What is Craftsmanship?

Just in the last few years (at 55 I get to type that way) I’ve discovered that there is a real question about what constitutes craftsmanship.  (I’ll go gender neutral some other time, OK?)

In my world, it always meant executing one-offs in a more than ‘workmanlike’ manner. I graduated college, got a job as a design engineer, took up woodworking as a hobby and bought an Edwardian house.

So I designed products. At the turn of the last century an engineer was defined as “someone who can do for six bob what any fool can do for a quid”. Works for me. The prototype was built by a technician, another craftsman who did things once. Together we made it work and easy to build. Then the factory made as many as could be sold. He made a good living, I made one just a bit better than merely good.  That was 30 years ago and there’s an entry there. But on today’s topic, we built one, maybe a few for testing.

In 1990 I switched from hardware to software. Now everything I do is a one-off. Once the program works, you can make infinite copies and run it forever.

Actually I bought the house before I took up woodworking. You need a place for the shop after all. The house was 70 years old when I bought it, and I was the first person to buy it. The trophy widow of the man who built it had just died and I bought it from her daughter. It wasn’t strictly a one-off. The house next door had been a mirror image back in 1907. Still, undoing some unfortunate remuddles from the 50s, covering (disconnecting!) the gas lights and providing more than one electric outlet per room, while still keeping the character of the place was a unique task. Yes, I hand chiseled the notches for the romex. But no one will ever chisel that set of notches again.

Woodworking was the same thing. No custom joiner or cabinetmaker builds the same thing twice. There were and are factories that can build multiple copies of anything you want, at any level of quality, and yes, I mean the best if you’re willing to pay, for less than any one (or three) man shop possibly can. So we build the china cabinet that fits in that spot on this wall. And if we’re making the same piece three times, we build a jig to help us get it right. That’s not cheating, that’s smart.

Finally, Lisa is a wonderful cook. She follows recipes. Once. Then she starts improvising.  The fourth or fifth time she makes something, she’s got it right, and makes it from memory thereafter. Except there’s always an ingredient out of stock, or something really yummy that we just happen to have. Ever had maitake in West Texas chili? Trust me, it rocks. As for the mechanics of preparation, I’m the sous-chef around here. We use a lot of sliced black olives. I can slice them, or, you can buy them at the store for less than the whole ones. The same goes for diced vs whole green chiles. I don’t get why I should pay more for the privilege of working harder.

So there I was. In my world there is always more work than time to do it.

Then, when I was at Dysfunctional Ltd, I had a colleague who had been a line chef for a while. (Note that she was back in high tech.) She mentioned a colleague of hers who was totally uninspired, but quite willing to spend all afternoon cutting carrots into 3/8″ cubes, which he did very well. She said that the feeling was that this got him into the club. I mentioned my experience/defintion of craftsmanship and she said that this was an ongoing discussion in the fancy cooking community, but that the majority opinion was that you might invent a dozen dishes in your career, but you’d make tens of thousands of servings of predefined dishes.

Hmm, interesting, there was a time when an apprentice joiner would save, sign and date his first six foot planer shaving.  Fair enough, if it’s a needed skill, go for it. But surely one could buy a carrot cuber just as you can buy a planer. That was when I first thought of writing this essay.

When we came home again, I started catching up on back issues of Small Farmer’s Journal . I one of the first issues I read was an article by a guy who apparently chisels violins out of stone. He has an electric bandsaw that he uses to cut out the backs, and reall seems to feel guilty about it. Note that he makes no intimation that his product is any the less for using the machine. As with the carrot cubes above, this just seems dumb to me.

I’ve thought about it for a while, and I’ve got a position. Doing extra work for nothing is dumb. I get the Amish: Besides the religion, there’s a lot to be said for being in charge of things rather than letting them be in charge of you. I certainly get how lowering income while lowering costs faster is a net win. But spending two hours to do what you could have done in one. Loony.

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