Intermediate Technology In The Shop

Inspiration from E.F. Shumacher and “Small Is Beautiful”

                                                                                                            Harry Bryan 2019


( This article was originally published in issue #8 of Mortise and Tenon Magazine)


     In the early 1970s my wife and I moved to rural New Brunswick, Canada.  Our goals were to build a home and a boat shop, plant a garden and live a lifestyle with as little negative impact on the earth as we could manage.  A major inspiration for this decision had been the reading of “Living the Good Life” by Helen and Scott Nearing.  We took to heart their dictate that if you want something done, you should do it yourself.  We continue to be grateful for the example that they set, and for the new skills we learned by adhering to that advice. Our shop and house are built of stone using the slip form method practiced by the Nearings.  However, everyone’s comfort level is different and we have chosen to employ a greater level of technology than the Nearings, an intermediate level if you will.  We hoped in this way to place our lifestyle closer to the norm so that, if our path had merit, it would be easier for others to follow those ideas that resonated with them.

     “Small Is Beautiful”, published in 1973 (one year after we moved into an unelectrified and uninsulated house that had been abandoned for forty years), could not have come at a better time.  With hand sawn and split firewood, kerosene lighting, our water buckets carried from a nearby spring, and an outside walk to the outhouse, we embraced any encouragement that our path, so different from the norm, led in the right direction.  When that reassurance came from E.F. Schumacher, a respected economist in a pin striped suit, it seemed to carry with it an extra level of legitimacy.

        Without the insights in “Small Is Beautiful”, I would never have had the temerity to question whether the direction western economics has taken us might be a roadblock to a good life.    Ernst Schumacher was a Rhodes Scholar in economics, and the chief economist for the British Coal Board.  He spent much of his free time in Burma studying Buddhism and, being an economist, speculated on what an economy would look like if designed with Buddhist thinking.  “The modern economist”, he reasoned, “is used to measuring the ‘standard of living’ by the amount of annual consumption, assuming all the time that a man who consumes more is ‘better off’ than a man who consumes less.  A Buddhist economist would consider this approach excessively irrational: since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption.” 

    Schumacher uses an exercise in basic math to show that technology has allowed us to reduce the time spent on actual production of goods to such a tiny amount that it becomes insignificant.  The prestige of being a producer, as a consequence, has greatly diminished.  If we can re-think efficiency, says Schumacher, and increase the hours and workers involved in production, we could have enough time to “make a really good job of it, to enjoy oneself, to produce real quality, even to make things beautiful.” 

     For a young craftsman seeking encouragement in following a different path, these were and continue to be, powerful words.

     Schumacher’s aim was to help developing nations by providing aid that employed the greatest number of people.  If, for instance grain was being harvested with scythes and a development agency provided a combine harvester, one man could operate the machine while many others would be put out of work.  Schumacher argued for an intermediate technology that would increase production and allow more people to enjoy meaningful employment.  Although his use of the term “intermediate technology” was exclusively aimed at the developing world, his writings suggest that he felt an equal need for this concept to be applied to the developed world.  

     We, too, have felt the need to question the direction that technology is taking us and to take a stand against the ever increasing use of machines (especially of robotics) that are designed to increasingly remove humans from creative and productive work. 

    We are “off the grid” in our shop and could, with enough solar panels and batteries, have all the power tools that most grid tied shops enjoy.  However, I feel strongly that without a change from our present growth-above-all mandate we cannot reach a sustainable balance on earth no matter how many wind generators or photovoltaic cells are employed.  As right as it seems to embrace “green energy”, a field of solar panels is not as beautiful as a field of daisies, and a horizon of wind generators can never rival that of maples  and evergreens.  To be truly sustainable, our welcome switch to renewable energy must be accompanied by a reduction in the energy we use at the present time.

   The intermediate technology employed in or shop has been a search for techniques and technology that reduce energy yet still allow us to turn out a product that is competitive in the marketplace.  It will be better still if that technology also improves the work environment or promotes a closer bond with tools and materials.

