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Craftsmanship - What constitutes craftsmanship? #1: Ruminations on the Art of Woodworking

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Blog entry by Mike_190930 posted 06-09-2021 07:48 AM 1175 reads 0 times favorited 15 comments Add to Favorites Watch
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I recently posted a small project, a wooden box built to hold my Veritas router planer. It was a quick utilitarian project to protect a valuable tool, with a little bit of flourish in the form of a bas relief decoration on the top. All in humble scrap pine. Mainly I posted it to keep my finger in the pot. It also happened that I built it with a homemade CNC (described elsewhere in my blog). Now it happens, and I say this without malice, one of the comments was “WOW. Nice craftsmanship?” Notice the question mark at the end. I don’t know if the comment was meant as a joke or a jibe, possibly a bit of both. But that got me to thinking about just what craftsmanship really is, at least in regards to woodworking.

Personally, I would not recognize that box as high craftsmanship, and I chuckled a little when I saw the question mark. Still, the box was square and sturdy, and suited the purpose it was made for. But the amount of hand work it took to make it was minimal, maybe half an hour for some small amount of chisel clean up, sanding, and glue up. The real hours were spent building the CNC (also utilitarian and not exactly pretty), and drawing out the shapes on the computer. Oh, and not screwing up the CNC setup, breaking a bit, or ruining a cut with some odd mistake. But does all that approach craftsmanship?

The word craftsman conjures up visions of a bearded old man bending over a carving, laboriously paring away slivers of wood to product a Baroque masterpiece, a one of a kind never to be duplicated wonder. Or perhaps, a fella hand planing every stick of a fine piece of furniture and fitting them together with hand chiseled mortises and tenons. I have respect rising to the level of reverence for such people. Yet there are countless examples of projects here that qualify, in my opinion, as great craftsmanship. Projects that were built with power planers and joiners, table saws and routers and power lathes. And yes, some with CNC machines. And I respect those folk equally as much.

So does the method of construction or the final result determine whether or not a piece shows craftsmanship? Just what is the nature of craftsmanship anyway?

Have I touched a nerve anywhere, or bored the daylights out of you? What say you, wood craftsmen and craft-ladies?

-- Huh? Whadaya mean it ain't "measure once cut twice"?



15 comments so far

View EarlS's profile (online now)

EarlS

4561 posts in 3468 days


#1 posted 06-09-2021 11:07 AM

As a hobbyist, my frame of reference regarding craftsmanship is whether I think I did good work. As you mentioned, a basic box doesn’t need the same amount of attention to detail as an inlaid cabinet. However, the quality of work is still essential. Poor quality work generally stands out, and not in a good way.

I always try to put my best effort into whatever I am making. When I don’t the results generally wind up in the trash or being re-worked until it meets my internal quality standard. You can lie to others, but you can’t lie to yourself.

BTW – I like the box. I need to make several like it for my various tools.

-- Earl "I'm a pessamist - generally that increases the chance that things will turn out better than expected"

View BlueRidgeDog's profile

BlueRidgeDog

837 posts in 899 days


#2 posted 06-09-2021 11:43 AM

Go read or re-read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”.

By definition craftsmanship is separate from design. You can have high values in one and low values in the other. I suggest the same can be said for materials. You can have high craftsmanship with low value materials. As such it is squarely in the execution. So you are down to “are the best means and methods used for the design and materials”.

My craftsmanship lags behind my skills as designer/artist and the materials I have on hand. There is another clue, craftsmanship grows and is s nurtured skill. To a certain degree it is a measure of accumulated experience and wisdom if you will.

View Rich's profile

Rich

6932 posts in 1710 days


#3 posted 06-09-2021 12:58 PM


“WOW. Nice craftsmanship?”

- Mike_190930

Don’t read so much into it. It’s a sincere compliment with poor punctuation. You’ll see that a lot on here.

-- Half of what we read or hear about finishing is right. We just don’t know which half! — Bob Flexner

View Sycamoray's profile

Sycamoray

82 posts in 361 days


#4 posted 06-09-2021 03:06 PM

I entirely agree with the sentiment that craftsmanship is not evaluated just by methods or results, but by the processes. At least, I think that’s what I got from Zen & the art of motorcycle maintenance.

The quality of work, often a reflection of skill and experience with the particular methods and materials, shows craftsmanship. But there is nothing inherently uncraftsly in mastering the CNC toolset nor is it more craftsly to cut dovetails using chisels made from steel you forged and fit with handles made from a lightning-felled tree. (I know this is reduction ad absurdem, I’m just having a little fun.)

