The Innovation Nation?

A few years ago I went up to the L.S. Starrett factory in Athol, Massachusetts, about 20 minute’s drive from where I live now. Starrett makes lots of tools that woodworker and machinists desire, like squares, rules, gage blocks, straightedges, etc. I phoned ahead and asked if I could have a tour of the factory. They kindly obliged and I was given a personal tour, taken to see anything I wanted to see. of course, I first wanted to see the place where they made the squares.

That was a most intriguing visit, however one of the things that struck me keenly about the factory and its equipment was how ancient and, well, primitive the set-up seemed to be. The only modern piece of equipment that I noticed was a laser engraver which they use to mark out rulers. The rest were all traditional old-school metalworking machines. They even had some machining centers still in use which dated to the second world war. Their products are high quality to be sure, however I was really expecting to see a more modern facility.

Now, probably the main company I think of when it comes to L.S. Starrett’s market competition, worldwide, is the Japanese firm Mitutoyo. I would like to one day have a tour of their facility as well, and I have a strong suspicion that it will be fairly modern with loads of CNC operated machines, lab-sterile cleanliness, etc.. I would be shocked if it was anything like the L.S. Starrett facility.

The other day I was reading a post over at the old woodworking machines forum about a member’s visit to the Northfield company in Minnesota. You can read about it here.

Northfield Foundry and Machine Company is one of the very last US companies making heavy duty woodworking machines, and they are to be congratulated for their survival. I was struck when looking through the photos of the Northfield factory, that, just like L.S. Starrett, it was very old fashioned looking in its set up and equipment. There was the odd CNC machine, but mostly it was old school equipment making the machinery.

Here’s a picture from Northfield’s website of a brand new jointer:

Direct drive, 3 point chassis, 4 knife cutterhead – a classic type of jointer. It can be had with a variety of motors and with belt drive if so desired, though the machine pictured is direct drive. Current list price for the machine, which comes in three sizes (12″, 16″, and 24″) ranges from $15,000~19,000, depending upon options.

Now, I would like you to take a gander at a Northfield jointer currently listed for sale by a machinery dealer in Pennsylvania, a 1961 model:

Notice anything? Yes- you’re not seeing double – – itt is readily apparent that things haven’t changed much in 50 years with the Northfield jointer. It is virtually the exact same machine, from what I can tell. Sometime in the 1970’s the newer type of ‘Northfield’ badge was added, though I’m not sure of this. Perhaps some other minor details have changed, likely involving the motor and switching electrics at least.

I did a little more digging and found a picture of another Northfield Jointer, restored, made in February 1943, about the same time as my own Oliver 166 jointer:

I find this kind of curious actually. Why is the design of this machine frozen in time?

Let’s look at another heavy duty jointer, made by a company that has been in business about as long as Northfield, Martin Woodworking Machines based in Germany. Few would argue that they make the finest shapers, jointers, planers and sliding saws in the world.

Martin’s first jointer was actually a jointer-planer, and was called the T50. It was introduced in the early 1950’s. I couldn’t locate any photos of it, however I did find one of the next iteration in the dedicated jointer line, the T-51:

That is a 1960’s model. Basic, stout, accurate, with a longer in-feed table than out-feed, which is desirable. Note the casting for the table is at least 3″ deep.

A few years later along comes the T-52:

Not much has changed, though the fence support system has been streamlined and the base chassis, which is of concrete and steel hybrid construction to optimally dampen vibration, has been streamlined. Cast iron, if you think about, is a good material to make resonating objects from, like bells.

Then we see the T-53, in the late 1980’s I believe, with control desk:

The fence support and movement system has been revamped and the fence has an attached swing-out sub fence for jointing thin and narrow stock. The control desk allows the operator to adjust cut depth without stooping over to turn a wheel or move a lever, and allows the tables to be ‘sprung’ when desired so as to allow slightly hollowed edge jointing to be easily accomplished.

The current model is the T-54- this one having the optional 2.5m in-feed table:


My point here is that the German product appears to be part of a process of continual innovation and refinement. A Martin T51 looks like a horse and buggy affair compared to the T54. Price on a new T54, which is 20″ wide, is around $20,000. Not too different than a large optioned-out Northfield.

I thought I’d pop in a video showing the Martin, so you can see how it cuts wood, along with it’s companion piece, the T44 planer (double click to get full screen):

Given the features, build quality and price, which machine would you chose, had you the means to buy? for me, the decision would require no time at all – the Martin.

And for a glimpse of how the Martin factory looks, here’s a video giving some idea as to that:

It’s impressive – except for the soundtrack.

