Chapter 7:1 1951-1960: Background Information, Useful for Understanding Developments in Woodworking

Back to Chapter 7

Under Construction 11-24-08

    "Today, sales of light power tools total more than 100 million dollars yearly, and more than 14 million persons have workshops in their homes."

    Source: Edward L. Throm, ed, Fifty Years of Popular Mechanics, 1902-1952 New York: Simon and Schuster, 1951, page 233

Before World War II, the average square footage of American homes was considerbly less than after, especially given the housing boom that grew out of the economic engine that World War II produced. In new homes, an area in the attached, two-car garage, freqeuntly is -- most frequently -- the setting where areas for woodworking tools is estanblished. But basement workshops are popular as well. See the graph for shifts in housing size in the 20th century, decade by decade,  on this page. A useful survey of post WW II residences, "Selected Post-World War II Residential Architectural Styles and Building Types", issued by the Center for Historic Preservation Research, Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, Colorado Historical Society, 2006 is the first of what I hope will be several accessible documents on post war housing design. This 16 page pdf document -- illustrated with numerous colored photos of house types -- give extensive descriptions of the design attributes of each house type.

The increase in numbers of attached garages -- especially the two-car garage -- presented more space, although it is space that must be shared with automobiles. (Need to find out whether the post-WW II house is more frequently built on a concrete slab, at ground level, or ir the popularity of basements in homes continued.) All these issues arre addressed in more detail in chapter 7:3.

The radial arm saw, and the Shopsmith combination tool, continue to be prime choices as first purchases as major tools in homeworkshops. The router, more and more, is viewed as a desirable tool in home workshops.

Reminiscences of an amateur woodworker who was a teenager in the 1940s

People had time, money and a desire to enjoy hobbies. Sears and Wards were retailing some fine tools, both wood and metal, produced by Atlas and several other companies that were switching over to consumer products, after four years of war production. Delta (under various owners), Walker-Turner, Sprunger, Boice-Crane, Oliver, etc. were again producing for the civilian market.

Popular Mechanics and Popular Science carried ad after ad offering equipment for sale. Even someone started selling a mulit-purpose tool called ShopSmith (the plant is now about 35 miles from Sidney).

It was kind of a "perfect storm": time, money, desire, products and advertising in very popular magazines in the years following the war started woodworking as we know it today (my opinion). Other hobbies and sports prospered also during this time: bowling moved out of the poolroom and even started attracting women; hunting and fishing grew stronger; and gun collecting flourished. Even the interest in stamp collecting grew much greater. (The newspaper that I worked at -- since I was 13 -- printed Linn's Stamp News (a tabloid) each week.

During the war we ran eight or 12 pages per issue, after the war it quickly jumped to 16 and 24 pages and an occasional 32 pages, our press capacity at the time. Soon we had to make two press runs because they were running 36 and 40 pages. These a just some examples that I was aware of, nothing historical.

During the 1930s -- in addition to the "meat and potato" issues that most people were faced with -- there were two migrations that I feel had a social effect on the country: the people in the south, who migrated to northern cities, and the "dust bowl" refugees from Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, who migrated to California. I'll leave any further comments on these happenings to the sociologists.

During the war years, women joined the work force and are part of the work still today. (Really I am not a chauvinist.) The "little lady's" place was no longer in the home and the "man of the house" was no longer the sole provider for the family. The family that has evolved doesn't seem to be the strong, secure anchor to which many older folks were accustomed.

I often wonder if many of today's problems would be as severe if the "family" was stronger. (One year while checking medical notification forms for one of my classes, I noticed that 66 percent of the students came from broken homes, we needed to have two people to notify in case of illness or an accident.)

Source: Anonymous

I will have more on this shortly.

Conditions in Europe, especially West Germany, in Post World War II

(I am indebted to Charlie Belden for this material on woodworking technology in Europe, especially Germany, in the Post World War II era.)

At the end of WWII much of Europe lay in ruins. Industrial capacity was either severely damaged or still geared to the War effort (producing military goods, i.e., products a civilian population couldn't buy and/or didntt want or need).

The effect on males of working age was just as devastating -- causalities of the war -- leaving mainly males too young and too inexperienced to work in jobs that required much skill, or with experience and skill, physically, or psychologically unable to work. There was a severe labor shortage.

Add to that the impact of war on access to raw materials, the transportation system to get it to where it could be used and facilities to convert it to useable civilian goods.

And all that was on the Supply Side. On the Demand Side, again, focusing on woodworking, a desperate need existed to replace housing, including kitchen cabinetry.

Thus Germany faced a high demand for traditional materials (wood boards) in limited supply, and few workers available who possessed craftsman skills and tools needed to make traditional solid wood furniture.

BUT what existed in plentiful supply was plenty of wood debris -- the product of "carpet" bombing by the Allies in WW II -- which German technology quickly learned to convert into "manufactured wood products".

Not plywood, however -- plywood emerged out the 1920s -- but composites  like particle board and an early version of Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF).

With a little paint, kitchen and bathroom cabinets made from these materials serve the purposes traditional solid wood furniture previously filled.

