The master craftsman puts a critical eye to his work - a hand-bound book - and isn't satisfied. Once again, he takes up his bevel, and scrapes away another micrometer of paper. He blows the dust away, sets the book down on his workbench, and looks at it again... It's good enough, he thinks. He places the new book on a shelf next to other masterpieces of ornate and intricate books.

Ok, so I chose books for the image above, but it could have been anything from a shiny metal part of a car's engine, or a cog wheel from an antique pocket watch, or a simple rough-cut wooden table. My point is the craftsman. What ever happend to the reverence of hand-crafted items? Whatever happened to the reverence of the crafters themselves? Craftsmanship has been relegated to garages and hobby time. It's a sad statement that is quite true, especially since the insta-buy-wear-toss mindset has been fully adopted by the masses. Nobody has the patience for handiwork, custom jobs, unique pieces.

I may feel such loss much more strongly because I went through school without ever seeing anything remotely close to the American 'Shop Class'... Here, the 'men' of my city are only 'men' if they make tons of money as private investors for the über-rich. No getting dirt under their fingernails. That's for 'peasants'. Yuck. What an awful attitude.

So it's this withdrawal of the workshop that has elevated the concept of craftsmanship to such a holy art in my mind, as an integral part of what 'real men' are capable of, born to do. It's about the persistent quest for perfection, even though we consciously know that perfection is imperfect. It's about having control over the raw materials we use, about working them into the form we want. It's about a keen attention to detail, and the finest control over our own motions, and being happily absorbed in our process of creation.

Time I got me a den equipped with a workbench and all the tools I could need.

Who's a craftsman here?

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Comment by Thomas White on August 26, 2009 at 3:48am
Wow. Thank you for such an erudite reply :)
I followed it up with a search for some comprehensive list of occupations, and came across this:
http://www.worldthroughthelens.com/family-history/old-occupations.php
Quite interesting (only if you find that kind of thing interesting like I do... lol)
Comment by Sean on August 25, 2009 at 9:14pm
Good question. First off, no, woodworking is not the only craft. As for what constitutes a craft today... that is a little trickier. Let me begin by appealing to history. In days of yore it was simple to tell what was a craft. The people who practiced a craft had guilds. There were tailors guilds, blacksmith guilds, glazier's guilds, stone masons, bakers, painters, sculptors, engravers, printers and so on. In England, the woodworkers craft was subdivided. You had the sawyer's guild, the turners guild, the joiners and so on. The job of the guilds was to support their members, share in knowledge and see that it was passed on, and to maintain their monopoly over their craft. Around the time of the rpinting press and later, you begin to run into books entitled "The Art of (fill in the blank)". 'Art' at that time meant something closer to what we mean by 'craft' or better yet, 'technique'. (In fact, the Greek word translated as 'art' is 'techne', from which the word technique comes.)

What I am trying to point out, among other things, is the use of the terminology. First, 'craft' in the old sense was usually used in the context of a practice which belonged to a guild, of which there many, including many which we would not consider as a craft today. Our word 'craft' as used today refers to something those in the past would refer to as 'art'.

Now, as to what is a craft today... I would say that, in a sense, virtually anything that can be done may be done well, and done to the point that it may be a craft. A craftsman, or an artisan or an artist, often differs only in degree of his devotion to his task, not in kind. Michaelangelo did what many others did, only better. Tilman Riemenschneider was one of many skilled woodcarvers, only better. Someone who devotes themself to their task at hand, whatever it may be, may possibly raise that task to a greater level of perfection, and themselves to a craftsman.
Comment by Thomas White on August 25, 2009 at 10:17am
Thank you for the valuable input Michael - the obituary is quite inspiring.

Here's another question for you readers: Do you see woodworking as being /the/ ultimate craft? When one thinks of a craftsman, does the image of a carpenter spring to mind first? What other memorable or noteworthy crafts are there? Could calligraphy, for example, be among them? Or does one have to build something in order for it to be considered a craft... ?
Comment by Michael on August 24, 2009 at 12:12pm
I also wanted to point out a fine craftsman, Sam Maloof, who's studio is a few miles from my home. Sam passed away a while back. Here is a link to his obituary. http://www.latimes.com/news/obituaries/la-me-sam-maloof23-2009may23,0,3907018.story Might be good for an article for the site.
Comment by Michael on August 24, 2009 at 12:10pm
I grew up watching This Old House and the New Yankee Workshop on pbs as a kid. I started getting tools in college and now have a shop in my garage. I don't do it for a living, as Sean pointed out, that is a difficult task to accomplish. However, I do build the furniture for the house, including our dining table and numerous built in cabinets, as I find closet doors to be hideous and prefer to build out the closets.