Looking at other Northfield machines, I notice they make a sliding table saw:

These machines run anywhere from $16,000~$35,000 – -and then there is an extensive list of extra-cost options.

Again, let’s compare to a standard Martin sliding table saw, the T-73:

The saw is priced around $24,000, and there are of course extra-cost options. Again, for the money, I would pick this over the Northfield without a second thought. I would only pick the Northfield if I was constrained to only ‘buy American’ for some reason – and I’m not the nationalistic type.

Anyway, my main question here, and I’m putting this out there, is why are companies like L.S. Starrett and Northfield seemingly frozen in time with many of their products? Why have they ceased to innovate?

I have been mulling question this over for a while, and asking other people in my immediate circle of contact about their thoughts and I really can’t come to any firm conclusions about it. While there are some innovative products coming out of the US these days, like Apple Computers (designed here, made overseas), I am hard-pressed to come up with physical, manufactured products that are world leaders in terms of quality and technical innovation. That is to say, outside of military hardware. Now, why is that?

I know in my own work that with every piece I make, I learn a little something new, make a few new mistakes, have a few new successes – and take those lessons forward in the next thing I make. I can’t see how one would not do that, unless one preferred to be asleep at the wheel as it were, avoiding risk and always working well within one’s conceived limits. Or is it something else?

Adapt or die – isn’t that a mantra for survival on this earth? Why are these American companies not doing that? What will become of them eventually – can they maintain this approach?

Or, another way of looking at is that these companies have become too comfortable with an earlier adaptation they made and are now afraid to change. As George Bernard Shaw, Irish dramatist said in his 1903 work Man and Superman “Maxims for Revolutionists”:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

I would be quite interested to know what readers think. Is is a cultural difference between Germans and Americans? Are there German companies of a similar kind to L.S. Starrett and Northfield to be found, making essentially the same products as they did 50 years ago or more, with much the same production equipment and infrastructure?

I visited a temple carpentry outfit in Ōsaka when I was last in Japan – in business since 1400. What could be more traditional? Their shop was a bit of a surprise as it had plenty of modern equipment in it.

Even staid old Morgan cars in Britain, which eschews an assembly line and pushes the vehicles around from building to buildings has more up-to-date vehicle models (the ‘Plus-8’) in it’s line up – they’re not simply making the same cars they made 50 years ago.

Americans were once the most innovative people on earth – in the 1850~1900 period at least. What has changed that? Is it the education system? Is is complacency? What?

As a final piece to think about, I’ll leave you a link by a writer for Foreign Policy Magazine, David Rothkopf, a piece entitled, “The Myth of the Innovation Nation” from January of this year. Enjoy – and please share your thoughts.

Thanks for coming by The Carpentry Way.

28 Replies to “The Innovation Nation?”

  1. Nick,

    yah, heard that before a zillion times, but, I guess I tend to think that the “If it ain't broke, don't fix it' slogan is more often used by those who are complacent, who are arrogant or, quite likely, by those who are scared. It's an excuse for inaction and little else – a cop out. “If it ain't broke, don't fix it” sounds a lot like a recipe for a rut to my ears.

    I think that simply because something 'works' doesn't mean it couldn't work a little better. How many people like using a 10-year old computer and dial-up connection? They weren't 'broke' – unless in frustration by the user.

    Further, nature's designs aren't static, even with millions of years in the process of 'perfecting' the designs, so it seems to me that anything we humans make might do well to emulate that in some small way. Evidently there are others who feel differently.

    Perhaps if it ain't broke – – then break it!


  2. Hubris my friend. “Be not haughty in victory.” Well we certainly have been haughty and rested on our collective National Laurels. All the while helped along by a media dictated monoculture that panders to our vanity, dishonesty, and avarice. Amazingly enough the most ancient warnings against excessive pride haven't merely been ignored, we turn overweening arrogance into our highest ideal. Add a dash of unhealthy focus on competition over cooperation and you have a recipe for disaster.

    Our educational “system” is a farce if looked at from the standpoint of equipping the youth with an effective set of coping skills and core competencies. The so called educators are in thrall to administrators who don't teach and required to adhere to a set of government mandates designed by the Great American Stratergeryist and company. No child left behind, sounds like Harrison Bergeron to me.

    All we can do is seek that which the old masters sought, not merely do the same thing they did. I don't expect I could personally change the whole confluence of madness out there so I work on building an island of sanity. Rather than not fixing it if it ain't broke, I prefer to constantly look for what can be done better next time.

