Craft is the Art of Hand Work

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My hand made canes still speak of craftsmanship to both the user and the observer. Then there’s the table they lay on. No machines there either.

Some thoughts on different perspectives

Periodically I’m surprised by people who say or are advised that you can’t make a living from being a furniture maker and woodworker today. Mostly it’s the belief of several things not the least of which is the belief that all machine work is faster and more effective instead of limiting and defining.  I think most people think this to be the case. Now I know it can be done, I mean that you can make a living today, if using machines,  CNC routing equipment and machine-only methods and such. Hand work on the other hand leaves its signature and it shows up the art of human life free from over use of mechanical and robotic interventions. Fact is, where I to tell a would-be customer that a router guided by a computer did my inlays, and shaped all of the joints and carved the surface decoration, they would naturally be disappointed; the work somehow loses all fascination, even though the machine is a well designed piece of kit. But then you see that it’s the beauty of the materials that works as the initial magnetic carrot. The wood works equally as well for fabbers and fabberism as they do for real woodworkers and real woodworking and that without real wood there is not much of worth left for the fabbers. With some tickle-tapping of the keyboard fabbers change dimensions proportionally and suddenly machines beyond the office walls click into new settings and tails, pins, mortises and tenons too intersect the junctions and angles of new sizing seemingly seamlessly.  But, after all is said and done, a machine cut the bits that fit.

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Textures define the surfaces in wood and reflect how we work it

We’re not supposed to live in the past…

I don’t know about you, but I do still love the whole concept of printing presses rolled by hand with lead typeset transferring inks and also watching dextrous hands toss loaded shuttles with hand spun roving between weft and warp on a fully loaded loom. There’s a rhythm to each pulsing beat that somehow keeps pace with heart valves and breaths in the same way the blacksmith pumps the bellows and shapes the red-hot steel with regulated hammer blows on the face of a well-worn anvil. DSC_0250Of course some of this can be done by machine but then, at the end of the day, everything made looks just like a machine made it. You see life is filled with textures like this when you work raw materials by hand. A hand stitched suit stands out not because it’s at all inferior work but generally it’s actually looked at.The very fact that hands stitched stitches and wove cottons and wools into fabrics from spun fibres becomes the reason for it being first looked at and considered and then further considered creatively superior by those simple facts. Machined work on the other hand removes the textures of humanity and life from the surfaces that speak of those lives. It actually doesn’t mean one is superior or inferior to the other, just that one involved dextrous hand work and the other mechanical set ups that removed the reliance on skill that might to a boss be unpredictable or considered a risk.

The challenges that change us

You see people climb crags and outcrops on mountains not merely to use their own energies but because they like challenge and pit themselves against elements that challenge them and place high demand on them. As a climber I bettered my game by climbing harder and harder and then looked for snow and ice on the same crags to pitch myself against to see if my ingenuity and strength would enable me to overcome new and additional obstacles; textures I sought in my climbs. When people come down from the mountains warning of imminent snow, others press on harder and higher because of a thing called challenge. If it applies there to that then surely anyone can seek more difficult high-demand work in their woodworking.To do that we develop the skills we need and I like that idea.

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A handful of the thousands of spoons I’ve carved in my lifetime and every single one carved by hand

I recalled in some previous articles I wrote how a man I taught to carve wonderfully creative hardwood spoons from mesquite went on to earn a good living from it with his sons. Every spoon made had the individual stamp of uniqueness carved into it. Suddenly his sales fell as if someone had turned off the tap (faucet). He came to me distressed and showed me one of his most perfect spoons. I felt his sad loss but sensed something in the spoon that somehow, for want of a better word, had lost its magic. I probed a little and commented on the even shape and it was then I realised something that surprised me. Besides being too perfect it was, well, as if I was staring at something more false than real. The spoon had at first impressed me; as if I had seen something made from real wood to a high standard but it was hanging in a row in a supermarket chain kitchen department. It was then that I realised what had happened and that somehow he had engineered something that had copied one of his well-made original pieces. He told me that he’d had such a demand for his work that he had then set up his router with bits that followed patterns to replicate the spoons for him. Five days of perfecting his machine methods meant he could “work smarter not harder.” then produce hundreds of spoons every few days. What he had not figured into his calculations was that people who had sought out what he made were looking for an honestly mad product made by hand. They sensed, and I say sensed because they couldn’t quite put their finger on it, that something didn’t seem quite the same. 50 spoons exactly sized and stacked inside one another in three different sizes looked, well, dishonest to them. A bit like a lie might look good but it always stands in truths stead.

