No Surprises

Your responses to the last blog came as no surprise. As people accept the ever more mundane of mass making, skills automatically become dumbed down. Manufacturers that once had loyalty on a more local level have gradually sold out and what we thought was still being made domestically by local skills was hidden behind bland labeling that failed to say where it was actually manufacturing the goods or having the goods made. But of course the article wasn’t about manufacturing in a mass making world but about the demise of crafting fine work using good skills resulting in fine levels of workmanship.

The question was really whether any craft should be kept going even when demand has fallen below economic levels. That is, should a craft be sponsored to survive whether that is by financial support or by buying the product the crafting artisan makes or indeed supported by ensuring apprenticeships in specific crafts continue even though there is a possibility the only way it might work is through funding of some type.

Some say it should be the survival of the fittest that determines this. Others say no matter the cost it should be supported by whatever means we can muster.  I received an email a short while ago from an older craftsman saying he cannot find the help he needs to keep his business going even when he made a promise of some kind of agreement to crop-share the business either by income or inheritance. Remarkable!

Thank you all for your thoughts on this and your contribution. Obviously you care deeply and I am thankful for that. I’ll keep you posted of changes.

24 comments on “No Surprises

  1. I think the challenge is that a very large proportion of the population do not care about quality – they seek instant and disposable gratification and know no more than the world of point and click. Sadly, and at the risk of being controversial, curiosity and genuine ‘appreciation’ is in decline – most people see but don’t observe, hear but don’t/can’t listen.

    The downside of the ‘connected’ world is that we confuse abundance and choice – a relevant example here being that there will be a dozen £19.95 Chinese planes available, possibly sporting a handle colour to distinguish the ‘brand’, but they are all the same landfill. If you want CHOICE, you have a delve a lot deeper and for a lot longer.

    I’m not sure that intervening into the natural ‘market’ is desirable, let alone viable. How would you even choose what to ‘fund’? What’s important to you/me will not be top priority for another.

    Another possible view is that if we have a real passion for wanting something, perhaps we have to engage more in its creation. So, not pay someone else, but learn ourselves – apply that curiosity and appreciation we curse as missing from society.

    Since following you since last year, I have taken up a degree of joinery/cabinet-making – and this culminated last week in me going on a course to make a side table. I’d struggle to buy one like it, and I’m proud to say that it would probably pass muster for retail purchase. Isn’t that perpetuating our skill and passion?

    Maybe we all have to be more engaged!

  2. I find your points most interesting and thought provoking. I would consider myself to be a classically well-entrenched laissez-faire capitalist, believing that live-and-let-live is generally the best approach, with government intervention providing more or less a referee role in ensuring fair competition and necessary regulations (e.g., environmental protection that otherwise would not be considered economically feasible). With respect to the threat of losing Crafts (mostly through losing artisans themselves), I believe we must weigh the loss relative to our survival. That is, we are losing skills that would be essential if all machinery ceased operating tomorrow. The beauty of handcrafting might quickly become the survival of handcrafting!

    If cars were to stop running, then we had better have access to horses. If we don’t know how to butcher a hog, then we might starve. If power tools and CNCs stop turning, then we had better know how to use hand tools. In this sense, keeping Crafts alive is a very good insurance policy against catastrophe.

    Ideally, I believe that the wealthy are indebted to keep the arts and crafts thriving. This is one contribution of the wealthy throughout history that is often ignored. On the other hand, where the vice of greed and selfishness rearing its ugly head prevents sufficient support to keep the crafts alive, then it becomes incumbent upon government to help offset the cost and to keep the craft alive.

    I also believe that each of us would do well to be instructed liberally in all arts, crafts, sciences, and maths as a lifelong pursuit.