    I have followed your blog for quite a while, and since you asked I figured it was the least I could do to post my thoughts. Your personal quest for excellence has served as inspiration for me. You have my gratitude.

    Domo arigato gozaimasu.

  3. that's a great topic chris,

    i think i would have to think about that one for a while, but i feel like throwing caution to the wind and just writing some random (and i hope relevant) thoughts that come to mind.

    it seems like a topic ripe for contradiction. i love the old as well as the new. i live in a 150 year old japanese farmhouse. i seek out people like you who make things with their hands and keep these wonderful arts alive with their passion and devotion. i also love the martin jointer and sliding tablesaw (double drool).

    but come on chris, how long did it take you to make that table? or that japanese lantern of yours? so what if they last longer? this is the 21st century. you could have made those much faster. you could have used modern joinery and materials. you could have made them from composite in a mold. you could have formed all the parts on a cnc machine and pumped reproductions way faster.

    of course i see the difference between tossing the past aside and moving blindly forward and looking for innovation in the context of the traditional. there's a fine line sometimes… i mean how far do you take it. do you make the whole table with only handtools? when is it ok to use powertools? i worked with people who would never dream of cutting a dovetail by hand.

    now i'm not saying that starrett or northfield are holding on because they have a fondness for the past. i don't know why they aren't innovating. maybe it's the risk? i don't know how much they are selling each year, but it could be the cost of innovation is greater than the possible increase in profit.

    i also thought about the old “if it ain't broke…” b.s. and it elicits the same idea of complacency in my mind as well. but damn if i haven't heard that over and over again.

    there's the natural tendency not to disrupt the status quo, or that the nail that sticks out gets hammered down… or worse, pulled out. there's a great book entitled “straitjacket society” by miyamoto maser m.d. that discusses how strong those ideas can be.

    i guess if necessity is the mother of invention, then clearly the u.s. necessity for invention seems to lie with the military.

    one thing i will say though. there aren't many companies out there like martin. i've been lucky enough to work in a shop with several of their machines and they are a joy to use. but then there's felder. i'll take an old tank of a tablesaw with a flat table and a true fence over a beautiful shiny one with bells and whistles that is lacking in the most basic and necessary requirement.


  4. I was recently up visiting my parents, my Pop getting up there in the years and not of the best health recently, has been encouraged to relinquish some of his old tools that have been hanging around the shop too long collecting dust. I have my eye on several that I plan on acquiring before they get displaced through Kijiji, or some other internet classified outfit. One such tool is his trusty drill, a drill that I can remember him using when I could barely see on top of the workbench.
    Every year I get a new set of battery operated tools for Christmas or Birthdays. And every year they get religated to sitting in a convenient location where I need dust collected. I too have a trusty old drill that has served me well, and I prefer it over these new conveniences. Soon I will have two trusty old drills, one for each side of the shop. Now how convenient is that? 🙂
    I don't think that the American companies have succum to complaciency, or that they have lost interest in being inovative. Sometimes, products just work well enough without much change in their format.
    We often see inovation in all manner of life. Including within the Carpentry field. And more often then not, that inovation comes at a cost to this field. Why build something, as our forefathers did, when it is easier to run off to Ikea and get what they have told us that we need.
    When I was in school, shop class was part of the curriculum starting in the early years. Now, you would be hard pressed to find it in any of our schools. Why? Because it is a skill that is no longer required because it has been INOVATED out of necessity in our society.
    As you have mentioned in a previous post: People were laying hardwood floors down with a hammer and nail for hundreds of years. Long before the advent of the INOVATIVE pnematic nailer came along to SIMPLIFY the task.
    Now, I babble too much. Let me finish by saying, Inovation is fine sometimes. But it is also good to have an old trusty drill handy for when those batteries die.

  5. My belief is that the business model in the US is to maximize profit. This leaves corporations with little option on how to direct re-investment and improvement. Even if the individuals running the company want to, they have to get the approval of the board of directors who are seldom experts in the details of the the business they are directing. So, over time you get CEO's whose main goal is maximizing their personal profit with little concern about the long term viability of the company they are in charge of.

  6. The Martin sliding table saw looks like a Robland and two other sliding table saws of unknown make I used recently (here in Europe). An interesting detail is that on the picture, Martin mounted the cross piece in the center of the slider and not at the beginning. Here my question is from an European perspective, is the Martin sliding table saw innovation or just moving with the others?
    Looking at Northfield, to have a company still using and mastering 70 year old foundry technology seems to me unlikely: by lack of skilled people, due to the restart of 1945 and by lack of a large enough specialized customer base in need of that product. Looking at another trade to draw some parallels, my impression is that Belgian traditional beers where slowly dying in the eighties by lack of a decent customer base. Were in the nineties the world had changed and it was possible to find them over the border. Some of those breweries are still working within, mostly self chosen, traditional technological limits. The most notable is the Gueuze that 'needs' to be brewed in old dusty buildings.

