Saturday, February 25, 2006

What is craftmanship?

Unexpectedly I received a copy of Traditional Country Craftsmen by J Geraint Jenkins in the post yesterday. Well I say unexpectedly, but actually my aunt (for she it was who sent it) had asked if I'd be interested - some time before Christmas. Naturally I'd forgotten all about it. It's galootish in the extreme; bodging, trug-making, wheelwrighting, blacksmithing and, of course, chair making. Happy me. Alas, despite the obvious Welshness of the author (Geraint Jenkins? Welsh? No kidding?!) the chairs are very definitely High Wycombe Windsors. Never mind, it's still a darn good read. In fact I have a strong feeling I've read about it recently; perhaps in JB's column? Blessed if I can remember.

Anyway, one bit early in the Introduction I thought might be of interest to The Reader. The question put is "What is craftmanship?" The author reckons there are three things necessary:
  1. The craftsman is able to marry beauty and utility. He is able to combine good taste and usefulness.
  2. The true craftsman does not depend on complex machinery and equipment to complete his work.
  3. The true craftsman is not only able to work in an ancient tradition, but he is able to build on the foundation of history. The past provides a solid basis for his work.
Interesting he slips (steps up?) from "the craftsman" to the "true craftsman" there...

I'm not sure I agree with these criterior, despite it being music to the ears of the Galootish Soul. Not infrequently I find myself looking at a completed piece and thinking how sad that such obvious skill and, yes, craftsmanship should result in something so hideous. I regret to say the cover chest on April's PWW resulted in just that reaction. And yet a quick flick through the article suggests there's plenty of craftsmanship gone into its making, and it looks a fairly useful piece of furniture to boot.

Point two, well I can see what he's getting at there and agree. That's why I shall never aspire to be a "true craftsman" - I like my gadgets and such. At least at the moment. But I thought the router was the be-all and end-all of woodworking once upon a time, and that changed, so who knows? Heck, do I not now own an Axe?! Anything's possible...

Building on the foundation of history? Well building on it is good. Being shackled by it, less so, IMO. I don't know which camp that leaves me as described in Chris S's editorial in April's PWW (again): "the people who insist that we must stand on the shoulders of the old masters, and those that are happy to kick the old masters in the shins to find an easier, faster and more accurate way to build furniture"? I'd hope a little bit of both. All through the book (so far) "no longer to be found", "last of the ..." and so forth keeps cropping up again and again. Stagnate and you risk extinction. Striving to do better, faster, easier is what's got the human race where it is now - it's what we do. Yeah okay, so it's also got us in the mess we're in now, but you can't have everything...

On the whole I find myself reminded of the comment Elizabeth Bennet makes in Pride & Prejudice when Darcy and the Bingley sisters (that well-known Motown group...) have reeled off all they'd expect to see in "an accomplished young lady".

"I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder at your knowing any."

Maybe I just have very low expectations? Anyway, got me thinking which is No Bad Thing - and has the bonus of rarity value too...


  1. Alf
    "The true craftsman is not only able to work in an ancient tradition, but he is able to build on the foundation of history. The past provides a solid basis for his work."
    Kinda goes against Rule #2 doesn't it? You MUST use hand tools only, BUT build upon the past by using any new and obviously more effective ways of working. Like a planer/thicknesser......;)
    I agree with you on the cover project-yuk!
    The real world is a little different to the "Ideal" world that appears when folk get a bit misty eyed-you and I enjoy woodworking and tools for fun, not as a means to making a living. Indeed, because we do this for FUN we have the freedom to explore somewhat more than the poor beggars who have to earn a living from it. ;)
    Pass the biscuits,
    Philly ;)

  2. This book is on my list after seeing it in the back of John Brown's book. Sadly, copies rarely find there way to our shores (States). The quotes resonate with me. I am guessing you had just as strong a reaction to Mr. Brown's opinions?....which seem to follow in the same vein.


  3. Philly, ah now I could pick up the ball and run with whether the amateur is the last bastion of crafstmanship. Certainly the editorials in The Woodworker magazine in the 20s & 30s tended to take that outlook to a certain extent. Presumably they had similar criterior to the above? Now Hob-Nobs or Chocolate Digestives? ;~)

    Jeff, you may have put me out of my misery; JB's book is probably exactly where I'd read about the book recently.

    At the time I had a considerably stronger reaction to JB's opinions (did the above come across as a strong reaction? Wasn't meant to be). I wasn't a Born Again Galoot at the time, and tended heavily towards the "what is this old luddite batting on about?" camp. But I still read it, and learnt. I just have extreme difficulty swallowing the whole package, I think. I find the same with the antithesis of JB, David Charlesworth. I just can't take everything he says as gospel, but that doesn't mean I won't pick the bits that make sense to me. What a butterfly I am, huh?

    BTW, suggest you try if you want a copy. There seem to be at least a couple in the US at the moment.

  4. Ummm. I looked at the front of the current PWW and said "Wow! I like that cabinet." Of course, my eye was drawn more toward the center (sorry centre ;) ) panels. I'm still working on the last PWW so haven't made it inside much.


  5. Umm... the 3 rules don't contradict at all. #2 doesn't say you MUST use handtools, it just infers that you should be able to, which sounds eminently reasonable to me. Building on the foundation of history (kind of a 'shoulders of giants' reference) doesn't necessarily imply machinery either; think of Lee Valley planes, for example!

    I'd also argue that those finished projects that are functional, well-built, but ugly display good workmanship, but poor craftmanship - different things entirely.


  6. oh yeah - infers should read implies :) silly me

  7. Alf,

    Thanks for the scoop on bookfinder. It has been several months since I last checked there for this and other titles recommended by John Brown.

    Another thought regarding the "hand tools only" philosophy. There are a good number of folks who are able to stay the course and even make a living if they are only making chairs. Hence, one must take Mr. Brown's position with a grain of salt. I might add that he does actually own a bandsaw, according to the FWW article he penned several years ago.



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