The allure of tools

Over the weekend I helped my brother install chair rail and wainscoting around his entire downstairs. I’ve done chair rail before, but I’d never done wainscoting. Still, I had a decent idea of how it was supposed to be done, so I was happy to help.

He has a relatively new house, so compared to my antique home, the walls would be straighter and easier to do the work on I figured. For the chair rail I simply set up the power mitre saw on a workbench in the garage and proceeded to make cuts as we needed them. We didn’t need to batch cut anything because we were mostly able to use full length pieces or cut sections to fit between windows and so on. It took about five hours to complete that stage, and we went to bed feeling pretty satisfied with our work.

The next morning we started on the wainscoting. For each section of wall we would be building picture frame-like boxes out of quarter round stock. I figured that this would be a great time to batch process parts. After all, new walls ought to lead to consistent heights for the boxes and I could simply cut thirty or forty vertical pieces quickly. So, first I set out to make a jig for the mitre saw. That required a run to the local hardware store for wood.

I’m still cautious so I measured the first vertical piece by hand and discovered it was no small task to cut on the saw. First you had to measure the length and cut the piece square. Then you had to rotate the saw to 45 degrees to trim one end. And then you had to rotate it 45 degrees in the other direction and trim the other end. Each time you rotate the mitre saw (which is older and not well oiled), it takes time and effort. The process of cutting even a couple vertical pieces was slow. Then, I’d have to walk up from the garage with the piece, check that it fit well and if not go back down and trim it again and come back up and down and up and down…

It took a really long time just to do the first three boxes. I finally said to my brother, go to the hardware store and buy a manual mitre box and saw. I could bring this little device into the room we were working on. Yes, each cut (the actual act of cutting a piece) took far longer, but consider all the waste I was able to remove from the process. I no longer had to walk up and down the stairs to the garage. I could simply measure the piece, walk a few steps to the mitre box, cut it and walk a few steps to check the fit. Setup of the mitre box is practically instantaneous. Simply pick the saw up and rotate it to one of the sets of slots for an angled or straight cut. No writing anything down. Since I don’t have to remember the length while I walk down to the garage, I no longer needed to write down the length of the cut. If I forgot by the time I got to the mitre box the cost of remeasuring was low.

By switching from a power mitre saw to a manual mitre box I saved a ton of time and effort. There’s a certain allure to power tools that isn’t always justified. The setup costs and limits on where you can put them can more than offset the advantage of one quick cut. It’s a great example of why you have to consider the whole process when designing a solution. Speeding up a tiny part of the process may incur costs that undo the benefit and then some.

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