  7. I've had to move my 1947 Northfield jointer three times in the last four years. To make it more managable, I have completely broken down the machine and then used a come-along to drag the base onto a low flat bed trailer. I also did a complete restoration after I aquired it. I am not by any means mechanically inclined, but with a few words of advise from Jeff M. and my friend Todd with his trusted 6' Starrett straightedge, it's fairly quick work and I marvel at it's simplicity. Todd, whom I consider gifted in the realm of machines and wood has often recounted the nightmares he endured with a certain high-end European 16″ long bed jointer (not Martin), with it's parallelogram mechanisms, compared to the absolute pleasure of working with his early eighties 24″ Northfield HD jointer. The machines I have used and really like are of the old Japanese variety. The hollow chisel mortiser at Eastwind comes to mind. I'm sure it was an antique when Lenny bought it thirty years ago, but it had no run out and everything was SO smooth. I could go into an all day trance punching tiny mortices for latticed ranma. The General HC mortiser I have is a POS in comparison, and the vintage American ones are monstrosities. Machines, more often than not I feel like liquidating mine!

  8. Really wonderful to receive comments! than ks you all, and i hope more come in.

    While I greatly appreciate people sharing with me and other readers on the blog, it seems like several of the comments were directed at other issues than the question at hand.

    The question at hand was:

    “Why do companies like Northfield and Starrett continue to make essentially the same product they have made for the past 50+ years with little apparent innovation, when companies selling similar lines of product in other countries continue to innovate?

    It's not about the machines and it's not about the virtue of older equipment. It's about, I do believe, the essential cultural differences that lead one group to continually improve, push the limits and evolve their products, while another group, undoubtedly for reasons that make sense to them, seem content to make the same thing year after year after year.

    It's not about whether “innovation”is all it is cracked up to be, that as often as not what is touted as 'new and improved' is just a bunch of marketing hyperbole. Is “innovation” sometimes a bunch of b.s. amounting to a step backwards? Absolutely. That's not the topic here however.

    I think the virtues of older technology, like adjustability, serviceability, no concern for pre-planned obsolesence, etc, are very clear and obvious to most folks. There is a point though where the romanticisation of these ideals is not always born out by reality.

    I had an older Felder combination machine once, all cast iron and thoroughly old school. The tables were warped all to hell, and the adjustment mechanisms were crude and in some cases there was no adjustment without major machine shop work. The newer machines might be considered innovative by some, are certainly flashier, however I notice the same primitive adjustment mechanisms remain. Therefore, I steer clear.

    One clear advantage I would state about a product like a Northfield jointer is that if you needed parts, they would presumably be no issue at all as the machine hasn't changed in 60 years.

    For companies that evolve their products year after year, decade after decade, keeping a stock of spare parts for outdated machines becomes problematic at some point and a cut off point inevitably occurs in terms of what will be supported and what will not. Same for car manufacturers. Many of the parts, perhaps 80%, for my old truck are no longer available from Toyota for instance.

    I'll continue my spiel in another comment to follow…

  9. The phenomenon of the companies cited in the blog who continue to make the same products unchanged after many years is truly a bit weird to me. Imagine that General Motors continued to make the 1956 Chev Bel Air today, completely unchanged? While some might rejoice at such a scenario, many others would grimace at the thought of a vehicle doing 15mpg at best, with no intermittent wipers, no FM radio, no seat belts, appalling tailpipe emissions, lack of an airbag, and so forth.

    I'm not a believer in the idea of endless technological progress to a bright and shiny future – I tend to think that for every advance there is something lost. I tend to think that the usual response of increasing the complexity of a thing in response to design challenges is often leading us in a direction where very few will understand how anything works. And that's not a great outcome.

    Again, all of that is somewhat besides the point in terms of the original post.

    I'm thinking there must be some cultural reasons why the Germans and Japanese like to endlessly refine and perfect products, and why, for instance, the French have high esteem for the manual arts and hold demanding competitions every four years for masterly artisans to 'earn their stripes'- and none of that describes North American culture- not now, and not in the past. I don't think it describes other 'Anglo Saxon' Nations either, like Canada, Australia, NZ, etc..