Moreover, "manufactured wood products" could be made in very uniform thicknesses and sizes - AND - remain dimensionally stable.

Stock in uniform dimensions and dimensionally stable was crucial to the change that commercial woodworking would undergo after the WW II  in Europe.

With a limited, unskilled labor force, a severely damaged infrastructure, a major shortage of traditional raw materials, "workshop space" severely limited, but demand for cabinetry extremely high, European woodworking was able to develop a solution to this Supply and Demand challenge, and, through a convergence of innovation and technology, change woodworking. With the "sheet goods" now standardized another German figured out a way, with a few specialized hand held machines and special relatively small jigs, to get around the need for workers with very specialized skills that took a long time to develop.

Rather than individual skilled craftsmen using traditional hand tools, or industrial factory workers operating capital intensive industrial machines, a "system" was developed to (a) efficiently use the initially limited availability sheet goods and (b) make it possible for unskilled workers to convert sheet goods into cabinet carcases, drawers, doors and shelves. The makers of cabinet hardware - hinges, drawer pulls, drawer glides, etc., soon standardized key dimensions of their products to this new standardized cabinet making system. That system, with some variations, is the main method of making kitchen cabinets today.

The Thirty-Two Millimeter (32-mm) System

It's called the thirty-two millimeter (32-mm) system. Perhaps the most easily recognized hardware that goes with the 32-- mm system is the Euro-Hinge, Blum being the most recognized manufacturer of these types of hinges. As mentioned earlier, the tools and techniques for making the 32-mm system cabinets are hand-held power tools, either power tools already in use for other purposes, or specialized tools, jigs and fixtures were developed specifically for the 32-mm System. The 32-mm System also provided many advantages over traditional solid wood cabinetry making. First, the parts could leave the shop "knocked down" and assembled "on site". While the weight of the finished cabinet was the same, the volume until final assembly was significantly less than that of the assembled cabinet. That meant that the space needed to store "on hand" and transport volume was greatly reduced as well. Small regional shops with specialized tools and workers could make and distribute the "knocked down" furniture and a less well trained local could, with a minimum of tools or skills, could assemble the cabinets "on site". (Can you say IKEA boys and girls?)

The 32-mm system revolutionized Euro-cabinet making. No big factory, filled with large capital investment tools and machines, no big centralized warehouses, no big trucks needed to transport the goods to customers - or distributors - required. A very efficient, cost effective way to meet one of the challenges Europe faced at the end of the war, and the next 10 plus years. Like any good innovation, it has, for the most part, displaced what came before, traditional solid wood, free standing furniture construction.

Now the interesting thing about this change in HOW cabinets are made, WHAT they are made of, and all but the tools developed in Europe for this method, is that while the Americans adopted some of this new "system" we adapted it to our "old" woodworking tools and machines - the American independent streak, and ego, working against us.

my elu router

Fifty years late, but more and more of the Euro hand-held power tools and other parts of the 32-mm System cabinet making process are becoming available to, and popular with, American amateur/hobbyist woodworkers - often at what seems to be a premium price. (My Elu router is an early example of this post-WWII European technology.)

Festool woodworking products appear, initially, to be exorbitantly expensive. But that's because we?re still thinking in terms of Bigger Is Better and more expensive than smaller, lighter, easier to set up and use, but just as effective, hand-held power tools and unfamiliar, standardized benches, jigs, fixtures and guides that go with them as part of a System. For much of woodworking's "Heavy Iron" (big-footprint, awkward, heavy cast-iron machines), their days are numbered. Elegant and efficient will replace the early to mid 20th century American woodworking machines. And that comes just in time. The Greening of the World will benefit from this change.

Pluralism and the Democratization of Taste

My research on, broadly, the amateur woodworking movement, has alerted me in a variety of ways to the democratizing role of "good design" in furniture, from whatever perspective, traditional or modern, would have a levelling effect on "taste in furniture styles".

My quote in the box below comes from a British source, not from an American one -- and, if I can put it in the following way without causing too much confusion, I think that the differences between these two societies are greater than the similarities -- at the same time, I could not help but see the term "pluralism" as a marker indicative of the sentiment that broadly emerged in America out of the cessation of hostilities and peace agreements of World War II.

Example: In the 1950s, and later, programs that propelled WW II veterans more solidly into the Middle Class, the GI Education Bill and home ownership, also had definite influences upon the democratization of taste, a theme that I am -- with difficulty -- attempting to flesh out. (I know that "democratization in taste" happened, but it is a problem locating the "smoking gun" evidence that proves this understanding beyond a doubt. )

Pluralism 1960-92

The recent past has seen an even greater concentration of attention on domestic furnishings and interiors than before. The awareness occurs in the form of a plethora of magazines, part [sic] works, radio and television coverage, as well as academic interest in the social, political, economic and technological aspects of furniture and home design. ... [T]here has been an enormous growth in the range of choices or options that are now available to the consumer. This has included advice as well as objects themselves. Ultimately however, furnishing decisions have to be made by individuals and the interior then becomes a statement of the owner.

Source: Clive D. Edwards, Twentieth-Century Furniture: Materials, Manufacture and Markets Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994, page 191

Back to Chapter 7