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JOEL Joel's Blog



My Leroy Lettering Machine
My Leroy Lettering Machine

When I was a newly minted college graduate, I worked in Black & Decker's industrial construction division, where we designed and produced high-end power tools. The factory doesn't exist anymore and the group that designed the tools has long either wandered off or retired. Everybody communicated using drawings. Every engineer had a drafting table, mine was left-handed, and we did pencil drawings on Mylar. I was crap at it. I wasn't even bad at it, I was at least two levels below bad. And trust me, this is not false modesty.

But because I was the least useful draftsman in the entire building, and because I had heard of something called computers in college, when the company decided to invest in CAD (Computer Aided Design) equipment, they decided I would be the guy to learn and teach other people. So I did. That worked out well - but the thing that we lost was the gorgeous drawings people did.

My first boss, a fellow by the name of Bob Moores, was not only was an extremely good engineer and designer, but his drawings were also works of art. I certainly didn't understand exactly what he was putting down on the page, but I could tell you it was gorgeous to look at, easily read and understood. Hand lettering was something I never came close to mastering. But Bob and a lot of other engineers and draftsman in the department were spectacular.

I never mastered freehand lettering. Later, when I wrote some books, I finally had to settle down and learn how to draft neatly and properly, but I used a Leroy letterer for all the lettering. The Leroy, of which I have the simplest model, worked by guiding your pen or pencil through a template with all the letters. There were giant sets with all sorts of fonts, but I never needed them. It was really meant to be used right-handed which was a problem for me as a leftie, but I managed to muddle through. I haven't actually used mine in forty years.

CAD drafting gradually took over from those pioneering days. I don't even think people are taught hand drafting anymore. What we have is a far more uniform a system of drawings, 3D models, simulations, and connections to CNC manufacturing which would be unimaginable in the 1980s. I would agree it's a big step forward from a manufacturing standpoint. Aesthetically, it's not so much fun. But here's the important point: the reason I was able to successfully teach people how to use a computer to draft was they already knew drafting. They understood the vocabulary you needed to transmit the elements of a design to somebody else. All I had to teach them was which button to push. And this is still true today.

Having a drawing, or a real model, is critical for successfully producing any bit of furniture or architectural work. In the world of cabinetry, the architectural drawings show what the customer will be getting, and how all looks like and fits into the space. Then there are the shop drawings which show joinery connections and how things actually fit together with real dimensions. The better you are at drafting the stuff, the fewer mistakes you will make. That really should read, the fewer expensive mistakes you will make. Because you'll make the same number of mistakes, but you'll work it out in the drawing before anybody notices.

The problem I'm seeing with electronic drafting is that full learning curve to produce a model of a box is pretty short. But the ability to design something that can be made efficiently hasn't actually changed. It's also important to be able to read a drawing accurately and understand what's missing or just erroneous. I recently did a project in which we outsourced some work, and the fabricator misinterpreted some dimensions. That was their problem. But our shop also made an error - we noted a feature once on the drawing that was actually needed in two places, so naturally the fabricator put it in just once. This was our problem. (I blame society.) Since I signed off on the drawings, it's my mistake. I should have caught it but perhaps I take the computer for granted? Learning how to review drawings, even your own, is almost as important as knowing how to design and do the drawings in the first place.

I'll leave you with two ideas: the first is that people aren't mind readers. If you draw up a box and expect someone to build it, but you leave out important details, and you haven't worked with the fabricators previously, you may be unpleasantly surprised. And that's just one thing that can go wrong. When you work on your own, there is a tendency to figure it out as you go. But as you get bigger and start spreading the work, even if you have someone working next right next to you, the better you are at communicating all the detail, the fewer mistakes will occur. The details have been figured out first or the larger contours have been explained properly. Even on your own, working things out in a drawing or CAD model saves tons of anguish later on.

The second thing I want to leave you with is a selection of beautifully drafted illustrations from the best book on drafting I know of: "Engineering Drawing" by Thomas French. My copy is from the 1940s. The book is a treat to look through and I still learn from it. I also threw in a page from the official Black & Decker book on Metric Drafting Practice. I still have my copy from 1980. The important thing that was drilled into me back then and still resonates is that a drawing is a communication. Anyone who consults the drawing should be able to completely understand what you are talking about, in an understandable fashion. That is as true now as it was then.

In other news I just want to remind people that on Friday, September 29th, we're hosting a free Osmo workshop with John Armfield of Osmo USA, 12- 2 at our showroom at 112 26th Street, Brooklyn. And on October 13th and 14th we'll be hosting Festool Fest.

Drafting 2
Drafting 3
Drafting 4
Drafting 5
Drafting 6
Drafting 7
Drafting 8
Drafting 9
The official Black & Decker book on Metric Drafting Practice. We were just entering the metric age and a global company like B&D was a pioneer.
The official Black & Decker book on Metric Drafting Practice. We were just entering the metric age and a global company like B&D was a pioneer.

B&D was also a pioneer in the introduction of GD&T tolerancing specification. We didn't use it much yet
B&D was also a pioneer in the introduction of GD&T tolerancing specification. We didn't use it much yet, but the idea that drawings that defined all you needed to know was as important then as now.
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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.