    I was not, in any way, I should say, criticising Northfield or Starrett products as being inferior – I'm sure that Northfield's jointer is a perfectly serviceable machine, and L.S. Starrett products are quite excellent from my experience.

    I cited Martin as a counterpoint to Northfield, as anyone familiar with Martin's products would say it is built without compromise. While Robland and other european companies might produce look-alikes, that is like saying that the Hyundae Sonata is made with the same care and attention as a Jaguar sedan. Martin is the industry leader. I mean, the sliding saw at 4600 lbs – that's a friggin' tank!

    And Martin's machine doesn't cost anymore than the American product despite the famously high German labour costs with their extensive benefit packages, something I suspect not part of the scene at Northfield or L.S. Starrett. This surprises me a great deal. So how does Martin do it and, more importantly, WHY do they do it? And, concomitantly, why the stagnation with the companies mentioned on the US side?

    I imagine that hubris, as Akira said, a certain tendency to rest upon one's laurels might be a contributing factor. It might be the case that corporate greed for short term profits over anything else is another factor, as Rich noted, however it hardly appears that Northfield or Starrett are exactly rolling in the profits at this juncture- I suspect they are just hanging on actually. I also don't believe that either company is a publicly trader enterprise, but rather a family based industry. Just like Martin, BTW.

    So, I don't really feel like I have gotten to the bottom of this matter at all, though I find it intriguing to think about and discuss. I hope to see more comments!


  10. I've reached the limit as to what I can comment on without more facts. I think that in order to get to the root of this issue would mean digging deeper.

    I would want to ask or know more about underlying factors like:

    Educational system: Does one favor a push toward innovation more than another? Does one foster a desire to improve and innovate more than another? Does coming from a place of “having little” push us to want more? Does coming from a place of “having more” inspire complacency?

    Is it economics? Does one company or group simply have more available resources than another? Does one feel the cost of innovation is not worth the r&d costs involved. Will innovation produce a better product? What are the small business (or large) laws like in each country? Other countries are much different from the U.S in the u.s. every state has their own laws which can make a big difference. Hawaii was ranked last in promoting and helping small business in the u.s. when i was there. I suspect foreign laws are more universal. But again I don't know, I'm only thinking about factors that might influence the differences.

    I'm not sure it's always cultural either. we have companies like Martin who exemplify the best of innovation I think, but then there's Felder. we have companies like Festool, and I think they spend a lot of money on r&d, but I don't think it necessarily translates into a better tool. take Lie-Nielsen… whether you prefer a Japanese or Western plane is beside the point. they don't just make a copy of an old Stanley plane, they look at what worked and didn't work with the original model and they improve it. it may seem like a shiny version of the same old plane, but it is far from that.

    Without going on and on, I think there are many underlying factors to take into account and studied before a conclusion can be made.

    One other thing that comes to mind is that the U.S. is not like other countries in another way: our backgrounds and ethnicities. We are not the homogenous country that most of the world is. Asking where your family is from in most countries would elicit an odd stare, whereas in the u.s. it's commonplace. Each of us draw upon our backgrounds in slightly different ways.

    I hope I haven't taken up more space than I should without giving any answer, but sometimes getting to the answer takes asking the right questions. Not that these are even the right questions.


  11. Chris, you mentioned something in the original post that might be part of the answer: the U.S. military industrial complex. I'd bet that it sucks most of the best and brightest engineers the U.S. produces. While there are folks out there doing really innovative tool technology work (Bridge City Tool Works, for example), they surely aren't making the kind of dough they could working for Lockheed Martin.

  12. Starrett has a number of plants around the world, including China. Likely some more modern technology is utilized at other facilities? Perhaps given the extent of the production at the MA facility compared to other locations, and how the future looks for them in this regard, the cost of retooling is not justifiable?

    I find my Northfield #7 planer only adequate as a furniture shop thicknesser. The redeeming quality being that it is wide and powerful with three motors, so large thick slabs can pass through relatively unhindered. The sharpening attachment is crude at best, the thread allows too much play in the grinder apparatus as it passes over the knives. Improvements have been made over the years, Northfield seems to be aware of the shortcomings of what they have produced, and makes periodic efforts to provide more or less improvements. Given the history and reputation, it is a little surprising that the more desirable changes weren't better attended to before the equipment was marketed. Over many years I have learned to fine tune the adjustments required after sharpening, I think to get the most advantageous results from the machine, and the whole process is down to a laborious three hours or so. Still, I can only best think of the big cast iron as my 'lumberyard mama', a relationship that has grown out of habit, more than a real affection. Credit where credit is due, she works over her head and never breaks down, the electronics are good, the feed rollers can easily travel in either direction with the quick flip of a switch, and it only blows a fuse during the most humid weather.

