Craft Was a Community Practice

It’s a strange thing that woodworking is considered a solitary endeavor today, because craft throughout history was a community practice. Whether it was hewing timbers for the Johnsons’ new barn, harvesting hay before the clouds roll in, or quilting at the bee, people of the past knew that work was more enjoyable and turned out better when done together. Neither modernist individualism nor Taylorist reductionism has changed this fact. Get together with your friends. Embrace craft as a social activity.

I’ve long been intrigued by the fact that much manual labor throughout history has been carried along by hearty communal singing. Author Richard Henry Dana wrote in his 1841 memoir, Two Years Before the Mast, “A song is as necessary to sailors as a drum and fife to a soldier. . . . They can’t pull in time, or pull with a will without it. . . . The burden is usually sung by one alone, and, at the chorus, all hands join in, – the louder the noise, the better.” 14
We’ve all heard of the songs of lumberjacks, and George Eliot’s carpenter Adam Bede also took up song to pass the time with his “strong barytone…which was heard above the sound of plane and hammer.” Across the globe, and throughout history, laborers have taken up worksongs not only to ameliorate the drudgery of backbreaking toil, but also because, why not? When you’re working side by side with your siblings and neighbors for hours on end, focused on simple tasks, who wouldn’t want some sort of melodious exchange? Even we moderns have this compulsion on our work sites, though singing has fallen out of favor (perhaps because of our insecurity or maybe just out of convenience); we tend to prefer tuning in to the recorded performance of a professional. The jobsite stereo has an ancient lineage.

Joshua A. Klein, excerpt from “Finding the Groove: The Value of Batch Production Woodworking,” in Issue Eleven


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