Most amazing woodworking tool

I have a good friend whose has spent a lifetime collecting arrowheads. He’s got scores of display cases with wonderfully colored flint tools, and many more boxes of broken cutting tools, stone hammers, axes, and various tools for grinding corn. Here’s a nugget of wisdom. Don’t be too quick to volunteer to help an arrowhead collector move. Anyone, whose collection is primarily made of stone, makes for a lot of heavy lifting. What never ceases to amaze me is how humans were able to take the most basic simple materials and create wonderful and useful objects. This brings me to my favorite woodworking tool, the lowly dividers. What could be simpler? A pair of pointed sticks joined at a fulcrum. No wires, chips, servo motors or sensors. Yet for centuries this simple tool was fundamental to science, art, and building (including crafting furniture).

I was pretty excited when the folks from Popular Woodworking Magazine contacted me about the upcoming Woodworking in America Conference this Oct 1st – 3rd in Cincinnati Ohio. Chris Schwarz wondered if I could put together a session on using dividers in the woodshop. Shazam! That sounds like fun. I’ve got more than a few tricks up my sleeve about how to use dividers to make quick and accurate (math free) layouts at your workbench. Most exciting of all is I plan on assembling some material to help you visualize how to “think proportionally”. After all, what makes dividers really powerful is they can be used to collect data, but not the kind of data we are used to. We are used to collecting numbers with a tape or digital calipers that help us comply with a plan or specifications. Dividers help us collect and manipulate proportions. How is this door frame in proportion to the raised panel? How is the thickest part of this leg proportioned to the thinnest and to the overall height? If sharpening is the touchstone for unlocking hand tool skills, using dividers i.e. thinking proportionally is the key to design.

George R. Walker

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10 Comments

Filed under Design Basics, proportions, tools

10 responses to “Most amazing woodworking tool

  1. Wow! Nice collection of dividers, George. Do you have, or have you ever used proportional dividers? I find that they take a good deal of the guess work out of determining proportions especially if they’re marked out (e.g., 1:2, 3:5, 2:3, 3:4, etc.).

    • John,

      Most of my dividers were originally part of a woodworkers or machinist tool kits. I haven’t run accross any proportional dividers yet but I am keen to find a pair and try them out.

      George

  2. I really enjoyed the article you wrote in the April issue of Popular Woodworking. I like ratios. I also like math. This post and the article were a joy to read. I like your collection of dividers too. Being completely new to woodworking I thought it was strange how excited I have found myself getting when I buy new measuring devices. Today I bought a Try Square, and I love it. Measuring and marking devices are wonderful.
    Now I feel compelled to collect dividing stuff too. :-)

    • Brian,

      Good to hear from you. One of the fun parts of this is that dividers are plentiful and quite reasonable. You can usually find a pair wherever antique tools are sold. I myself was issued my first pair of dividers 35 years ago when starting out as an apprentice machinist.

  3. Dan

    To be honest I don’t actually own a pair of dividers. However, ever so often I am seeing more possible uses. The WIA conference is a little far to travel, but I think it’s a great topic. I’d be keen to learn more.

  4. You can’t buy just one! Since we last talked, I have bought 3 new dividers in a range of sizes and 4 antique ones! Its a slippery slope!

  5. joe sullivan

    George:

    John Leko beat me to the punch in asking about proportional dividers. After asking about wall treatments a months or so ago I bought your first DVD and am now hot to get to the drawing board. I have a pair of proportionals that have not seen much use, but now will.

    There has been an extensive discussion of both proportional dividers and golden mean calipers on the Old Tool email list. The calipers are way cool, but the dividers will get you to the golden mean if that is what you want, but can also be set for other proportions. Mine have stops for every whole number ratio from 1:1 through 1:6, and fractional ratios by tenths from 1:1;1 through 1:1.9. On the other side they give the circumference for any radius or diameter, phi, and chords for 2,4,5,6,8,9,10,12,15,18, and 20 segments. I have no idea why they skip the chords for 7 and 11 segments or make the other jumps they do.

    • I’ve never really been a collector but if I’m not careful I may end up collecting dividers. These proportional dividers you reference are intrigueing. I also have seen vintage proportional dividers with fixed proportions. Not sure if they came in sets, it seems you would need quite a few. Or it’s just possible that in some crafts they might have had a few proportions that they used enough to justify a fixed proportional tool.

      George

      • joe sullivan

        Some are fixed, but many, like mine, can be set to whatever you want either through pins, friction, or rack and pinion.

  6. John Johnston

    George, with reference to proportional dividers, I have both of your DVDs and I’m trying to think about how proportional dividers might be used with regard to the ideas you demonstrate.

    I guess I would have expected that you have and use proportional dividers; so I’ll be interested to follow along and see if you get a set, and if so, how you incorporate them into your work, if at all. They are not an inexpensive tool, so I’ll be interested in your perspective on their utility in the design process.