    Mine is a four knife cutter head, a helical one would probably be more purposeful for my needs, an option that had just become available when the machine was produced. Northfield doesn't seem to have embraced the disposable knife technology, compared to other brands, probably a standard with the German make that has been mentioned. I believe there are advantages and disadvantages to either way of doing it, sharpenable or disposable, depending on what type of material is being planed. The quick installation of disposable knives without having to alter settings would be a nice asset, the luxury possibly overriding some inequalities with the arrangement compared.

    I believe that for many years, Northfield was the standard and main choice for woodworking programs in schools and for use on US military bases, possibly in the pattern making shops as well. Being made in the US, the history and reputation created the desire for the brand with certain assurances that came along with it. Perhaps that still is where their main market is for them, and it remains a comfortable one, hence there is not the need to produce more progressively designed equipment to survive as a company. It is decent tooling, but it could be a lot better.

  13. Enjoyable to see the inside of the Northfield factory, thanks for posting that.

    It's interesting to see a couple Japanese machinist lathes being used there, pre CNC era vintage, when US lathes of that type were common and well made. I also have an Okuma, somewhat older than the one pictured.

    Unlike Northfield, Okuma doesn't stock the schematics for their old machinery. If it isn't on their computer, you are very possibly out of luck, and with the lathe in question, the person on the other end of the phone may not have been born yet when it was produced, possibly never even heard of it. Built in obsolescence is more common in Japan, one nice thing about outfits like Northfield. I wonder how that goes in places like Germany?

  14. Many thanks for the comments gentlemen,

    Michael, you raise some excellent questions and I imagine there are innumerable factors which could create the outcome I described in the blog with Starrett and Northfield.

    You are quite right that there are many underlying factors to take into account and studied before a conclusion can be made, however my suspicion is that the main reason for the apparent general lack of innovation in certain sectors boils down to the following five things:

    1) the diverse ethnic make-up of Americans may tend to lessen a sense of responsibility to the greater group, and what come with this is less concern about making things to last which benefit all, and a focus on individual/family advancement instead

    2) high mobility in the population, with people moving every 7 years on average means that people tend to be less community-oriented and connected, and that weakens any ideas about doing things for the benefit of the group, or having long-term thinking and planning

    3) an education systems focused on producing conformist consumers, not innovators.

    4) a relatively short national history – people do not live in a place with 1000 year old structures and thus there is a lessened sense of veneration for things like that, and therefore it would be less common for people to be of a mindset to create things in the model.

    5) design and creation has largely been taken away from the blue collar world and is not the purview of white collar professionals. People who make things tend to be those who did not achieve so well in the education system which functions to weed them out of the pool, and those who become designers, architects, etc., rarely have their hands on the materials they specify and therefore work at a certain remove of abstraction. Thus, to have the material cut in a factory in China is a decision more easily made by people who are making the intellectual innovations – they may not care how a thing is made, other than as a cost consideration, and 'innovation' as such is more often confined to surface appearance.

    Add to that a culture addicted to televised spectacle and habituated to fads of all sorts, waiting for the next thing to come down the line, and you tend to end up with people who aren't thinking about building/buying quality things, but on having lots of stimulation and lots of things.

    more to come in a follow up comment…

  15. Davey Leslie,

    you make a very good point, Huge amounts of money, thought, and effort go into all aspects of the military in the US. It is a significant chunk of the economy. I sometimes wonder if the US pulled out of all the wars it is engaged in at the moment, covert included, whether the economy would collapse as a result.


    Thanks for your observations and sharing your perspective on the Northfield planer you happen to own. Though I lack the personal experience with their equipment that you have, I had also concluded that it was decent stuff that could be improved upon. Same goes for the Oliver 166 jointer I own.

    I'm also of two minds (or is it three?) when it comes to the cutterhead equation – fixed knife with grinder, or helical and insert knives, or Tersa type system. I'm leaning toward the Tersa type system, if for no other reason than the extremely quick knife changes. Like you, the idea of farting around with adjusting a setting up the knives on a planer for three hours hardly fills one with warm anticipation.


  16. Djy,

    I was posting comments and your second comment got lost in middle.

    Funny enough, I also am interested to obtain an Okuma Lathe – something like the 'LS' model, 1970'S~1980's vintage.