Now if we were talking about the term “hand crafted,” that would be a much harder can of worms because of the compromises which suit each individual craftsman or crafts woman. Craftsperson? Just don’t start spelling it with an x somewhere.

Edit to add: Mike_190930 has demonstrated craftsmanship in my eyes with the particular box, regardless of how pretty the CNC machine itself is.

View Madmark2's profile

Madmark2

2844 posts in 1708 days


#5 posted 06-09-2021 03:29 PM

My father used to say that “Any shoemaker can make a job that took like it was done by a shoemaker, but only a craftsman can make a job that looks like it was built by a craftsman.”

Craft is attention to all the details. Craft is having an eye for material, line, form, proportion, and balance. Craft is putting quality first and knowing that there are no shortcuts to it. Craft is taking the time to do it right, but not to do it again. Craft is thinking before acting. Craft is the ability to make the difficult look effortless. Craft is having the right tools and having the skill & patience to use them properly. Craft is doing it right even when it doesn’t show.

Craft is from understanding that wood is a living material and not a dead static material like metal or plastic. It’s in understanding not only what wood will do in general, but also in knowing what this particular piece of lumber will do or look like.

Craft is treating the wood as the sacrifice and bones of a living thing — which it IS!

-- The hump with the stump and the pump!

View Mike_190930's profile

Mike_190930

38 posts in 628 days


#6 posted 06-09-2021 09:03 PM

“WOW. Nice craftsmanship?”

- Mike190930

Don t read so much into it. It s a sincere compliment with poor punctuation. You ll see that a lot on here.

- Rich

Not bothered at all by the comment or the punctuation. It did occur to me it was just that, mis-typed punctuation. But it was thought provoking nonetheless. Sometimes good things come from accidents too. Of all the things I think about during the repetitive moments in a project (think sanding), I was surprised to discover I had not consciously considered craftsmanship even though it turns out I was actively practicing it. Guess I had better find a copy of Zen and the Art…._

-- Huh? Whadaya mean it ain't "measure once cut twice"?

View Mike_190930's profile

Mike_190930

38 posts in 628 days


#7 posted 06-09-2021 09:08 PM

Thanks to all who saw and commented. Some great perspectives, eloquently expressed.

-- Huh? Whadaya mean it ain't "measure once cut twice"?

View Novamr99's profile

Novamr99

61 posts in 254 days


#8 posted 06-09-2021 10:35 PM

I agree with pretty much everything said above except:

Craft is from understanding that wood is a living material and not a dead static material like metal or plastic.

Madmark2 (Sorry. I don’t know how to make the little box these are supposed to go in.)

As a machinist by trade since 1980, I take a little umbrage at the suggestion that those who make things out of artificial materials can’t be craftsmen. I do have respect for the medium of wood and the wondrous projects that are made every day by insanely talented individuals across the globe. But what about all the welders? Blacksmiths?
Sculptors? Stained glass artisans? Glass blowers? Hell, even painters and musicians. And the list goes on.

Most of the same disciplines apply across the board. Patience, practice, persistence, passion, purpose, and alot of other P words, I’m sure. The medium of wood alone does not a craftsman make.

I understand that the title of the blog is about Woodworking, but Craftsmanship covers a wide spectrum.

-- That's not an optical illusion, it just looks like one.

View Madmark2's profile

Madmark2

2844 posts in 1708 days


#9 posted 06-09-2021 11:39 PM

Wasn’t imputing machinist skills. I admire and aspire to be able to metalwork 1/100th as well as I woodwok.

The comment is about the nature of the material. Metal has grain but is essentially uniform in ways that wood can never be. One chunk of 5150 is essentially identical with any other similarly sized 5150. But the same cannot be said for wood.

Each board is unique to the life it lived as it grew. The grain and structure is a record of the growing seasons, winds, soils, and how it was felled, milled, dried and ultimately finished. Each piece is necessarily unique in its own way. They may be interchangeable but they cannot be identical.

Wood, more than metal or plastic, has shapes it wants to be in. When a project will stand on its own during dry fit the piece will be happy to hold that form. Fight with the grain and the grain will ALWAYS win by splitting, cracking, warping, wracking, twisting, cupping and generally doing what the wood wants rather than what YOU want.

Tell me that metal does that to anywhere near the scale of wood.

