Are CNC machines cheating? Is pocket hole joinery real woodworking?

Pocket screws. Dovetail jigs. Laser cutters. CNC machines. What do these things have in common? These are a few of the things considered “cheating” by a lot of woodworkers. 

 

Before I jump in, I want to remind you that anyone can get started in this hobby without a lot of money or space using my Woodworking for Mere Mortals approach. And I want you to take your first step on this journey today by downloading my free guide to setting up a woodworking shop for under $1000. Just head on over to mytoollist.com

Pocket hole joinery

Any time I use pocket hole joinery in a project video, I’ll get comments from people telling me that I need to learn “real” joinery techniques or that I’m not a “real” woodworker. Aside from the fact that this channel exists to help beginners get started, not to showcase my ego projects and flex my skills, the very idea that the way a project is built defines woodworking is very narrow-minded. 

CNC Machines

And while CNC machines are outside the focus and mission of Woodworking for Mere Mortals, you don’t have to look very hard to find similar comments directed at woodworkers who use CNCs in their videos. “Just pushing a button is not woodworking.” Aside from the fact that making components with a CNC machine is a lot more involved than just “pushing a button”, the implication here is that the more difficult something is, the more valid it is. There’s still a bit of bro-culture in woodworking that accounts for some of this, but I think it’s a little deeper.

Technique Shaming

I’m not sure exactly when technique shaming started, but it’s much more common on Youtube today than it was 10 or even 5 years ago. It probably has a lot to do with the tribal nature of social media these days, the hypercritical way we view everything, and this manic compulsion to offer an opinion on everything online. 

By definition, cheating is “to act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage.”

So I find the notion of “cheating” in this context to be puzzling. Woodworking is not a sport with winners and losers. 

The question is, “Who is being cheated by the woodworking techniques we choose to use?” The end-user? As long as the piece is sturdy and functional, how it was built is irrelevant. The main consideration for a user is if the piece is aesthetically pleasing. Again, the tools used to build it are of little or no concern to a person who loves the look of the nightstands you made. 

The best version of yourself is defined only by you.

“If a computer is involved, it’s not real woodworking.”

I suspect a lot of the anti-CNC opinion is based on a lack of understanding of what a CNC router actually does. In short, you design shapes on your computer and the CNC cuts them out exactly using a router. It allows for a much higher degree of precision and repeatability than you can get by using a jigsaw or other tool. Of course you can do a lot more with a CNC, but that’s the basic idea. 

Maybe the fear is that computer-aided tools will eventually replace regular power tools. I won’t be surprised if someday they are common in most shops, but there will always be people who prefer using traditional power tools. Just like you can still buy handsaws even though table saws exist. 

“Regular people are being priced out of the hobby.”

This is actually an understandable concern and one that I talk about frequently on Woodworking for Mere Mortals. First of all, keep in mind that most of the time when you see a large YouTube channel using a CNC, laser cutter and other expensive tools, chances are the manufacturer sent them that for free. It’s an effort by tool companies to normalize and mainstream expensive purchases. The more you see people using high-end tools the more you might assume they are necessary.

You don’t need to buy into the marketing hype to enjoy woodworking. I feel very passionate about teaching people to make awesome projects without high-end tools and thousands of people who have taken my courses are a testament to the fact that affordability is fun! 

But it’s also worth noting that the prices of CNCs and other computerized tools are far more affordable than they were a few years ago. You certainly won’t be priced out of woodworking and today you actually have more and more affordable choices available if you choose to digitize your shop. It’s a great time to be a woodworker! 

“Pocket hole joinery is for people who don’t know how to make real joints”

This is an arrogant reaction that you see in all fields. “Hip hop dance is for people who can’t learn real dance moves”. “Punk music is for people who can’t appreciate real music”. “Abstract artists are people who never learned how to paint.” “Horror films are made by hacks without talent to make real movies.” Well la-di-da 

The implication here is that there is a naturally imposed hierarchy of social value and acceptability to weed out the riff raff. It might seem strange, but woodworking is not immune to this silliness. 

“Yeah, but pocket screws create weak joints.”

The underlying myth here is that the main test of quality is durability. I’ve seen a number of “strength test” videos, challenges and “shootouts” on YouTube comparing pocket hole joints to traditional joints. I won’t argue the results: a mortise and tenon will produce an undeniably strong connection but comparing these two types of joints is a waste of time. A better question that needs to be asked is, how much strength does a given piece of woodworking require for it to be sturdy and functional? 

A 3 ton pickup is much stronger than a Toyota Camry, but they both work equally well for a quick trip to the supermarket. 

Quality furniture needs to be durable, not necessarily indestructible. Build with the end use in mind. If creating heirlooms is your passion, then go for it! But not everyone shares that goal.

“Anyone could make that using those tools”

This is a super common comment made by people with fragile egos who feel tools or techniques define a craftsman’s prowess. In a recent video I made called, “How to make a basic box”, a large number of comments were exactly this. People somehow expecting me to use hand tools.

“Its stupid that you’re making a video for beginners but you’re using your 1000$ table saw.”

Pretty funny considering my woodworking approach is decidedly low budget. (Clearly, they need to download my tool buying guide!) I think the public assumption is that the entry point for woodworking is hand tools, then you advance to power tools. This simply isn’t true. Not to mention that modern hand tools are often more expensive than power tools! 

Another aspect of this might have to do with a fear that making things is out of the reach of all but the wealthy. The belief that there’s a high financial entry barrier to woodworking or the fear that if you’re already a woodworker, you’ll get left behind, not having the latest tools. 

Take a deep breath

Look, we live in a great time where more people than ever are taking up woodworking as a hobby. And it’s more diverse in every way imaginable. Gone are the days when there were “proper” ways to make things. Gone are the days when a shop teacher would bark at you for setting a plane down the wrong way. Gone is the expectation of putting in years of tedious practice before seeing woodworking results. 

Let’s all embrace the variety in this hobby and appreciate methods that might be different from your own. Hey, woodworking is a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon no matter how you choose to approach it. 

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