    I am reconsidering the whole CNC question mind you…


  17. Chris, I believe the Northfield helical heads can be sharpened with the grinder that is provided, a somewhat different set-up from the straight knife head grinding system. I'm away from the shop, but I recall there being instructions about that in the manual that was provided with the machine.

    One drawback about my surfacer is that although the cutterhead motor is direct drive, I think generally a desirable feature, the head rpms are slower than with their belt driven machine with pulleys. I assume the finish is better with the faster revolutions and tear out less something to watch out for. The feed rate is highly adjustable, but the slowest setting is the best way to go with hardwoods, I have found. I toyed around with the idea of putting a different reduction gear box on it to further decrease the feed rate, looking into it showed that it could quite possibly be done. How the clutch was speced out raised some concerns, though. Had I not quit tobacco many years ago, I might have done the task, waiting for the wood to pass through the outfeed rollers would allow time to relax and grab a smoke.

    I have always found the folks at Northfield real pleasant to speak with on the phone, both interested and helpful.

  18. Djy,

    the issue that concerns me with the onboard blade grinder is that taking the edge down a fraction with each re-grind is going to upset the relationships between in-feed roller ,cutting arc, and out-feed roller. Same on a jointer – each re-sharpening with the knives kept in the same position would mean that the knives would be dropping in height each time relative to the out-feed table. Of course the out-feed on the jointer can be adjusted readily.

    Oliver used to have an insert knife cutterhead, called 'ITCH' with carbide knives. They could be sharpened in place on the machine, though the grinder was a slightly different than for the models with straight knives.

    I imagine that the belt drive would be faster than direct drive, as there is a pulley on the end of the motor to increase the rpm's. I know on the Oliver jointer I've got the belt drive gives and additional 1000 rpm over the direct drive.

    Anyway, wandering slightly off topic here…:^)

  19. Public corporations have CEO's that rise to the top as sociopaths , Private / family run companies wind up with the original founder's playboy son
    investing the company profits in a higher rate of return in Wall Street finance . The old paid for
    designs , patterns , tooling are milked until
    the business dies…. Think Bethlehem Steel
    and Wang Computer companies .
    The King and his yes men in the corner office
    are asleep or on the golf course .
    Start a death watch on Northfield, who could compete in the non hobby market using their boat anchors.
    GM execs kept the private jets right up to backruptcy…they never drove the cars they
    Place credit where it belongs on Martin management commitment….The US has Harvard
    Business School leading our industry in a race to the labor rate bottom.China might buy up the old Northfield trademark and designs, the installed base demand for replacement parts could keep the antiques alive in the dusty basements.
    Ask Starrett what the family members do with their bloated incomes ….they are not putting
    anything back into the Athol Ma facility.

  20. Joe,

    I think you made a lot of good points there. I wouldn't be surprised if Northfield went the way of Oliver, going out of business and then having the rights to the brand and logo being bought up by someone who has the machines produced in China.

    Starrett remains a family run business, however, as Djy mentioned in one of his comments, Starrett is now manufacturing in China, along with plants in Brazil, Germany, the UK and the Dominican Republic, with 25% of sales now being in Brazil. So, I wonder how long they will continue to maintain North American manufacturing operations? Odds are, not so long.


  21. America's national history has certainly implanted a distinct lack of patience on our collective psyche. It has been a timeline of explosive change and innovation, with a spectacular rise to prominence. Incremental change and improvement is not especially celebrated nor trusted in some cases (think “new and improved”). We want to leapfrog technology and the market, and not always with good results. “Why work on making nuclear safer – fusion should be our goal.” “Natural gas is a stop gap – renewable bio fuels are the future.” “Why fix the roads for fossil fuel vehicles – High speed rail is the answer”.

    This plays directly into market acceptance. Companies that innovate pay large penalties if the market rejects their products. Remember “new Coke”, Betamax, MiniDisc, or Newton? Some innovators like Stanley, Kodak and Xerox, never fully recover from underlying technical shifts in the market. Apple was not always the innovation juggernaut that it is today. It stumbled badly many times in the past, to the point where the company was thought to be irrelevant. The company fortunately had sufficient financial resources, coupled with a committed leader, and a small but loyal customer base, that sustained it till critical mass was achieved. Many companies do not have the luxury of resources, nor the conviction to move beyond initial failures.

    Consumer markets are resistant, and financial markets do not tolerate failures. The odds are certainly stacked up against companies.

  22. I think it comes down to the cost. Are the American products cost-competitive? Now, imagine the cost of the German planer if designed and manufactured in the U.S. I think not innovating is the only way to stay in certain of our manufacturing industry. Now I'm not saying this is necessarily a rule – I don't know. Maybe there was a threshold of ongoing innovation that these particular companies missed, and now the cost of catching up makes the idea a non-starter.