     To judge whether or not to use (or purchase) a power tool, I have found it useful to use a factor of two.  If a power tool can do the work twice as fast, with subtractions for time to earn the tool’s purchase money, energy costs, and time for setup and maintenance, then I will contemplate its use.  Using twice as fast as a determining factor is somewhat arbitrary and I am not ridged about this.  However, I believe that the exercise is worthwhile in order to become aware of the balance of power used compared with the power needed.  Woodworking machines that pass the factor-of-two test and seem to deliver the greatest “saving” of time in our boat shop are the thickness planer, band saw for heavy work, or a table saw to cut long rabbets in hardwood.  On the other hand almost all crosscutting of wood can be done quickly and accurately by hand.   We have never used a power sander in our shop.  If our standard was to sand all surfaces to a 220 grit perfection, I might admit that the required smoothness would be achieved in less than half the time with power.  By keeping the thickness planer and hand planes sharp, and by choosing to leave some surfaces unsanded, others hand sanded to 100 or 120 grit, and by using semi-gloss paint, I doubt whether power sanding is twice as fast, and I know that, with hand work there is less dust and noise in the shop. 

     One form of intermediate technology employed in our shop, the human powered machine, provides an alternative to both the hand tool and the power tool. At this time, our tools in this category include a treadle powered band saw, a hand cranked drill press, a pedal bench grinder, and treadle metal lathe.  The lathe and drill press are probably over one hundred years old and were manufactured to be human powered.  The 12” band saw is of more recent manufacture and came to me with a ¼ horsepower electric motor.  Each of these tools is employed frequently. However, I will describe the band saw in some detail as it is by far the most used. 

     The saw is mounted on a purpose built stand equipped with wheels.  Without an electric cord, it can be easily moved around the shop or into an adjoining room.  In place of the v-belt pulley driving the lower wheel is a cluster gear/freewheel mechanism from a 10 speed bicycle.  A bike chain connects the freewheel sprocket to the treadle in such a way that for every one inch of treadle movement there is two inches of chain movement at the sprocket.  This gives a higher speed to the saw and a better balance of power available to power needed.  As the treadle is depressed, it spins a spool, winding up a cord which flexes a spring.  The energy stored in the spring returns the treadle to its starting position.  Four small lead weights are screw fastened to the perimeter of the band saw’s lower wheel.  These give mass to the aluminum wheel and help smooth out the discontinuous application of power.

     What is the point of this conversion?  Why take a functioning electric saw and reduce the power available to it, effectively limiting the speed of cutting in heavy material?  Curiosity is one reason.  I knew that the narrow blade and widely spaced teeth (three teeth per inch in this case) of band saws allowed them to cut with less power than wide bodied or fine tooth saws and I wanted to see if this partly made up for the reduction in available energy.  I have been surprised at how fast this tool can cut wood.  When sawing softwood up to 1” in thickness, or up to ¾” in hardwood, the treadle saw is as fast as the electric version, because both tools must be slowed down from their maximum speed capability in the service of accuracy.  Heavier cuts demand incremental progress, advancing only on the foot’s down stroke.  This action mimics that of a hand saw.  It is still the quickest way to rough out a heavy locust cleat.

     One way to consider the usefulness of this tool is to contrast it to its hand equivalent, the bow saw or frame saw.  The bow saw has a blade similar to a band saw, tensioned by a twisted cord in a wooden frame.  While this is an excellent tool, it is difficult to keep the blade cutting at a precise right angle to the surface of the work.  This is no small problem as, depending on the skill of the craftsman, he must stay away from the line he is sawing for fear of undercutting on the back side of the work.  The accurate control of the angle of cut relative to the work’s surface that is built into a machine is what makes the treadle saw different from its hand counterpart. This allows cutting close to the line with a significant reduction of subsequent work. 

     A recent use of this saw may help to explain its practicality.  We have been putting wood shingles on the side of a small building and found that we needed many shingles shortened by the same amount as we reached the top of the wall.  I gathered up the needed quantity of full length shingles and took a five minute walk from the job site to the shop and table saw.  After a few minutes of setup, I turned on the saw and started cutting.  It quickly became apparent that, in order to work safely with this tool, I could not work fast.  Therefore, the saw was actually cutting for only a small fraction of the time that it was running.  The rest of the time, the shop’s batteries were being depleted.  At one point, a moment of inattention caused the saw to bind.   Luckily a shot of adrenaline was the only consequence, yet it was enough to cause me to realize the excessive power I was using compared to what was needed.  I switched to the pedal saw and finished the job faster and with greater safety.  In retrospect, given the ten minutes of time required to walk to the shop and back, the job would have been done most efficiently on site with a hand saw.   

