(This post is part of a conversation with Henrik Lutzen; about why we pursue craft skills. If you happen to read this, please comment.)
I believe there’s way too much focus on tools and technique, with less attention to design, ethics, and finding a common ground. For starters, I believe one of the easiest ways to establish that we share the same basic information is by sharing the books that we have found useful. (We could begin by writing brief reviews of what we consider to be essential or important books, for instance) By now, most artisans working in ‘shall we call it’ residential scale building trades should be familiar with A Pattern Language. Furniture-makers will likely have read James Krenov’s books; those interested in Japanese woodworking will have read Toshio Odate.
My reading list goes back to when I dropped out of college in the mid-80’s, and includes The Wheelwright’s Shop, John Ruskin’s Nature of Gothic, David Pye, and the English Arts & Crafts Movement.
Next came timber framing: English Historic Carpentry by Cecil Hewett, The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay by Abbot Lowell Cummings, Silent Spaces by Malcolm Kirk. Boatbuilding by Howard Chapelle, also Skin Boats and Bark Canoes, and Lance Lee’s incomparable Barns, Beams and Boats.
Obviously, this is a short list, but the point I’m trying to make is that shared literacy is meta-cognitive. We may have widely different impressions of the same book, but should still be able to acknowledge a coherent work that stands alone, in much the same way as a painting or building or piece of furniture. Artisans tend to be eclectic and self-educated, at least more than most. (“…consider the man of average intelligence…” Twain)
I won’t pretend to know precisely what compels someone to hand-cut through-tenons, or through dovetails, but I believe it’s at least in part because we want to see and experience a sort of honesty in our made environment, in a way that sheetrock or 3-D printers may not be able to satisfy. So, what (and who) has influenced and shaped your sense of design, ethics, philosophy, etc.? Books, tools, boats, buildings, furniture… I believe that each of us will ultimately realize a curriculum vitae and a bibliography, in making the effort to reach out and to explain ourselves over these great distances. That, I think, is why I started the blog and continue to pursue it.
People who can actually perform high-value-added work are rather rare (perhaps always have been) and seriously undervalued in today’s world. I would like to see how this tracks from my generation to yours, for example, and how (in terms of influences, education, etc.) that has come about (by direct master-apprentice relationship, or alternatively through reading, videos, workshops…).
The first book I had was an old 1920’s copy of Audel’s Carpenter’s and Builder’s Guide, and later Feirer and Hutchings Cabinetmaking and Millwork. Both were instructive only in the mechanical aspects of work, never leading toward any sort of design skills. Not until Fine Woodworking came out in the late 70’s; and then Krenov’s books, which were just unbelievable. The best you could get before that were Bonanza and Sunset books, or Popular Mechanics. The better quality publications that had been available during the Arts & Crafts movement were long out of circulation by then.
Cultural Literacy (that’s what I’m calling it, for now): a sort of intellectual shorthand. There isn’t a lot of room to argue with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, for instance, and it pretty much transcends language barriers. Thoreau (in Walden) illustrates his point with a story of two boys: one boy (with his father’s help) makes his own knife, while the other boy’s father buys him a knife. “Which would be more likely to cut his finger?” he asks. How much more profound; if we are able to understand the social and architectural implications of the Parthenon, or Ise, or Great Coxwell (all superb examples of their kind) summed up in a phrase?
Craft has that sort of power; if we insist that our language be as unrelentingly precise as our joinery.