BCM Maker Faire (follow up)

I spent 10~5 yesterday on the boardwalk in front of the Boston Children’s Museum with a table presenting samples of Japanese joinery and my woodwork, most of which could easily be assembled and disassembled by small children. Here’s a snap of my table:

It was in the 90s (˚F) yesterday, so I drank a lot of water and was at least in some shade under a large tent with many other exhibitors. The vast majority of exhibits concerned robotics, battlebots, R2D2 controlled by joysticks, and the like. Booths devoted to more old fashioned things, like mine, were rather few and far between. Across from me were two others with old school stuff, one dealing with Japanese looms and weaving, and the other a project to teach poor urban Junior High kids how to make a plywood skiff in 11 sessions.

I had a lot of kids come by with their parents and it was a pleasure to watch them discover something about joinery as they took the models apart and put them together. Some kids were quite entranced and I had a few return visitors. Some parents knew a little something about the subject area of joinery, though many were as uninformed as their kids. Probably the two most interested kids that stopped by were a pair of 12 year old girls who asked me a great number of questions and were quite fascinated by the whole thing. That was rewarding.

I certainly got a lot of questions, and some, interestingly, cropped up time and again.

Here are the top 3 questions I received on the day of the Maker Faire, in order of frequency:

  • “Did you use a laser to cut that?”
  • “Are these puzzles?”
  • “What is all this?”

I heard each of the above questions at least a dozen times, from both children and adults. One adult, of Indian background, came upon my table with his young daughter and, scanning the scene, asked, “what is all this?”. After starting to hear my answer, he snorted that, “there’s nothing here for my daughter to interact with.” As he started to move off, I said, “well, actually…”, and I showed his daughter who stood in front of him, around 8 years old if I were to guess, how to take apart one of the joints. As soon as she began to play with it, he pulled her away. Off to the next thing.

It is interesting to see how people’s preconceptions and snap judgments color how they perceive reality.

The questions about using a laser were humorous if it weren’t for the fact of their frequency and that adults were usually the ones asking that question. A lot of people just don’t have any familiarity with wood joinery, so I was able to at least introduce something new to them, but, it is a little sad to me all the same. Many, upon seeing an assembled joints, assumed that the parts were cut in the same manner as a jigsaw puzzle, and were flummoxed as to how I had made the cuts with, to them, nearly invisible lines. So I did a lot of explaining about that.

One fellow, a Chinese guy who I think was from MIT’s robotics lab, seemed dumbstruck that wood could be cut to fit tightly together without the aid of CNC equipment. He kept smiling in puzzlement and seemed at a loss for words. That was a curious moment.

Quite a few adults asked me if I used CNC, and when I told them I used rather more mundane tools to make the joints, were almost in disbelief or astonishment. Then I told them that the joints were deliberately made a little loose to aid in being interactive, and some had trouble taking this in. It’s as if they no longer imagine humans can do close-tolerance work. I pointed out to one person that the most perfectly round sphere ever created, was polished to final roundness by hand by Achim Leistner, as “his precision in handcrafting spheres was [found to be] superior to any machine”.

It was a long day, starting for me at 6:00 am, and I was pretty much on my last legs when I got home, a 2-hour drive. I think if I participate next year I can find a few ways to improve my presentation. It seems that joinery remains outside the scope of a lot of people’s awareness, so working to improve that is certainly worthwhile I think.

Next project for BCM is the tansu rebuild.

19 Replies to “BCM Maker Faire (follow up)”

  1. So, can you tell us more about the lasers you use to make those?

    I hope you had an opportunity to at least point a few of them over to the gate or battari shogi. 🙂

  2. Man, you didn't use your sawhorses as a subframe for your presentation's table?!
    Nevertheless, glad you took the opportunity to act as a counterpart to all this robotics stuff.
    I hope you enjoyed the day.

  3. I'll save the laser article for a later post -much later.

    I did mention to some that I work on the machi-ya (which is inside the BCM) and that I had designed and built the gate at the MFA's Tenshin garden.


  4. Hi Marc,

    Oh, I did plan on bringing the sawhorses over, however I changed my mind when I realized it didn't make sense to do an actual carpentry demo as I was the only one manning the table and couldn't keep an eye on everything at once (and that was hard enough as it was). And they provided a table, saving me the trouble of bringing one.


  5. For most people joinery is kind of invisible, I think. It's often hidden behind drywall or in attics. In the house I grew up in many joints were made with steel connector plates. I assume this was done to save cost.

    Given how good you work looks I cannot fault people for thinking it was made by machine, given that most high-precision parts are made by machine these days.
    A layman wouldn't know that the rectangular corners in your work aren't really possible with milling.

    It's a good thing that you're exhibiting your skills at venues like these. Future generations should learn that we can create both beauty and precision with our own hands and modest tools.