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A linenfold panel in an Oxford entrance to some ecclesiastical building this past week. See how the tips of the two bottom corners are different to the centre one.

Another friend did the same thing with his pottery. He became famed for is wonderful bowls but then changed the shapes so his bowls could be copied in moulds made for a ram press and so he could then replicate bowls by the hundreds. At first it worked, but soon he too lost customers as his bowls turned up in more and more shops around cities and towns and his brand lost favour with the clientele that was searching out the genuine hand made.

…we’re supposed to change the future

My view is this. You have to be honest to your inner being and make certain your work reflects an honest heart. There is nothing wrong with designing for ram presses and CNC machinery of any type, but you must present your work for what it is and you do enter a different arena using machine methods. Hand made is thankfully hand made and not someone passing raw materials into a machine or compressing clay in a ram press. Truth is always raw. Challenge the status quo.

18 Comments

  1. Terry Pullen on 29 December 2014 at 1:36 pm

    I find it interesting that the bowl maker turned from handcrafting bowls to handcrafting bowl making machines and it didn’t work out.



    • Paul Sellers on 29 December 2014 at 4:56 pm

      He failed to see that people loved non-replication. He cheapened their respect for him and eventually he went back to what was successful for him because he was highly skilled but missed the mark for a season that’s all. If you think about it, scanning your original art work and then limiting the edition is still offering something second rate. The more you print the lower the price and the more you sell. Not much different than governments printing money and telling the country it still has gold in the vaults to the value of the number of notes printed when they don’t.



  2. DJ King on 29 December 2014 at 5:32 pm

    It really sticks in my craw when I see or hear someone use the words “handmade” to describe something they’ve created with machinery. They have actually created it by feeding the wood into the machine, not by hand. I used to work in a meat factory as a teen and we filled hoppers with ground beef so the machine could punch out hamburger patties. No one at that company would dare say the burger were “handmade”, but somehow machine operators who load wood into machines claim they are hand-making items. I wish there were standards for the use of terms in woodworking the way the Scottish government regulates the production of Scotch whisky. A distiller would never be able to use an unaccepted or unpure practice in making whisky and be allowed to call it “Scotch” because it dilutes the brand in the mind of the public. I take great pride in real woodworking and when giving gifts, I take great pains to point out the methods I used to allow myself to call something truly handmade. There is little difference (other than scale and size) in a furniture factory and most hobbyist wood shops. These woodworkers are essentially machinists who work in wood rather than metal. I think if you create by putting wood to steel rather than steel to wood, you shouldn’t be able to call it “handmade”. I wish “handmade” was reserved for artisans like Paul, but instead we have to say “traditionally handmade with nothing but hand tools” followed by a 5-minute explanation of what handmade truly means. I don’t mind machine operators calling themselves woodworkers and I can respect what they create, but I do object that they get to call it “handmade” and that the public is misled.



  3. Joseph Redgate on 29 December 2014 at 8:16 pm

    I tried explaining, to my one of my teenage nephews, that a hand-held, electrical circular saw is not a hand saw, and he couldn’t understand me. I took him to my shop in my basement and showed him my saw till, took down an old Disston D8, handed it to him and said, “That’s a hand saw.” He balked and said, “C’mon, you know what I mean.”

    That was my point. When terminology gets muddled, it becomes difficult to convey information without disclaimers and previously unnecessary explanations. When people say that they captured some event on “tape” with their cell phone, then the actual analog tape enthusiasts need to explain themselves further than necessary. When a wood machinist claims that he has hand carved a business sign by free-handing with a plunge router, then the actual hand tool woodworker is left to unnecessarily use words like “literally” when explaining that he literally hand carved his work with non electrical hand tools. This too can prove to be a source of confusion since Mirriam-Webster has recently changed the definition of the word “literally” to include “virtually.”