The interesting thing that I have found is my wife's realization as to how long things take. She couldn't understand how I could be working for several hours and have, in her mind, so little to show for it. I had her come out and help me put a face frame on a cabinet I was making. Cutting, sanding, scraping, more sanding, more scraping, until everything was just right. Glue up and then more sanding, etc. When we were done, she had a new appreciation for the process. She doesn't bother me much about the time anymore.

As stated, I believe the decline in the appreciation of craftsmanship goes hand in hand with our disposable minded society. Attached the marketing machines and many people believe Ikea truly is fantastic furniture. I also find, most people don't know what makes a piece of furniture worth its price. Carcass construction, materials, drawer construction, etc all play part in a piece of furniture that will last 200 years versus 200 months (who am I kidding...days). All I can hope is to give my children an appreciation of value.
Comment by Thad on August 24, 2009 at 2:57am
Thomas,

The New Atlantis article has been expanded into a book. Just read it and while I don't agree with every point, his overall argument is very strong and I believe that many of his ideas should be shared with many teenagers looking towards their future.

Cheers!
Comment by Thomas White on August 24, 2009 at 2:20am
April,
In fact, I have read that article. I printed and keep it as a sort of manifesto I return to often when I feel alone in my love of craftsmanship :) Thank you for pointing it out here though - I hope more will have the pleasure of reading it too. About your company - congratulations! It sounds like a difficult but fascinating field. Good luck and best wishes for your endeavours.

Sean,

Pipe organs?! Ambitious, but so enlightening. You could mention that computers were inspired by the inner workings of pipe organs, and the mathematical logic behind their functions.
You're right about the books - in fact, I'd ordered a bunch of books from the 1800s and early 1900s which are exactly as you mention. I especially love the 'projects for boys' books because, as you said, they were complex, ambitious, and titillatingly dangerous. I wonder if a Craftsmanship group bears creating here in AoM? I know we'd at least already have three members... right April? :)
Once again, thank you both for your feedback. Any more craftsmen out there?
Comment by Sean on August 23, 2009 at 1:35pm
I'm an amateur galoot- hand tool woodworker- for about twenty years now. I prefer to use handtools for many reasons: they make me part of an ancient tradition; I like the feel of my grandfather's tools in my hands; they're less expensive and take up less room in my garage; they're healthier; I'm not worried about my daughters sneaking into my shop and removing a limb with a hand saw; and so on.

For a time I tried to make a living through selling my pieces, but ultimately it was futile. As unpalatable as it was, I was in competition with Ikea and with chains of stores which sell pieces made by child labourers in distant lands. People would compliment my pieces, but then say my prices, which by my estimate were ridiculously low, were far too high, and move on. Most of the craftsmen I know these days are making their real money teaching amateurs how to make their own pieces. I now only make peices of interest to myself and my family.

In addition to the decline in craftsmanship, I have noticed a decline in the books aimed at hobbyist craftsmen these days. There are many books out there onhow to use one tool, but few on how to run an integrated shop. There are many, many books out there instructing amateurs on how to make basic simple things, like birdhouses, but fewer explaining more complex and detailed projects. They detail projects for craftsmen witha low attention span, and give such a handyman a project they may complete in a day, or two at most. This point was driven home to me when I ran into a series of reprinted how-to books from the late 1800's to early 1900's. These books not only detailed basic projects, but also the most incredibly detailed and potentially dangerous projects- and these were aimed at boys! There was one book aimed at preteens which detailed plans on how to build several gliders, so a kid could could 'soar like the Wright brothers!' What's more, the authors believed kids could do it. What utter audacity, what foolishness to put that kind of knowledge in a child's hands, and how unspeakably cool.

I personally am working on a project based on plans from a book from the period which gives instructions on how to build a pipe organ. This will take years and is incredibly complex, but will be that much more satisfying when it is complete. The author, writing in a typical victorian erudite prose, tells the reader: "the greatest pains should be taken in the construction of every part, and all should be done as though one's life depended on the result." That is the aim of a true craftsmen.
Comment by april brooks on August 22, 2009 at 11:54am
I am starting a glass fiber reinforced concrete company, making handcrafted, one of kind pieces. I have NEVER used my brain this much before. I am constantly thinking of new ways to do things. Have you read this? http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/shop-class-as-soulcraft

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