(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.

About michaellangford2012

Timber framer, boatbuilder, dreamer, writer, musician; collector of books, tools, aphorisms. "There is nothing, absolutely nothing…half so much worth doing…as simply messing about in boats."
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9 Responses to Discussion

  1. Sebastian says:

    This is something I’ve been thinking a lot. One clearly realises that crafts have a political potential, agree on that. But it’s even deeper. I don’t know how familiar with Greek mythology are you, but humans were created by the gods without any particular quality. All the animals had their own, the lion was strong and the gazelle is fast. But humans were naked and mostly stupid. Prometheus saw this and stole the fire from the gods, ie, technics, to give it to humans. But humans continued to live apart and kill each other, not able to form communities:

    “Zeus therefore, fearing the total destruction of our race, sent Hermes to impart to men the qualities of respect for others and a sense of justice, so as to bring order into our cities and create a bond of friendship and union. Hermes asked Zeus in what manner he was to bestow these gifts on men. “Shall I distribute these tekhnai as the arts were distributed—that is, on the principle that one trained doctor suffices for many laymen, and so with the other experts {demiourgai}? Shall I distribute justice and respect for their fellows in this way, or to all alike? To all said Zeus, “let all have their share” (Plato. Protagoras)

    And this is the point, I think. Not only craftsmanship is anarchist, but it’s the base for every politics proper. First comes the technique, then the polis.

    Furthermore, it’s not so difficult to argue that, biologically, we cannot be conceived of without technics. What made us human was to spend millions of years shaping that first stone. As the stone was carved, so was our being. And it created a certain way of living that we are still repeating today. We are losing that with advanced technocapitalism. So for me it somehow goes against nature (understood as that which we are being doing for the last 3 million years).

    And that is something we know deeply inside of us. Each time we are in the shop, we are touching the fabric of reality and we are becoming more humans. So more than just wood, I think we are crafting humanity, and I like that.

    My reading list here is very technical. Lots of Heidegger on the question concerning technology, phenomenology from husserl and merleau-ponty (and this very nice paper too: http://psc.sagepub.com/content/31/1/53.abstract), and of course marx. There is a french tradition on the subject too, and in “technique and time” by Bernard Stiegler you find the references.

    I’ve been wanting to ask since long, but been busy with life for a while, how are those japanese planes of your friend doing? Did you find people who want to learn to live with them already?

    • No doubt, you already know “…the tools which would teach men their own use would be beyond price.” from the Republic. I believe that is one reason we are attracted to using hand tools, there’s no need for any sort of priesthood.
      The Japanese tool collection (thank you for asking): We agreed to wait until after the holidays to begin. I have been building some boxes, enough to hold the chisels, hammers and saws. Most of the planes are already in presentation boxes.
      Walking into Matt’s shop, one is immersed in an energy field, both his energy and that embodied in the tools. My intent has been to subdue that energy, in order to make the room comfortable for Sheila to consider for other uses, and to further protect the tools from moisture or damage.
      Meanwhile, my wife and I have acquired a fire-sale house to repair (on a nice piece of land) and I am turning my mind toward building a Japanese-influenced studio there; an attempt to balance the positive energy of Matt’s tools with the black-hole negativity of the fire-gutted house.
      Oh, Time, Cash, Strength, and Patience…

  2. henrik1224 says:

    “And that is something we know deeply inside of us. Each time we are in the shop, we are touching the fabric of reality and we are becoming more humans.”

    This is key, I think. Not only are we while working in a loop providing sensory feedback, which stimulates and reminds us of our ability to BE in the world – and to shape the world. More importantly, as I see it, the resistance of the material itself forces it’s “will” upon us (in Schopenhauer’s term, as we impose our will on it. In working a natural material, then, we are becoming more humane, through the realization that the world is other and more than human activity. That is, the definition of humanness can not be found exclusively inside the human being, but in it’s relation to and dependence on the surrounding world.

    This is why I see both craftsmanship at the highest level, but also the frolicking hobbyist, as an important correlative (to what – techocapitalism? Our own laziness and ego?) There are many aspects to this: the basic value of technique; the lessons of frustration, adapting to the real world and overcoming; play – in every sense of the word; aspirations – for the individual and for the communal.


    Many wonderful technical books on the subject.
    I tend to think building practices in terms of systems – traditional ways are usually perfectly adapted to the needs and ressources of a given environment.
    If I had to pick ONE woodworking book, then, I would choose J. Alexander’s “Make a Chair from a Tree”. Much love of the world in that book. Much respect for tradition, much respect for the material.

    Soetsu Yanagi and Krenov are SO important in a discussion of craftsmanship, technique and texture.

    I agree that every time I think of this subject in a bigger context, it becomes unavoidable to consider Marx’s basic analysis.

    On humanness and the world:
    Claude Levi-Strauss. Miyamoto Musashi (some hard-won lessons on the materialiy of the world there), Soetsu Yanagi, Krenov, Ellen Dissanyake, Kurt Vonnegut

    Richard Sennet’s books on modern technocapitalism are a good place to start in that direction.

    I can recommend Felipe Fernánd-Armesto’s Civilizations as a good introduction to structuralist thinking, then Wallerstein and Braudel.