    • Thank you Joel. I have considered many things from different points of view. My clients have mostly been wealthy people supporting the art world by buying designs to be made exclusively for them, work that they would not want to see elsewhere. Without such orders I might have starved. My personal businesses through the years have included production lines ranging from bird feeders and walking canes to fine lines of designs in furniture. I am cautious not to slam any sector of society in particular because I believe we all have a productive input for the betterment of society whether by supporting organisations like Heritage Crafts Association and dozens of others like it or individual benefactors and philanthropists wanting purely to help.
      There was a time when private schools, grammar schools UK, had woodworking and metalworking as part of their curriculum but this was axed across the board and dumbed down into a more technologies based requirement and people of course supported it because education mostly revolves around producing workers for production and those that choose to get off or remain off the conveyor belt and pay taxes to support community but not particularly participate in its systems. My individuality of course is developed by the cultures I’ve lived in and been a part of as I have f=grown, burt there have been points when I have said no. I didn’t want CNC routers invading my life, my brain, my way of working because it was far from the more advanced and progressive way but more the truly dumbed down way that required no skill with regard to the actual making of things in the multidimensional effort coming from the human form.

  3. Well Paul the demise of crafts can be linked to many things. For one example, the removal of ” taste testing” in schools. We don’t have people such as yourself who teach these sort of things any more. When I was in school ( in the 90s) my shop teacher was also my Agricultural teacher which was probably so in many small town schools. He would spend half the year teaching farm and husbandry and the other half shop. Even then his program was looked on by the county and state as an elective. I was what they call here in Alabama a “Big Ol boy” and was constantly pointed (forced/shamed) into football. I lived with my grandmother who was of an Appalachian decent who did live through the American depression. My up bringing was way different than those of who I attended school. That old farmer who taught AG and shop done his best to teach those who could tune out the rest of the world. But there are no more of those types of people left. I do hope with people like you that will change. As an adult, I will make my voice heard at school meetings to help bring some of those things back. I did here that home economics will come back to my son’s school…that’s a great start. However, we need it all back.

  4. I think we can look at this from a cultural aspect too,the people in power no longer seem to hold traditions of our culture here in the uk,to any form of high reguarding.
    It’s all about embracing every bugger else’s culture,while I agree with that because to a certain extent it enriches us a people,but we can’t go on with this self hating,self shaming “trend” that is so fashionable as of late.
    Generations have been indoctrinated by the teaching establishment to self loath because of actions of about forebearers.
    It’s time we as a nation started to celebrate our rich culture which as an empire gave democracy to the world,let’s stop setting the bar so low,tell our children there’s only one winner in a competition,teach our children about this nations great history,and bring back the morals,guts and pride which urged so many to give their lives in wars so we could live our today.
    Kinder off topic,but when we forget our past,we lose our identity,just like we have lost our crafts

  5. How did you get 38,278 people from all over the world to “follow” you? Was there some button you pushed or some agency that compelled them? — There is no use in trying to push makers or consumers into agreement over products and services. They will do what they do by the marvelous interaction of individual choices repeated 38,278 times. “If you build it, they will come” (hopefully)

  6. Now deep into my retirement, it no longer affects me directly, but I pass along an anecdote: Several years ago I got tired of having my old hunting rifles and shotguns
    in the corners of various closets, gathering dust, as I no longer use them, so I built myself a gun cabinet to house them. That was my trade, and professional pride dictated I do a creditable job, but I knew I could never have sold it, here in Maine, for what I had in it.
    My son, who now lives in Dallas, was here visiting, and happened to see it in the box room where it resides, and informed me that it would fetch a couple of thousand dollars in Dallas.
    Point is, the practicality of doing this is largely dependent on the market in which it’s presented.

  7. Can you give more particulars about the older craftsman? There might be some here that might want to support his work or know of someone looking to what he makes.

  8. The link between livelihood and vocation is most unfortunate.
    Thank God that I have become old and still am able to do some of the things I wish I had done when I could do them all. Some still are accessible, even if I am only now learning to sharpen a chisel properly, or to have the common sense to make the sanding block I should have made for those kitchen cupboards thirty-five years ago.
    Thank you, Mr. Sellers for the teaching and the thoughts.

  9. Where do all these old Cast Steel chisels come from ? I have no memory of buying the things and yet there they are, all over the place !! I don’t know if it’s just me but they seem to sharpen very sharp,and if the edge doesn’t last too long so what ? some of my lathe gouges need touching up every couple of minutes and they are good ones.

