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JOEL Joel's Blog

Manufacturing Specialization


A specialized veneer gluing machine in a shop that just  does one thing - match
A specialized veneer gluing machine in a shop that just does one thing - match, glue, and cut to size high end veneer panels

Here's a tale that you might have heard when you learned about the Industrial Revolution: supposedly the early industrialist Eli Whitney (1765 - 1825) brought six guns made by his new mass-production method to Congress, disassembled them; mixed up the parts; put them back together; and demonstrated they all worked. This is one of those great myths that vividly illustrate a concept but aren't true. The myth's origin comes from a letter Whitney sent to Congress looking for a contract to make guns. In actual fact, if you took apart a group of Whitney guns, you wouldn't be able to mix up the parts.

Eli Whitney did not invent mass production, nor did he invent the idea of specialization. The metal parts of his guns were still cut out and filed the old-fashioned way. But instead of having one person make a gun from start to finish, Whitney divided the work up so that everyone specialized in one particular operation. Anyone will tell you that if you do anything a couple thousand times over and over again, you probably get good. But specialization like this was nothing new -- even in Whitney's time.

Sheffield edge tool factories routinely specialized: the people who ground chisels thin were not the same people who ground the tangs or forged them. Everybody specialized. This happened in furniture-making as well, especially at the low end. A cabinetmaker cited in Henry Mayhew's "London Labor and the London Poor" (c. 1850) points out that you have to specialize or else you will be unable to work fast enough to make your piecework rate. This particular gentleman made tea tables - and that's all he did, make tea tables. It also meant he only needed a very limited number and type of tools, which cut the capital requirements to be a little Meister, or small Garrett master, very significantly. I am personally convinced (without any real evidence, although to be fair I haven't looked for any), that the reason you have regional styles of furniture in the pre-industrial age is that one person typically did work for an entire community of industry. For example, one person specialized in carving, possibly for one shop or a whole bunch of shops. And what they made was based on their tools. People didn't say, "Please, sir, can you carve a Newport style ball and claw on my highboy?" They said, "I have a high boy that I'll be delivering to you on Thursday, can you put the feet on?" And they all looked the same, because the carver specialized in the same set of designs for everyone.

One of the great things about being an amateur is you don't have to specialize. I know for many people, myself included, part of the challenge of woodworking is to learn new skills to produce a new type of work - and then move on. I'm not trying to make a living as a woodworker, so I can get new equipment that I'll never be able to economically justify, and have a lot of fun at the same time. But every professional shop I know of specializes - otherwise they can't be competitive. I'm not talking about competitive on the low end, I mean at any end. The kitchen cabinet maker may know how to build cabinets, but a specialty veneer shop will lay out the veneer for the faces. A finishing shop will have the right equipment to efficiently finish the cabinets, and a large factory with CNC equipment will be happy to make custom size drawers of any quality to any specification. At the high end, is next to impossible for one person or one shop to be good enough at all necessary operations to work economically alone. This is especially a small shop. And so they don't.

I started this blog talking about mass production. The modern factory that was envisioned by Whitney was really a collection of specialized craftsmen. What I see in the cabinet world today is that same sort of specialization, which is overall a good thing. It is much better to be master of something that people want than attempt to be a jack-of-all-trades and hustle around being inefficient on everything. If you are at the beginning of your career, I fully understand the need to try to deliver on all sorts of projects. But as you get experience, don't be afraid to outsource or drop operations and jobs you haven't mastered or cannot afford efficient equipment. I think the industry is far better served by ten specialists working together and making a living, rather than ten individuals trying to do everything on their own (and driving themselves crazy in the process).

Join the conversation
06/05/2024 Pete Meltzer
Nothing could prove your point more than that high end industrial veneer equipment pictured at the top of your post. If you have a guillotine, a splicer and a press you can put out 50 panels a day. I love doing veneer work and I have a good set-up but by the time I cut the veneer, tape it, and get it in the vacuum bag, maybe (MAYBE!) 2 panels a day. I love the versatility and variety that veneer allows so I continue to do it if the design calls for it but it's terrible for any profit margin.
06/05/2024 Gerry Cox
I seem to recall that Samuel Colt was one of the earliest manufacturers to use interchangeable parts. The US government was also involved: Springfield Arsenal made interchangeable parts, but not the arsenal at Harper's Ferry. The latter continued the traditional specialization you mention: lock makers made only locks, stockers made only gun stocks, etc.
Colt comes after Whitney and he moved interchangeable parts further along. But the early Colts were made the same way and weren't truly interchangeable. It was only until after the milling machine and other precision tools were invented and common that interchangeable parts became a reality. The genius of inventors like Leonard Bailey was that he applied modern manufacture - precison casting and machining to his planes - but this was in the 1850's
06/05/2024 Chris Kantarjiev
I remember this as a story about Cadillac ... yeah, in 1908 Cadillac was the first carmaker to produce precision standardized, replaceable parts.

Mechanics disassembled three Cadillacs, substituted the pieces with other standard parts, then assembled them and took them for a 500-mile trip, earning the British “Dewar Trophy” in appreciation of remarkable technological achievements.

Considerably after Whitney!
06/05/2024 Bill
Enjoyed learning.
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