    An important Aha-moment to me was when I was at the National Museum in Denmark researching Inuit cold-weather clothing (I worked in the outdoors business for 10 years).

    The Inuit of northern Greenland managed to not only survive in a hostile environment, but thrived there.

    Imagine, that you have no wood for fuel. but only seal blubber. Everything is made by hand, sewing with bone splinters and sinew, skins tenderized by chewing. In a world completely dark for half the year, no place to plant crops. Everything just ice, ice, ice. And yet, they thrived and developed a rich social and spiritual communal life.

    Walking around the glass displays and seeing all the little evidence of care and love in making: the technique and knowledge, passed down through tradition, to make skin clothing functional for hunting and moving in extreme cold: Always too warm, alway in need of ventilation, always with certainty that they would be warm enough, should the hunters be caught out outside.
    The focus needed to sew small pebbles carefully on garments and bags, forming intricate patterns and motifs; vests made of bird-skin ever so carefully plucked, so that the down would stay on. Stone and bone figures carefully designed and shaped, imbuing them with spiritual powers.

    Does the Ipod represent a step forwards or a step backwards from that?
    It’s been 4 years since that experience, but I am still trying to process what glimpse I caught of something basically human.


    • We should add Huizinga to the list; he saw work as highly-developed play. And Carl Jung’s efforts building a house for himself at Bollingen from Memories, Dreams…
      Braudel, certainly, and Simon Schama (if you haven’t read Landscape and Memory, there’s a very personal anecdote about his Hasidic Jewish forbears rafting logs to sell on Poland’s baltic coast, haggling over price with Scottish buyers.)
      I read Marx and Ruskin in the same context, they existed very much in the same world and were addressing many of the same concerns, displacement through the proliferation of capitalism and industry, political economy.
      There’s also a category of books that are not easily available in hard-copy, but are readily available on the internet: the Canon by William Stirling; and Hammond’s The Village Laborer (and the two companion books); The Concentration of Power is quite worth reading.

    • Sebastian says:

      “That is, the definition of humanness can not be found exclusively inside the human being, but in it’s relation to and dependence on the surrounding world.” Exactly.

      Which brings me to the other part of the references I forgot in the last comment. There is a whole bunch of research on extended cognition and such. A new american fellow to read can be Alva Noe and his “Out of Our Heads” where he argues we are not inside our heads (nor inside our bodies one should add). Another guy is Francisco Varela, a chilean like me who studied life and cognition, from the very basic cellular level to neuronal networks. The point they try to make is that the living being and the environment are not two separate entities but two sides of a dance. Very Zen like, and very materialistic too.

      I think the becoming more human, then, for me, means seeing more of the world, dancing with more of the world’s fabric.

      I’ve never been to the icelands, but wan in Bolivia 3 years ago with the mountain people eating llama and wearing 200 year old ponchos, so I think I get what you mean.

  3. Greg Merritt says:

    I feel somewhat out of my depth given the comments thus far, but I’ll strap on a flotation device and wade in. The majority of my reading is centered around the techniques. Carpentry, furniture, knot tying, sail making/canvas work and various traditional crafts. So Krenov, Underhill, Moxon, Odate and many others for furniture making. As to the philosophical, many volumes on Buddhism, meditation, Lewis, Pye and others. Of course I have read many of the classics in literature as well.

    As to design influences, I have studied some art and extensively worked in drafting. Both of these serve to instill a sense of proportion and composition. My drafting background has given me the ability to analyze a structure and have a general idea as to how it was assembled and why it was done in a certain way. By far the most helpful activity towards design has been, and continues to be, to view as many and varied objects as I possibly can.

    I do believe that the need to create is a deep-rooted survival instinct. We humans are the only species on the planet that can not, or have little chance of, survival in our natural state. We must be sheltered and clothed at a minimum. Even after our basic needs are met the instinctual drive to create remains. Over the centuries it has manifested into art, music, architecture, literature and the like. Currently we are beginning to see generations where the instinctual drive to create is diminished however. This scares me and pushes me to try and share information, techniques and hopefully inspire others to once again nurture their creative instinct.

    • Most of that went over my head as well. Co-incidentally, I picked up Life is a Miracle (Wendell Berry’s ca.2000 book of essays) in which he neatly skewers and dissects Edward O. Wilson’s pontifications on science. Berry observes, “Of the material origin of intelligence or truth, or even of mind, any answer given will lead only to another question…”
      Mind, in all of Wendell’s writing, is very much a function of place.
      Currently, with the new place to work on, we’re busy adding Shavings & Loam to Artizen’s Bank…

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    • I have read Ruskin’s writings, beginning with Nature of Gothic in my old Norton’s Anthology. Most of it is pretty opaque, but there are some gems… Whistler’s Gentle Art of Making Enemies is an interesting take: Ruskin adored Turner’s paintings of smoke and fog, but dismissed Whistler’s smoke and fog as amateurish or worse (the next episode in Whistler’s career, Venice, is nicely revealed in Iain Pears’ Stones Fall). Ruskin was also quite critical of the Dutch landscape painters (according to Simon Schama), even though Turner had obviously studied with and was influenced by the Dutch painters.

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