Machinists do magic with their medium (witness “Forged in Fire”). Their magic comes from mixing metals, you can’t amalgamate wood. You can’t treat a knot as a slight impurity to be melted and mixed into the matrix of the wood as you can with a nickle slug tossed into a vat of molten steel.

Many artists do wonderful things, but what other medium has been ALIVE? What creature was smelted to make metal? What critter was fused to make glass? No, wood was once alive. It has SPIRIT. Ask any Amerind or Druid. You can feel the life in wood that just isn’t there in metal, plastic, glass or clay. Stone has history but not life.

Its about the different nature of the materials, not the differences in the workman. Metal can and is finely crafted, but in a completely different genre. The techniques are as unique as the materials.


Unglued wall clock frame holding together by joinery only.
Back slides out and holds the clock by gravity.
Clock falls apart into six pieces including dial and mechanism.

-- The hump with the stump and the pump!

View Novamr99's profile

Novamr99

61 posts in 254 days


#10 posted 06-10-2021 12:24 AM

You still haven’t granted Craftsman status to any but Woodworkers.

-- That's not an optical illusion, it just looks like one.

View sansoo22's profile

sansoo22

1676 posts in 775 days


#11 posted 06-10-2021 12:49 AM



Many artists do wonderful things, but what other medium has been ALIVE?

- Madmark2

Taxidermy…they have a medium that was once alive.

View Madmark2's profile

Madmark2

2844 posts in 1708 days


#12 posted 06-10-2021 12:50 AM

Not true. There are crafts people in all trades, but wood, by virtue of being once alive, is unique among materials.

The assumption was craftsmen in our trade. After all thus isn’t a metalwork or glass blowing or ceramics site, its a woodworking site.

If you choose to be obtuse that’s fine, but you’re seeing insult where none is present.

Taxidermy should also be considerate of the creature killed for art. Taxidermy only creates ornamental items, not functional ones unless you intend to used a stuffed dog as an end table.

-- The hump with the stump and the pump!

View Novamr99's profile

Novamr99

61 posts in 254 days


#13 posted 06-10-2021 03:29 AM

The question was, “Just what is the nature of craftsmanship anyway?”

I argued that craftsmanship was not limited to wood only.

For my efforts I get called…

ob·tuse /əbˈt(y)o͞os,äbˈt(y)o͞os/ (Oxford Languages)

1.annoyingly insensitive or slow to understand.

Or was it one of the synonyms?

Similar: stupid, dull, slow-witted, slow, dull-witted, unintelligent, witless

Who could possibly see an insult in that?
(... and feel free to impute all you want.)

I still haven’t seen you use “craftsmanship” and any other discipline in the same sentence.

-- That's not an optical illusion, it just looks like one.

View Rich's profile

Rich

6932 posts in 1710 days


#14 posted 06-10-2021 04:01 AM

I still haven t seen you use “craftsmanship” and any other discipline in the same sentence.

- Novamr99

Not to worry. The topic has become convoluted into some sort of notion that craftsmanship can only occur on certain materials.

Hogwash.

As a tradesman, you are every bit a craftsman.

-- Half of what we read or hear about finishing is right. We just don’t know which half! — Bob Flexner

View Mike_190930's profile

Mike_190930

38 posts in 628 days


#15 posted 06-10-2021 04:32 AM

I see and appreciate MadMark’s point about wood and the respect for the once living source. I scavenge as much as I can from tree trimmings, removals, etc. here in the urban wilderness, and often think of just where and when did this stick of lumber come to exist. There is fine art to be found in scrimshaw, carved ivory, and bone objects that once lived as well.

I chose wood as my medium because it matched my temperament: it is a cantankerous non-isotropic inhomogeneous material (meaning it doesn’t behave the same in all directions and is not exactly the same from one spot to the next). In other words it’s challenging and full of surprises. Plus, my dad already had the woodworking tools, so entry was cheap. Having achieved a level of solid mediocrity in metal work, and failed miserably at glassblowing (a one hour intro that scorched both my eyebrows and ego), I well appreciate the skill levels required to become a master craftsman in those fields. We should all appreciate the learning, effort, time, dedication and discipline that it takes to be truly good at anything challenging, regardless of the medium. Even if no physical medium is present, such as in dance, music, poetry and the like, there is craftsmanship if executed to the highest level of human ability.

-- Huh? Whadaya mean it ain't "measure once cut twice"?

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