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JOEL Joel's Blog

Automation and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome


Automation and Carpal Tunnel  Syndrome 4In the good old days grinders would sit for 8-10 hours a day straddling a 4 foot diameter solid sandstone grinding wheel spinning at a surface speed of about 60 miles per hour. While wheel explosions were rare, early death from silicosis wasn't. It was a known occupational hazard, but in return for pretty good wages a grinder ran a known risk of early death, and at the very least some respiratory problems. Fortunately for the edge tool industry, most people don't think long term and there was no shortage of apprentice grinders.

Fast forward 150 years to present day Brooklyn. In the Gramercy Tools workshop we do what some might consider an excessive amount of hand filing. We hand sharpen all our saws, and used to file every last decorative detail on the Kings County Hammers. We do/did it that way because it's traditional, we love the old ways, and honestly the results speak for themselves. However in both cases we have found the learning curve for filers to be high and the people who have the skill for the work don't want to do it day in and day out - no matter the pay.

Nearly all of our top filers have experienced hand/elbow/wrist problems at one time or another. It's not the sort of thing that makes us feel good about hand work. Part of the issue is that we've grown. We simply make more saws now than ever before. In addition the files that are available today are of a significantly worse quality than a few years ago, and don't remove material as quickly. So, we have to file more. This raises our cost and in general makes it more work to get a consistent product we are proud of.

The issues raised by repetitive stress injury caused by following traditional manufacturing methods are substantial, and increasingly relevant as we see more and more folks interested in returning to traditional methods of manufacturing. Is grinding without proper dust collection "old timey" or simply stupid? Is repetitive stress injury an acceptable by-product of a world class saw or hammer? In both cases the answer is obvious. No product is worth endangering the well being of an employee, after all it's no longer the "good" old days.

As we see it a responsible company has the following possible solutions:
Stop making hand filed products.
Drastically reduce per filer-workload and raise prices accordingly.
Outsource the work so that it becomes someone else's problem.
Automate portions of our process, reducing the necessary hand work.

We are highly invested in growing as a company, in maintaining our reputation for the highest quality, and in the health and well being of our employees. For that reason we felt that automation is the only way forward.

With the Kings Country Hammers (update: currently out of production) the reason we were hand filing the decoration was that our CNC Machine shop, whom we've worked with for years, didn't think they could machine the details - even if cost wasn't an issue. The slight asymmetry of the decoration (which makes it look right to the human eye) makes for exceptionally complicated cutter paths, fragile cutter geometries, and several tooling changes, not to mention complicated fixturing.

After the first batch of hammers were hand filed, we threw down the gauntlet, and asked the crew over at the machine shop to try again. It took them about a month to get back to us, and the conversation started out - I think we got it, but you're not going to like the cost.

But it wasn't the cost that was the big surprise - well not exactly. The HUGE surprise, was that our hammers cost as much to produce on a CNC mill as they do with a hand file. Almost to the dollar.

So the New Kings Country Hammers have decoration done entirely by CNC. We touch up the decoration after polishing if need be, but that's the only time they see the business end of a file. And were glad to say, that using CNC gives us a crisper. more consistent look, with a lot less wear and tear on our staff.

So what does this all mean? Are we giving in to computers and machines? We don't think so, to us, it feels a lot like pulling our head out of the sand. There will always be processes that require hand work. For instance, each hammer head still undergoes extensive hand processing. From patina, to differential tempering over a flame, to mirror polishing, and grinding, there is a ton of hand work in the New Kings County Hammer. What there isn't is the sinking feeling that we're asking the guys and gals in our shop to do something that could lead to injury. And we've also steadfastly kept production local, and in the hands of craftsmen and women who take pride in producing top quality work. The end result is a better product than we had before without the dumbing down of the design that automation sometimes brings. I think this combined result of hand and CNC puts us squarely in the modern craft tradition - one that dates back to tilt hammers and Jacquard looms.

Producing the Kings County Hammer has taught us a lot - and raised some very interesting questions for anyone engaged in craftsmanship at a high level. We've explored these issues before on this blog, most notably when I talked about our saw handles. We are firm believers, that tradition has shown that progress is a good thing. Gramercy Tools never has and never will make replicas, or period correct tools. It will continue to produce tools, and upgrade its production processes in such a way that the tool you buy tomorrow is a better tool than you can buy today, not only in its function, but in its form, and manufacture.

As of this writing I am working on motion control software to help us file saws. We plan to do the rough tooth forming on custom automated machinery that we are building and programming ourselves. Kris, our head saw filer, is counting the minutes - but it's not because a machine is about to take his job. It's because, it's a waste of his time to do anything but the final hand sharpening. Just about everyone agrees that hand filing produces a better saw than machine filing and our competitors seem to agree. They all either machine file to save money, or machine file then hand file over it. We have added a few programming tricks but the real test is coming.

