It’s not too complicated. You can see where things took hold – when we began losing our hand skills. Well, it’s not so much that we lost them, or lost them forever, more that the potential for developing such skills took a nose dive for a century or so, so the potential for owning skills lay there as if on a shelf, untapped and therefor not developed or possibly developed to a very minimal level – stunted if you will. You see before then skills were transferred word of mouth, one on one, man to boy; at least that’s how it was in woodworking crafts like mine.
The thing is this: when you see skilled people working all around you you know that such skills are truly possible as a part of historic cultures around the globe. Mostly it was relative you see. Related to life all around you. You would have been surrounded by artisans of every craft type. Most people would be normally exposed to skilled work and skilled artificers in the day to day of life. Walk out the door of anywhere and you would see someone making. It’s here I say take yourself back to a past era, say to the 1820s. A man stands at the workbench he fashioned with tools he most likely would have fashioned himself from iron and wood, brass, bone and such.
The beech brace looks so fit for purpose, worn by decades from the grasp of a man’s hands working it. The pounding of the mallets, saws sawing and wood planks being stacked and racked amidst echoes of life along cobblestoned streets as men worked their wood and built the needs of life. Skilled artists of every imaginable skill live shoulder to shoulder and your young eyes take in the sights as you pass through alleyways and doorways.
The wooden carts are loaded with hand made pieces. Wrought ironwork with red hot rivets being hammered on the anvil begin to form massive gates. Your senses pick up the minutest detail and you know without doubt that man, woman, child too are able to perform the most skilful work with a handful of basic tools and a pair of hands. The whole world is telling you skill is in the hands of working people. You don’t doubt that with the right input into your thirteen year old life that you too will become skilful.
In the middle of the workshop shelves are lined with wooden planes. A man reaches up to pull one from the cluster and he swipes off twenty successive strokes. Before your eyes the muscles flex, arms stretch from fold to full length and stroke by stroke a mould appears as if from a time-lapse video. Right there the mould is fully formed and shiny smooth; it’s as silk to your eyes and then your fingertips. There is no need of sandpaper to smooth it. There are no ripples in the coves and beads yet it took such little effort. Across the workshop another carpenter slices off a skimpy shaving by chisel an inch or more wide. Nothing guides him except his self control. The mortise cut, he lifts the tenoned rail and slips it into the mortise, takes up a mallet and drives it home. You’ve seen these things with your eyes. You’ve smelt all kinds of woods.
Oaks and mahoganies, satin wood and pine. The atmosphere is in constant charge and you smell it. You touch the surfaces of the woods. You feel the smoothness and then as if in a symphony your ears pick out the flute and the oboe sounds from the plough, the filletster, the shoulder plane and the tiny narrow bullnose. On and on it goes this exposure to skilled work, skilled workmen, skilled women. You know skill exists in the hands of people wearing away in life and there are no electric cables, no battery chargers, no screaming machines. It’s all skill.
The people working? The people wore cotton and wool clothes, leather aprons. The colours sober, some ragged, others not. There’s no such thing as lightweight, high-viz and no compliant steel toe caps and no hard hat or hard hat zones. The wood is often riven, beams are pit sawn and then others are adzed and axed to rough sizes. You see skill in use every minute if every day. Some smart aleck in our modern world says, “Work smart not hard.” They worked both hard and smart.
There’s something about skilled work that must be earned. No one gives you skilled work as you might download an app. That’s one thing that’s never changed. Thank goodness for that. Skilled work becomes a way of life for some of us. We like the challenges that present along the way and we know skill exists because we see skilled work left to us by our ancestors. Of course it’s not nostalgic, reality, but it’s more real somehow.
A building made of oak and chestnut stands a thousand years without much effort beyond its standing. An oak chest protects and stores inside the walls using the same joints carved and formed by the hands of men. We see such things knowing that only a small percentage of such skilled crafting artisans survives to continue the work. Few even know to lament the loss.