    It comes down to people wanting the prestige of using words like “woodworker,” “handmade” or “handcrafted” but without earning the right by putting in the time to learn the skills that accompany those words. Why spend the time and go through the frustration (and the absolute joy, I would argue) of learning a traditional skill when you can press a few buttons or slide a few machines around and get the same admiration by using deceptive language?



  4. Andy in Germany on 29 December 2014 at 9:58 pm

    Thanks again for the continual encouragement to be true to what I believe: I feel the same way about storytelling, which is really my ‘main’ area of work: there’s something about a live presentation that goes deep inside of us, which a film can’t do, somehow, but as you say, you can make copies of films.

    Your phrase to ‘cheapen respect’ for someone also rings true: here the carpenters try and project an image of craftsmen working away with hand tools, but in the workshops it is all machines and chipboard. This comes back though, in the lack of respect people show to most carpenters: They know what they are getting is plastic coated chipboard and they don’t respect the people who make it.



    • Paul Sellers on 29 December 2014 at 10:34 pm

      I see carpenter’s vans here and in the US with hands and planes pix all the time and it’s because it registers a time-honoured past that somehow can’t be expressed with pix of a DeWalt router and and a Leigh dovetail jig. But you know, I know we are gaining ground and even winning carpenters and joiners into our camp more and more because they feel drawn to deeper realities to make their work and lifestyle woodworking more valued.



  5. Brian Lowery on 30 December 2014 at 12:10 am

    Today, the term, “hand made”, means made by one person, not factory made. Sadly, most people are satisfied with that definition, and it gives an item more value than a mass produced item. Currently “hand made” does not distinguish between hand tools and power tools.



  6. cory on 30 December 2014 at 3:45 am

    The question is not whether we should abandon either hand or power tools, but when we should apply either based upon efficiency and the resultant product. A large part of what I have learned as a working man rests on being able to balance quantity with quality. If either suffers due to the other, I have failed.



  7. David Devereux on 30 December 2014 at 10:56 am

    Did your carver try and pretend that his machine made spoons were the same as his hand carved ones and sell them at the same price? If so he was being dishonest and deserved all that happened to him. If they were distinguished from and sold at a lower price to originals, then there would be no problem, just as a painter can sell prints of his pictures, but still command a premium for an original.
    Unfortunately, even genuine hand-carved spoons can be a scam, if they are mass produced in some foreign sweat shop where the carver is paid a pittance.



    • Paul Sellers on 30 December 2014 at 11:47 am

      No, he not only claimed the same price but put his amongst other makers who were going the extra mike and hand carving theirs.



      • David Devereux on 30 December 2014 at 3:36 pm

        Then he was simply cheating. I greatly sympathise with your position, Paul, but where are the outlets for hand woodworking? I have just been to a couple of the high-end stores in London, Heals and Libertys. Some nice but very expensive furniture, but none of it hand-made. Heals had a bookcase made of cubes with half lapped dovetails retailing for £6000, but clearly machine made. Libertys had an old blanket chest, very like your tool chest, but selling for over £600! Both were rediculous for what they were, and no sign of anything of real quality.



  8. Steve Massie on 30 December 2014 at 1:54 pm

    Great Blog, I got caught up in the “Norm Craze” when I started working wood, the Delta’s. Leigh DT Jigs etc. like a lot of people. But I all way’s appreciated handmade ware’s, there is a difference and that is what i try and buy today.

    This is another reason why I love hand tools as I want to be able to proudly say, yep I made this by hand, no electrons were used. I have a way’s to go but am getting better and faster every time I get in the shop, and am trying to teach my ( 2 ) Grandkids this is fun and something you can be proud of.

    Thanks for all you do and share Paul.