  10. When we have lost the knowledge and skill, we have to reinvent it.
    This summer I went to an “experimental archeology” site: Guédelon in France (in the municipality of “Saint-Sauveur en Puisaye” a bit South of Paris). They are buiding a XII th century castle manually. When faced with a problem they have to find a solution with the technology available in the XII th century.
    They have been busy for 20 years already and probably will need another 10 years to complete it. (It is a relatively small team).
    Highly recommended. If you are travelling in that region, spend a day there.
    There is also a possibility to learn various techniques (extracting stones, stone cutting, masonry, carpentry starting from the log, other woodworking, ceramic (roof tiles and ground tiles, pottery, basketry, rope making, black smith, making lime, making pigments, etc.)
    Sylvain

  11. Craftsmen in all disciplines are facing increasing pressure from consumers making price decisions vs quality. Speaking strictly about the U.S. (since I have little to no experience in other countries) there is instilled in us from birth the idea of throw it away when it wears out, and it WILL wear out. So, since we expect things to wear out, we struggle to find a price performance balance that gives “good enough” quality to last the expected duration, and then we replace it. The influx of extremely cheap products starting from the industrial revolution and extending into the globalization age results in people looking for cheaper and cheaper products. A crafts person in a high cost of living country can not possibly compete price wise with a crafts person from a low cost of living country.

    This is a transition that is going to be most painful but I believe unavoidable.

    I personally am in favor of globalization, but I am not naive enough to think it will not be painful as incomes normalize between countries where individuals make $30/hr (US) compete with individuals that make $1/hr (US).

    The result is brutal on the skilled craftsman – say a luthier that lives in a country with an average income based on $15/hr and it takes them 6 months (1,000 hrs) to make a quality instrument – that means theirs cost of labor alone is $15,000, whereas a very competent Chinese luthier working in a. factory is making far less per hour and pumping out the equivalent of 1 violin per week – or maybe $50 labor costs. Parents looking to see if Johnny plays the violin for more than one year, at more likely to spend a couple hundred dollars on a Chinese violin (which are very decent quality student violins today) vs spending $20,000 on a hand made in the US instrument.

    This senecio plays out in all areas where skilled labor learned over a lifetime of war work is involved.

    I do not have any problem with “government” sponsored skills preservation projects. I expect the cost to run schools that specifically target crafts like Woodworking, joinery, luthier, blacksmithing, etc. would be fairly inexpensive in the scheme of things, since there are in reality few people that would want to attend (compared to the mass public education system.) I would have no issue with taxes to support this effort to allow people interested to have the opportunity to learn and preserve the skills without having to compete on the global market to make a living.

  12. It often takes multiple people over the course of decades or centuries to “discover” an important skill or technique. Paul Sellers is a world treasure in that regard. During the dark ages the church preserved the books (except for the ones they burned of course) and the art of writing. At the same time sponsoring all the artists and thus preserving those treasures. In the US, a country of 300 million people, society is separated into the masses and the “1 percent”. But we have the irony that in the 1 percent that group is also separated into the 1 percent and the 1 percent of the 1 percent. So 3 million people and 30 thousand. The 30 thousand look down on the 3 million as “just” millionaires. But those 30 thousand people would think nothing of spending $20,000 or $200,000 for a carefully hand crafted violin for their precious child. Paul is giving us the precious gift of Joy by teaching us the skill of wood working by Hand. Every piece we make has a piece of us in it. A piece of our joy. Could Stradivarius have predicted that his violins would develop into the best the world had ever heard and sold for 4 million. Yet they are all made of spruce willow and maple. That should be a siren call to us all to love what we do for the shear love of it and like Paul pass the knowledge to someone younger. As its possible in years to come it will be your name people speak when they speak of the best that ever was. Regardless, love what you do.

  13. Dying crafts will find a natural end. No point in keeping it alive, crafts are for creating things with form AND function, without function it is a piece to hang in a museum or gallery. So, if the need for the function has died out, it should be preserved in a museum for history, no more.
    If it entertains, put it on as a show. For example, i’ve been to jousting contests. No need to learn jousting for real purposes anymore, but still entertaining!

  14. I read and hear, always with interest, your knowledge.
    Not so long ago, i needed new kitchen furniture. I wanted them in solid wood.
    No one did them invoking the most diverse reasons, but i think it was for lack of knowledge to run them in solid wood!
    Everyone i contacted had industrial woodworking machinery.
    Without intending to do social doctrine, i think that neoliberalization, neocapitalism and neoslavery, wich are raging throughout the world, lead to the facts pointed out.
    I do not know the solution to this but the problem is global.
    About kitchen furniture: it´s there but in wood pellets!