      Our shop power is a mix of human power, photovoltaic panels, and fossil fuel.  In deciding how big our off grid system should be, I have tried to keep in mind Schumacher’s words in has chapter on Peace and Permanence.   When wondering whether universal prosperity is possible, he asks, “Is there enough to go around”?  He points out that the modern economist has no concept of enough.  “There are poor societies which have too little; but where is the rich society that says ‘Halt! We have enough’?  There is none”. 

    Our system has 500 watts (.5 KW) of solar panel capacity.  From this we power lights in the shop and our home, a freezer, small table saw, charge batteries for cordless tools, as well as run two computers and other electronics.  There is a backup generator used infrequently to boost battery levels after several overcast days.  In the shop a small diesel engine runs the large band saw and thickness planer, two machines that would take an inordinate amount of power from our small system.  I am acutely aware of our fossil fuel use through watching the gas or diesel gauges and having to take the fuel containers to town occasionally for a refill.  I sense the waste and pollution I create if the band saw is running while it is not cutting wood.  We turn off lights, not only because we should, but because we have to unless we choose to purchase more panels and batteries to power the waste. 

     For over thirty years we had no table saw in the shop.  It became a matter of pride that we could call ourselves a commercial boatbuilding shop and not have this nearly universal “must have” tool. If there was a significant amount of ripping to do we used the diesel powered band saw.  We now have a small table saw powered with a 1/6 horsepower electric motor.  The diameter of a circular saw has much to do with its energy requirement so we usually use a 7 1/4” blade instead of the 8” that the machine was designed for. Depowering it from the ¾ HP motor it came with allows a better fit with our modest system as the saw can be run on the energy supplied through the batteries and inverter.    Many jobs that were done using the large diesel powered band saw can now be done with solar generated electricity.  While no power tool, especially a table saw, can be considered safe, I have a distinctly calmer feeling when using this saw than I do using a Delta Unisaw. Dangerous kickback, for instance, is nearly eliminated. Although strictly a power tool, I feel this saw is an example of intermediate technology, intermediate in any case between what we have come to accept as needed power and the one tenth horsepower considered to be the maximum sustainable power output of a human. 

     I have a copy of Kenneth L. Cope’s reprint catalog, American Foot Power and Hand Power Machinery.  In this publication Cope lists 148 different manufacturers of human powered machines.  One of the most prolific companies, W.F. and John Barnes offered over forty different machines including scroll saws, router tables, table saws, grinding and polishing machines, and over seventeen different wood and metal lathes.  The heyday of this technology was the forty years from 1880 until 1920.  As electrification gradually spread to rural areas, these machines were no longer made and many existing examples discarded treadles and flywheels in a conversion to electric power.  Now that the search is underway for ways to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels, it may make sense to see what was learned in this era of intermediate technology. 

     I do not intend that the specific tools or methods that we employ in our shop should be a blueprint for others.  We are searching, as are many people today, for a way to modify our lives in order to reduce our impact on the natural world.  Surely, ever increasing growth and speed are not sustainable.  Good thoughts are not enough.  We must do something and it is my sincere hope that the concept of intermediate technology will help to set us on the right path. 

    E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful continues to be an inspiration for me and I therefore end with his own words:

     “It is too often assumed that the achievement of western science, pure and applied, lies mainly in the apparatus and machinery that have been developed from it, and that a rejection of the apparatus and machinery would be tantamount to a rejection of science.  This is an excessively superficial view.  The real achievement lies in the accumulation of precise knowledge, and this knowledge can be applied in a great variety of ways, of which the current application in modern industry is only one.  The development of an intermediate technology, therefore, means a genuine forward movement into new territory, where the enormous cost of production methods for the sake of labor saving and job elimination is avoided and technology is made appropriate for labor surplus societies.”