  23. Joel,

    it seems to me that the American products – at least as far as Northfield goes- are not cost competitive. At least, if it were my buying decision, for the same amount of money I would choose the German product.

    I'm not sure I buy into the idea that non-innovating is the “only way to stay in certain of our manufacturing industry” though I can well imagine there might be some within such companies who rationalize what they do upon that basis.

    Even if the company becomes non-innovate for some reason, there are ways around that. Starrett, for example, was founded when businessman/inventor Leroy Starrett (who invented and patented the combination square in the late 1800's) acquired the Athol Machine company in 1905. Since then, Starret has acquired:

    – the Webber Gage Company (1962) (adding gage blocks to product line)

    – the Herman Stone Company (1970) (adding granite surface plates to product line)

    -the Evans Rule Company (1986) (adding tape measures)

    -the Sigma Optical Company (1990) (adding optical comparators)

    So, my point being, one way that a company can innovate as such is by acquiring other companies which have the expertise they lack, or access to customers they want.

    Perhaps it is the case that when certain investments in tooling up have been made it becomes more difficult for some companies to retool, unless absolutely forced to.

    I think Starrett products are cost-competitive vs Mitutoyo and Browne and Sharpe at least.

    Thanks for your comment – most thought provoking!


  24. Chris, I am no machine specialist, but if Martin is the unique industry leader, then innovation becomes an exception where Nortfield thrives by copying itself and others like Robland would survive by copying Martin or others. This would confirm my impression that there is not necessarily much difference between a company producing old models compared to one with an up to date design. Although I think the first is technically more unlikely.
    In our workshop we have a Panhans panel beam saw (a big track saw), if weight and power is an indication, it is a good machine.

  25. I find it curious that you drive an HJ47 Land Cruiser and may not understand why some would prefer non inovative Nortfield to the more inovative Martin. Me, I prefer Nortfield and am glad they continue to make them pretty much unchanged. They stay in business because shops still see the merits of the machines and they provide sevice and parts to keep machines from the 40's going. No mystery to me.
    Jack Palmer

  26. Jack Palmer,

    yes, it may well appear ironic, or 'curious' as you put it, that I drive an old LandCruiser and yet I ask questions about the innovative nature, or lack thereof, of companies like Northfield.

    First off though, the HJ47, at the time I imported it, was the most modern diesel-engined LandCruiser I could obtain, due to US import restrictions. I wanted a truck that had 4wd, was robustly made, could carry at ton, and had a diesel engine. The choices domestically do not meet those requirements. A gas-engined version of my truck returns 12 mpg, not too different than, say, a Jeep Cherokee. With a diesel engine, I get more like 25 mpg.

    As for the archaic nature of the truck, if US D.O.T. regulations allowed me to bring in something more modern, I would have likely gone that route. One of the biggest reasons being: poor factory parts support for a 30-year old truck. Live and learn. didn't know that when I bought it, but I'm very well aware now.

    So, why I bought the truck is, like you said, 'no mystery to me' either. As a product though, Toyota continues to innovate that line of trucks, conservative in design as they may be – unlike Northfield and their products. Given the finances, I would love to get a newer HZJ-79 truck, but it's not obtainable in this country.

    I doubt that Northfield is motivated by the spare parts stocking angle, but I'm sure there are many out there who appreciate their merits. Glad you're getting good use out of yours.

    Thanks for the comment!


  27. From a European perspective there are some reasons for the innovation in (woodworking) equipment in Europe.

    One is health and safety. For example, our workshop was exclusively populated with cast-iron manually operated Wadkin machines when it was started (long before my time, at least thirty years ago I think). A couple of years ago we were forced to retire our table saw and rotary sander because they did not meet current safety standards anymore. (they didn't even have emergency stop buttons as made and kept running too long after being powered down, the saw didn't have a safety cover) Truth be told, our modern Altendorf F45 elmo III tablesaw is an absolute gem, and a huge improvement over the old Wadkin.

    Also, traditionally relatively dirty industries like foundries have to comply with very strict environmental regulations in Europe which raises their costs and makes people look for alternatives.

    Fuel and energy cost in Europe are much higher than in the US. Hence the pressure to look for energy efficient production processes and light-weight products (transport costs).

    Also, CNC laser and water cutters and CNC bending machines have made constructing complicated machine structures out of thin steel plate cheaper, easier, faster, lighter and with much lower up-front costs than casting them out of iron.

Anything to add?

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