  15. Having read “The Village Carpenter” by Walter rose, of a way of life now no more and his follow up ” Good Neighbours ” telling of the formation of village life in England from 1830 to pre 2nd war. Both an amazing insight into how our lives have changed, with the demise of so many trades…….how men would select a tree, fell it and transport to the yard by horse and cart, to be air dried then sawn in the saw pit then dried at 1″ per year before taken to the carpenters shop. A 7 year apprentiship being the norm with mother paying the employer to give her son skills.

    I spoke today to a village shop owner selling beautifull hand crafted oak furniture. His supplier used to supply to 15 similar shops in Kent UK …..now he can only sell to the one I was in, as the others had closed!!
    Another ramble from me….John

  16. In US there is a significant segment of the young population that values the local economies of the entrepreneur rather than feeding the huge corporate entities.

    They prefer the small coffee shop over Starbucks, even if the coffee is a bit more expensive.

    Of course the reality of being able to actually afford this philosophy is another matter 🙂

    • I like that but coffee is something most people make in their daily lives and anyone can make coffee. Are we understanding and proving that the new generation is supporting craft work of individual items because to be honest I have not seen this happening as a general rule?

  17. If I lived in the U.K. I would jump at the chance to apprentice with the gentleman who has made the offer.

    While I am 55 with no wood working skills I feel I have many good years ahead of me and want to make the move away from the disposable society and all it entails.

    Sad to think no one hasjumped at this opportunity

  18. If I were trapped on a deserted island I would prefer that I were trapped with Mr. Sellers instead of an employee at a furniture factory for the simple reason that the wealth of knowledge in working with random bits of flotsam would stand me in good stead on the survivability scale.

    Now change that deserted island to a planet light years from Earth that we humans are colonizing. The skills of those who practice “crafts” will be invaluable in building a basic society that doesn’t have ready access to manufactured goods. The preservation of knowledge such as woodworking, boat building, rope making etc. is brutally necessary if we, as humanity, wishes to spread to the stars.

    Or if there is a zombie apocolypse. Being able to make a zombie-beheading device from a downed tree and a chunk of obsidian would also be useful skill.

    Regardless, I feel it’s eminently necessary to preserve these skills. Like a bit of junk you decide to throw away, you’ll find you need it within a week after the trash collector has dragged it from your curb.

  19. As an apprentice, it’s a question I’ve struggled with. I recently made a maple table for my own use, sized and shaped to fit a quite small kitchen. I hand cut the mortise and tenon joints in the stretchers, carefully fitted, and glued everything, and took the time to get the top laid out in a pleasing manner, with the edge grain all going in the same direction. It looks great, and most importantly, has functioned exactly as intended.

    But, I wonder, could I compete in a market, where this same table, containing maybe $300 CAD in materials and labour, compete against a similar design from mass manufacturers, and sell well enough to allow me to put food on the table afterwards?

    I don’t know.

    • You may for the main part have got it wrong and I have heard this all my working life. In over 50 years I never had a day when I wasn’t engaged in income producing work. The question should be can they compete with you. It all comes down to design. What is produced by machine and computer will always look like it was produced by a machine and a computer. I see this all the time. You just have to think differently. People used to say to me you can’t compete with Walmart. I always replied, “Nope, Walmart can’t compete with me!”

  20. Hi Paul,

    You possibly have already considered this in one way or another, but I have not seen it mentioned in the comments, so here it goes:

    You have been educating the world on woodworking for some time now, I kind of feel that we are in good place for it. Sure, the gentle or tough master beside is something entirely different, but in their lack – internet videos (and blog posts) are something that can be a seed of interest, growth and lifelong pursue.

    I am wondering if it would be possible to branch your business efforts into other crafts as well.
    Would it be financially and time wise possible to “copy” the structure you have for woodworkingmasterclasses and do the same for a fellow craftsman from a different craft and have them under your company, but creating a wider set of videos to pass onto next generations.

    P.S. looking forward to new workbench series 🙂

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