Dividers and Manufacturing: Now With More WORDS!

Posted on 04 June 2017


“I could rival his work with access to a CNC mill.”

— forum comment c.2007 regarding a Wayne Anderson infill plane.

At this point, I don’t think it’s news that the Improved Pattern Dividers are giving us some (ahem) challenges. Chris posted last week about this, plus the fact that we’re likely to increase their price by a significant margin. It’s not a move we take lightly.

I’m going to delve into the reasons why in some detail here. I could give a bunch of feel good reasons why it’s the right thing to do for our customers, and how we want to operate transparently, and a bunch of other crap that – true or not – is more about manipulation than altruism.

The truth is simple, really: I like to talk about that sort of thing. It’s a perfect chance to explain some of what goes into this sort of tool, and why I think the sort of work we’re doing matters. Spoiler: It’s not because laying out dovetails is one of the great challenges confronting mankind.

I’ll talk more about the design process (months of work) developing the dividers later on. But first, let me take a stab at the first of several questions we receive.

Why don’t you just order more?

This gets to the heart of widespread misconceptions about production machining and CNC in general. The impression is that the work for CNC is all in the programming. After that, you load your raw material and press start. Then you come back later and pick up your finished parts. Reload material, and go.

It’s not a surprising belief, really. Most manufacturers tend to reinforce this idea – it makes them look as competent as their factory loadout. And lord knows that the machine and tooling manufacturers are constantly presenting this sort of ease as “finally here.”


The truth, of course, is a lot more complicated.

Leaving aside the competence and experience of the operators – and that is a spectacularly wide range – the first problem is simply the capacity of the machine. Before you begin making parts, there are a host of decisions to be made about quantities and timing. How many will you need, and how often? What sort of inventory do you need on hand, and how fast do you need to get parts once you order them?

In our case, the dividers are a fairly expensive product for a niche market. It’s also an expensive and difficult product to make, and there were a host of other factors specific to us (more on that, and on the cost and difficulty, to come) as well.

In the end, making these on a 3-axis vertical machining center (VMC – the most basic and common CNC mill in the manufacturing world) was the smart play. And once that decision was made, there were some incredibly robust limitations on the time-to-produce.

Specifically – the dividers require three distinct machine setups (plus an additional setup for initial stock prep) and fairly robust fixturing plates for each setup. That means there’s a lot of expense required for this means of manufacture.

This all adds up to a bottleneck in time-to-produce. And widening that bottleneck is not simple or inexpensive. It always means either additional equipment, or shifting to faster machines. Both are expensive propositions – and add plenty of risk for us, and also for the shop doing the work. Which means significant costs in resource management, in fixturing and programming, and in training.

In other words – an expensive product just got even more expensive, and a lot riskier.

If you’re sure that you can sustain those new production levels, then this usually makes sense. But if you’re looking at a tool with really high initial sales, which later slow down (which is quite common for tools), then those costs often are NOT covered by the fact that you sell so many more.

The overall summary is this: Changing the way we make these dividers carries a lot of costs, and a lot of risks. We’re not opposed to risks when they are smart. We bet a really nice American house worth of capital on the idea that we understood the problems with production better than the shops bidding on the job, and we set about learning the processes ourselves. That’s a big bet – but for us, it was a smart one.

Adding another pile of costs to the dividers at this point because demand is currently slaughtering supply, though, looks like a loser to us. So we’re not doing it.

In the world of conventional business wisdom, we may seem out to lunch. We’re risking angering customers here, and we should just take out a high-interest short-term loan to get dividers in front of you immediately. But business wisdom is also predicated on the idea that you (customers) are mindless buying machines with the attention span of a cocaine-addled fruit fly.

We are dedicated to doing business differently than the norm. We don’t believe in slick marketing, we don’t think the customer is stupid, or should be conned, and we don’t think short-term profits are king of anything but small minds. We refuse outside capital in part because it interferes with focusing on the long-term. And we’re playing the long game, because we think it’s crazy not to.

I think most of us in woodworking and tool making secretly wish the business world worked differently. We’re betting on it, in fact.

But the problem with running a business differently is that it often runs – differently. And sometimes that’s frustrating to customers. But we’re betting that the people who love the craft in the way we do will understand that.

Still to come:

  • What exactly makes these so “difficult” to make? Why not make them simpler? Are you (Raney) an idiot?
  • More about how we design, and why: Plus, 40 percent More PHILOSOPHY – FREE!
  • Do you love the dividers but can’t embezzle that much money from the discretionary fund? Just for you: a full tutorial on how to make them from scratch by hand. Cause I’m a people person.
— raney




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  • raney: June 07, 2017

    Dave -

    I take your point, and it is not something we didn’t consider in some detail with these. In part, though, I think the phrase ‘light treatment of sorts’ is part of the problem. I am hard pressed to think of an edge tool I’ve ever bought that actually came ready to use out of the box – In every case I can think of (with the exception of very high end custom-made tools – something I make in my other business) sharpening is most definitely necessary if you want them to work well.

    The trend over the past few decades has been more and more to gloss over the need for the user to tune and sharpen their own tools. And yes – in most cases their instructions will say something like ‘light honing’ or ‘some tuning’ rather than simply coming out and saying, bluntly: they still need to be sharpened. But to me, that has a lot more to do with marketing than reality.

