There you are, humming right along on a rather repetitive operation, when you think, “You know, I could make a jig that would help speed this along. But, I would have to stop doing this to actually make the jig, and I’ll be done soon enough this way.” If you’ve been woodworking for any appreciable length of time, I am sure you have had this thought roll through your mind. Professionals will all intone, “Make the Jig!”, while the hobbyists will cry, “I have limited space and no production schedule pressing me, so this way is just fine!” And they both are right, but for different reasons.
As a professional woodshop, Doobly-Do Wood Works has considerably more space available, a production schedule that must be met and the need for quick, accurate repetition. Yet, we still do this same cost-benefit analysis before we make a jig or a machine for our shop. That last part is also the value analysis of any jig: Accuracy, Repeatability and Speed. The cost analysis is: Time, Space and Usage.
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” — Abraham Lincoln
Creating a (proper!) jig for an operation drives out variability in the resultant parts. This makes for better glue-ups, tighter finished assemblies and overall higher quality products from your work. Just as a novice learns to cut all the pieces of the same dimension from the same tablesaw set-up (for example) so the pieces are identical, a jig basically freezes that ‘set-up’ in time, so it can be used over and over again.
As with accuracy, the ability to do the same operation over and over again, the same way over and over again, is an often overlooked benefit to using jigs. In a production woodshop, it is absolutely invaluable, but the weekend woodworking warrior can employ these same principles. In fact, if you are producing anything on a regular basis, say for an Etsy shop or an Ebay shop or a flea market stall or a shopping mall kiosk, I would argue the hobbyist’s need for repeatability is identical to a production shop.
The weekend hobbyist has the luxury of time. When one is making a project for themselves or their own home, it’ll get done when it gets done. But attach a monetary incentive to the production and suddenly, “how fast can I produce how many,” becomes an all consuming question. Even in personal projects, speed is valuable (even if misunderstood). If you get this one done faster, how many other projects could you get done in your limited, valuable time?
But what will Accuracy, Repeatability and Speed cost you?
Assuming you don’t buy a jig from a manufacturer (ew!) and you have useable materials on hand, a jig will cost you time to design and build. A jig isn’t intended to be a show piece, so form can be ignored for function and expediency, but it still takes time to build. This means you aren’t working on the project you intended while you are building the jig. But will the time saved making the remainder of the parts be worth the time spent making the jig? The hobbyist must answer this for themselves, but for the production shop the answer is almost always a resounding, “Yes!”
A jig, once made, must be stored, and this means it will take up some amount of space, somewhere, in your shop. If you are working in a basement or a garage workshop, real estate is at an insane premium. But even if there is more space available like in a production woodshop, the business discipline against waste in all its forms makes the calculus the same. The decision to make and store a jig, and therefore sacrifice the space the jig will use up, is also tied to the last cost, Usage.
The most important cost aspect of a jig is the question, “How often will I use this jig again in the future?” If the part the jig makes will be regularly produced, then the space is well spent to make and store the jig. If the jig is a single-use case, then there is no sense in storing the jig and it should be broken down back to scrap when the intended purpose is complete. This means the Time factor becomes the controlling factor in the jig-making decision process.
If you do decide to spend the time and space to make a jig to perform an operation with fast, repeatable accuracy, give one last thought to the future usage of the jig. Even a single-use jig could be worthwhile based on the decision factors enumerated above; however, if the jig is ‘one-and-done’ then I would suggest forgoing glue and just using screws during assembly. The jig can then be broken down back to scrap when the operation is complete.
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Mike @ Doobly-Do Wood Works