  6. Hard to believe that man pulled his (interested) daughter away from your table. It's great you showed people something they didn't know about, but sad all the same. I have a small store where I sell my wares and had a visitor the other day who said “you must have some sort of tool to do the painting on your wood signs”. I held up my hand and said, “yes, this is my tool”!

  7. Perhaps the joinery models are a bit abstract when viewed alone and out of context. Would it be possible to bring some pictures, models, or full scale furniture to demonstrate the applications of joinery?

    -Matt J

  8. Matt,

    thanks for the comment. Your thought that it might be a lack of context which is confusing people certainly carries merit. I did bring both a drawer and a sliding door to show how some of the joinery models related to joinery in parts of furniture, along with a set of drawer parts with joinery cut, and there was some interest in that. Of course, joinery when separated looks quite different than when together, and the finished constructions were less captivating to many people than the joints themselves.

    Next year, if I'm invited, I was thinking to do a larger architectural model of some sort to bring along, the construction of which would be, of course, time-permitting. It would take weeks and months to build anything significant.

    For this year, I scraped together what I had on hand, preparing only the four additional joinery models as part of a separate arrangement with the Japanese house within the museum.

    There's also the aspect of demonstrating actual carpentry techniques which I left off doing this time. I did that sort of thing last time I presented at the BCM (for Japanese New Years'), and it was far less interactive with people stopping by to look. Alas, I fear most people have neither the time nor the attention span for such demos to be entirely meaningful as a presentation.


  9. Roland,

    I appreciate your comment. I hope I connected in some small way with some members of those future generations and that it may influence their path in life positively.


  10. Would it be an idea to take multiple examples of the same joint in different phases of construction? From say a drawing to sketches on the wood to rough cut to finished joint.

    Given the amount of photos you already have on your blog you could certainly make a poster or presentation of something like that. Of course some physical examples would be nicer to look at but time consuming.

  11. This might be a bit excessive, but if you can make a frame with a pair of sliding shoji it may offer much needed grounding for those looking at the joinery. Plus the kids can slide the doors back and forth, which is bound to offer the younger ones some enjoyment.

    Also it is bound to have some usefulness around the house.

    Kids seem to take-away a lot without seemingly showing much interest sometimes.

  12. Given the environment, it isn't terribly surprising that the people wanted to see lasers and CNC machines. That kind of technology has a place, and in most cases it does surpass the accuracy and speed of hand work. Most cases, but not all.
    If you have a piece of furniture with some missing moulding, perhaps a two foot section, that is broken or missing, how do you replace it? You could grind a custom profile and then run it in a moulder or shaper. You could try various router set ups to achieve the same end. The more “primitive” option would be to use a set of hollows and rounds.
    Which method, given that you have a skilled person in each instance, would be faster? Which would be cheaper? Lastly, if laid side by side, could you spot the one made by hand?
    I'm sure there are other examples of the more traditional methods being better suited for certain tasks. If nothing else, there was probably joinery on that table that would be difficult to get at with a machine due to the geometry.

  13. Rob,

    thanks for the comment. I wasn't under the impression that people at the Faire were wanting to see lasers or CNC – it was more that they assumed that those technologies were the means by which I made the pieces.

    In respect to your question about replacing a piece of molding by those three methods, it is hard to say which method would be fastest or cheapest. That depends on lots of factors.

    I could recognize which part was hand-formed using moulding planes and which part was milled by router or shaper in most cases, however I will say that such nuances are completely lost on the vast majority of the consuming public.

    I was thinking today that the use of dovetailed drawers on so many things, as a signifier of 'quality', is a message largely lost on most of the purchasing public. And even if the buyer of a cabinet is aware of dovetails, differences between machine-cut and hand-cut dovetails are, I suspect, largely an irrelevance to them. The differences between these things are, in fact, only of interest to a certain small subset of people among those who make furniture.

    I myself do not have objections to CNC equipment and am happy to use whatever method is most convenient and accurate to accomplish a task. So, I wasn't offended by questions about lasers or CNC – it was more the case that I found such questions surprising and led me to new understandings about everyday people and their perceptions of woodwork these days. I'm sure the market research departments of large furniture manufacturers are already well aware of these things.


  14. Chris –

    Thanks for making the time to get out there and share what you do with a group of folks who have been largely unexposed. I think it's important for a couple of reasons:

    1) Design : The concept of actually thinking a problem through and picking (or developing) an appropriate solution is foreign to many people. Japanese joinery offers so many opportunities to discuss solutions for tension, bending, twisting and splicing that people might not intuitively recognize.

    2) Craftsmanship : As you point out – the mere concept that handwork is not only possible, but can be executed to a standard as high as yours – is equally foreign. In a Maker Faire context, this should be an opportunity not just to display and show off your own talents, but to educate and inspire a whole groups of young people about what is possible.

    It was great to see you there – I've always enjoyed seeing and hearing what you're up to. The fact that you bring it out and share at events like this is fantastic.


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