    For a long time, the general quality of tools – hand tools especially – was in steady decline. Part of the reason was that customers’ general skill levels with the tools was also in decline, and frankly some of the largest makers (and I emphatically do NOT mean Lie-Nielsen in this comment) approached tool making from the assumption that their clients couldn’t tell the difference between a really well-functioning tool and a totally mediocre one. So their quality ‘focus’ was more about making them bright and shiny than functional fitness.

    So a hand plane or chisel that was rough ground at best was commonly shipped as ‘ready to use’. And it was also common for woodworker to own a hand plane or two, and maybe a chisel set, that they bought and subsequently abandoned to a drawer somewhere, thinking to themselves “hand tools are useless”. Because the owners had never learned to sharpen them.

    But that has changed significantly in the past decade or two. I think that today, very few people buying a quality plane or chisel would take a it from the box and use it as-is. But in my experience, that was basically the norm as recently as a decade ago.

    Am I overly flippant in person and videos? Yes, I often am. It’s probably not my best quality, and likely doesn’t help me in many cases. But it absolutely does NOT come from a place of disrespect for customers or their time. Seriously.

    What I was trying to say is this: we don’t think our customers are fools. In general, I’m confident most of them are extremely skilled. And I am totally confident nearly all of them could sharpen a blade very Well.

    We view sharpening dividers is a maintenance task, just as it is for edge tools. And I think it’s incredibly simple, given the skill set of our customers. But I also know it’s something most of them probably haven’t really considered. And that is at least in part because most of the compasses and dividers you can buy today are essentially disposable. They get dull, and they get replaced.

    So we think sharpening dividers is critical, it’s a simple task for our customers, but it’s something that probably needs some emphasis because it’s no longer common practice.

    We could sharpen these. But it would them more expensive them more expensive, and to our thinking it really adds no value to speak of, and it also reinforces the blind spot about maintaining dividers that is still fairly prevalent.

    And rather than say that, in video I used a more sarcastic and flippant comment, as I often do. But please know that it’s not remotely out of disrespect for your time, or your patronage.


  • Dave: June 07, 2017

    Just got a pair of improved pattern dividers. They feel great in my hands. I can easily envision them lasting my lifetime. I watched the videos on how to clock and sharpen. I tuned them to my liking but was really struck by the fact that they come virtually unusable out of the box. I have never purchased a quality tool that does not is some way expressly state that the product is ready to use out of the box but will benefit from some light treatment of sorts. Video statements like “frankly my shop fees are exorbitant” and/or “we expect you to sharpen them” are impossible for me to imagine, for example, Thomas Lie-Nielsen ever thinking let alone saying on a video. I don’t expect Crucible Tools to be anything except themselves but I do expect you all to think of me (all customers) as a valuable asset who’s time is also worthy of your respect.

  • Tony: June 05, 2017

    I once heard a very smart person from a very well established design firm make the comment , “Unless you’re Apple, and can afford to go buy 10,000 machines, CNC is not a mass production process”. I’m sure your design drove your process and every decision has trade offs. If some of us have to wait, so be it.

    One question: have y’all considered partnering to get through the initial supply issues or is that a loser based off your forecasting? There are some interesting companies out there like MakeTime (I have no financial connection to them) that are doing good work connecting small to medium machine shops with idle equipment to customers with machining needs. Almost like Uber for machine shops. It’s interesting stuff and they’re right down the road from that shaggy sasquatch you call a business partner. Not sure if that’s of any help at all but if nothing else thought you might find it an interesting future option.

  • Chris Schwarz: June 05, 2017


    Yup. Here is a video on that process:


  • Ted: June 05, 2017

    I just received my Improved Pattern Dividers last week. What an elegant piece of engineering – precise and incredibly solid in-hand. Bravo! I do have a question, though. The points came in roughly a “D” shaped profile (when viewed from the end) and you provided instructions for sharpening them. Do you recommend sharpening them into a conical point – or some other shape? Nice work, guys!

  • raney: June 05, 2017

    Hey Peter;

    Not to knock NYCCNC – I have seen a couple of his videos and I think he’s an excellent example of how to do YouTube well – but I’m a bit leery of the term ‘troubleshooting’.

    I get what you mean, but to me troubleshooting indicates something not working as it should. There is nothing malfunctioning here – it’s actually nothing new at all; this is what people do in manufacturing.

    What I’m hoping to do here is just explain some of what it is that MAKE manufacturing difficult, and why it requires expertise and craftsmanship. Because I think those things are largely opaque to the larger public. But our circumstances here -while they’re frustrating both to customers and to us – aren’t fixable. They are just what manufacturing IS.

    We’re on the learning curve part of that. But the curve isn’t really a technical one – meaning there is no ‘solution’ – it’s a matter of having the experience to make better predictions than we have.

    Would we make these differently if we did it over? Nope.

    Would we have waited a lot longer, and built up a lot more inventory before introducing them? Oh yeah.

    More to come on all that…

  • Peter: June 05, 2017

    This seems like a really difficult manufacturing problem, and my knowledge of G-code is limited. It would be interesting to see you work with someone like NY CNC to troubleshoot these manufacturing issues. It’s fascinating how collaborative CNC machining has become in the youtube world…

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