity of making captivated my full attention. I was not distracted. In fact, I was not even really aware of my “self”. (I believe this is what Erich Fromm refers to in the Art of Loving.) In a way, this is beautiful.
But there is a flipside to this, too—making art can be an egocentric activity. One night, I observed that I wished a fellow student would take longer for her project, so I could use the CNC-mill the next morning. That shows how attached I was to completing my piece. I don’t think I will shun making art because of this, but I do think I will try to balance that activity with others.
All my components are ready but I still need to finish my stool: it requires sanding, treating, and some minor tweaks. I expect to be done end of July, since I’m traveling the next five weekends. After I finish the stool, I plan actively make time to hone my woodworking skills. (I loved it!)
Beyond woodworking, I will look for more of these learning immersions. Learning a new skill, collaborating in a small team under the guidance of a Jedi master, working at full intensity—I found this to be a very rewarding way of spending my days.
Thank you to Reuben Foat and Fabiano Sarra for the wonderful class. Thank you to Anderson Ranch for the generous scholarship that enabled me to take this class. Finally, thanks to my fellow students Jess, Stephen, and Zac for their passion, positive energy, and help.