"The Turing Test" Proposed by mathematician Alan Turing was an idea to place a human and a computer behind a screen and have people ask questions of them. If the audience couldn't tell which was the machine and which was the human, then we can say artificial intelligence works. Once our new system gets operational, we plan to have a little test - We call it "The Tim Test". We take two saws, one totally hand filed, one filed by machine with final sharpening done by hand. If Tim Corbett, our head designer or anyone else can't tell which is which - then we know we have something we can offer the public. Otherwise - it's back to the drawing board.

The new larger 9oz Kings County Hammers will be available again in limited starting this Friday. We currently have a few of the the small hand filed hammers in stock but we have no plans to reintroduce the smaller size when we run out.

Join the conversation
04/23/2014 Tico Vogt
I like what I'm reading here. We are in a different world from the "good old days" and need to take account of very different conditions. Pulling one's head out of the sand is always a good thing! Congratulations on the energy and commitment to making better tools tomorrow.
04/23/2014 Josh
Awesome post! Your company continues to innovate and impress. Thanks for leading the way!
04/23/2014 Steve
I'd like to purchase the large hammer. Do you have a waiting list for the next lot?
04/23/2014 Anonymous
Are any manufacturers already interested in bringing back better quality saw and mill files? If not, are there enough people interested in purchasing better files to get a manufacturer interested?

Many smaller-scale operations use files to hand-sharpen saws and reshape cutting edges out of economy, and today's diminished file quality is apparent to us, too. Most will never be able to afford an automated solution. I personally would rather pay a little more for a better quality, longer-lasting, and more dependable tool I use often than buy multiple inferior ones at lower price which ultimately will cost me more and decrease productivity.
THere is no link or list yet but the tool will be added to the store Friday and it will appear as a new product and also there will be a banner linking to the tool at the top of every page.
thanks for your support,
04/23/2014 Bob Groh
Loved the post and I greatly enjoyed your thought process. It is so very much 'real world' to see a progressive company striving for better products and worrying about the impact on both the employees and the customer. Good job!! Keep it up. Oh, as a comment, please keep all your production state side and, if possible, local.
04/23/2014 Christopher mitchell
Well, there goes another trade craft lost forever. I have carpal tunnel syndrome three surgery's on one hand and need surgery on the right. Truth of the matter is it did not come from filing , or anything else due to furniture building. Its mostly hereditary transmitted and has been linked to having american indian ancestors. Dr Ben Freeman probably the best surgeon in the country on hands provided me with this information on one of my first operations.
I also much rather the inperfection hammer done by hand than a perfect one made from a CNC machine. They have much more class. Two things I got from this story, one is people just dont want to work anymore and secondly its all about the $ and not the product. Dont worry Im still going to purchase tools from you. It probably want be a saw or a hammer now but iI will still be a loyal customer. And one more thing i just sent four #4 Disston Back saws off to be sharpened two to a gentleman in Santa Monica and two to your strongest competitor in saw making. The individual in Santa Monica saws were ten times better operating saws that your competitor who used a machine to file the tooth line. This man in California is the only Person I know in the US who possess this wonderful craft of restoring old saws back to a superb working condition. Just playing with the set in the teeth is not how you get a saw working properly theres much more to the restoring saws back to there original or even better condition than that. Thanks for the heads up . Chris
I 100% agree that playing with set is not how you get a saw operating properly. As I say in the blog getting a saw to work the way it should and at the same time getting rid of the danger and drudgery is going to be a big test for us. That's why the Tim Test is so important.
I can't agree on the carpal tunnel just being a Native American hereditary issue. My mom (both of her parents were from Eastern Europe) had lots of hand issues as did I until I changed the way I work, and considering how many Americans have some native American blood, even if this was an important marker, it would still mean we could not saw files safely in the quantity we need to.

04/24/2014 Richard Francis
When did you last visit Tony Iles in Horncastle? They were still using the big grindstones when I was there.
They still use them. They use them wet which is far safer and they also have proper ventilation. Barry Iles said to me that the solution for silicosis was mostly better ventilation which the mill owners resisted because it would cost more. They sorted this though by the 1870s I think. - joel
04/28/2014 Kelly Williams
Good for you, Joel! We live in a world where technology can help us in ways that were not available in the past. Ignoring those opportunities is silly - especially if we can maintain the quality of the product while at the same time improving the lives of people. :)
05/14/2014 Robert Demers
Interesting post Joel. I very much appreciated you sharing the thought process that goes into making high quality tools commercially viable. Your company TFWW, makes great value tools. Some may think they are expensive, but they are not. They are real tools at a realistic prices. Keep up the good work Joel!
What is it with file makers lately? Can't they not get good steel treated properly then machine cut like they used to??
Even at a higher price, there still something to be said about locally manufactured (Canada/US) tools, worth every pennies!
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