    Steve



    • Paul Sellers on 30 December 2014 at 2:48 pm

      I guess we’ve thankfully moved on from then. Getting kids back in the shop is key and no one realised how detrimental and even damaging those days were. It’s been important for us for three decades and more now, having started out training the local children and then realising we could much more through their parents and grandparents if we could reach them and inspire them with reality woodworking by hand. Reading between the the lines with mags receiving their primary income and support from machine manufacturers, we were spurred on to make change and we have. After training courses for parents to teach their own children we started the woodworking schools and so much more of what we are able to pass on to change society today.
      Seems like the mags are losing ground more and more now too. I wonder how long we will have them around. Here in the UK it is a very sorry state of affairs when it comes to magazines for woodworkers. You can still buy Fine woodworking in a couple of chain-operated newsstands but on both continents the adverts in all mags now account for about 50-75% of the pages so it’s no wonder people turn all the more for information and training via the internet where you can click off what you don’t need or want. Fine Woodworking may be the only one left there soon, who knows. In some ways it may be the best thing that they all go and see what new emerges from the ashes.



      • Terry Pullen on 31 December 2014 at 4:04 am

        In regards to the magazine situation I believe we are living in an information golden age. Even though magazines are inexpensive they can not compete with people like Paul and so must go the way of the Dodo. In due time governments and corporations will gain control of the internet and the high quality, low cost information like what Paul provides will become harder to find.



  9. Ben on 30 December 2014 at 3:43 pm

    I see a certain value in a hand full of machines .I know that I can dimension timber by hand but don’t generally enjoy it so resort to table saw / planer thicknesser I work full time as a carpenter so for now my time making furniture is limited I don’t feel guilty because it gets me cutting mortice & tennons or dovetails faster which is the bit I love I also see value in hand held Sanders for final finish work . I would still class the things I make as hand made as I do all shaping and cut all joints by hand .



    • Paul Sellers on 30 December 2014 at 4:38 pm

      It’s all about balance. If you dimension all of your stock, use power equipment through every stage and power sand the whole then it still can take some level of skill though not much. It’s not really questionable whether I would call it hand made when it’s more perhaps the actual hand assembly of machined components.
      I notice every argument is always about economy and production costs and not skills and the procedure surrounding them. The single most important fact is that most people conclude that machine use for converting wood, forming joints, levelling jointed areas and finishing is the same as working wood with hand tools when they are not in any way like each other. If someone comes to me and they need fifty dining tables for a cafe or restaurant to the same or similar design and they need them in three weeks I am going to make them totally by machine and deliver on time and pick up my £30,000 to pay my machinists and not my woodworkers. My customers come to me for things like this or at least as a consultant they pay me for the processes and they engage a machinist group to work to my criteria and I pick up my £5,000 consultancy fee.
      Most often comparisons given are not apples-for-apples comparisons. I’m with you, shaping and joinery hand done qualifies for hand made and I would have no problem telling a customer I machine all of my component pieces to dimension and then perform all other tasks by hand. Most of my finishing is not power sanded but I would use them if I felt they would work better than my scraper plane and a little hand sanding. Most comparisons are from people who only know machine manufacturing and do not generally seem to have hand skills or at least fully developed hand skills. A bench test quickly shows where they are at and actually really helps them and me to see if I can help them further. If they are not up to task then we often give them some training to see if it’s for them. That works for both of our interests.
      The important thing as always is to recognise not everyone has the same objective nor the same opportunity.



  10. Ben on 31 December 2014 at 8:03 am

    I feel that patience is a major factor I’m better now than I was at 18 when I left college though I have only really done joinery / furniture making again for about 12 months since I found your blog .At 18 I was keen but had some strange notion that everything had to be done quickly so probably didn’t develop skills as I should have I’m 28 now and enjoy hand joinery and shaping so am in no rush but because my spare time is limited I choose to dimension stock with machines because it gives me more time actually making .If I had more time maybe I would complete everything by hand .Ben



  11. Joe on 27 May 2019 at 12:38 pm

    Prior to retiring I had loose plans as to how I would spend my time. Some woodworking that started with some blanket chests and other simple items. Some scrollsaw work rounded out my time.

    What I discovered is this season of life has become one of service to others. The items made return to me joy as I see them being used. To hear a loved one comment “ my Dad made this for me” warms my heart deeply.

    I drive a bus on Sundays to/from a local retirement center – Church. Many use foldable canes. Low and behold, I now have a new idea for service after seeing the photo of canes. I’ve never made one, but the research starts today.

    Thanks Paul for the idea. There will come a day when I may need one, so I best get to work.