Craftsmanship: A Word to Start an Argument With


When I wrote the previous post titled “Thoughts on Real Craft”, I wasn’t anticipating such an active interaction with readers. (If you missed that last post, you might want to go back and read it to make sense of the clarifications here.) The post was written as a way to think out loud and get feedback. Boy, did I get feedback! I am grateful for such passionate and thoughtful readers who are willing to invest time into this discussion. Thank you for your comments! I appreciate your participation so much, in fact, that I am looking into upgrading the commenting system to a platform that is easier to use and read in the future.

The conversations I’ve been having with folks brought to light the need for some clarifications. Writing is hard, especially when dealing with words that have so much baggage attached to them. I tried to be clear but let me say this first and foremost: if my post was interpreted as belittling the skill or work of power tool users or as touting my work as superior to theirs I take the blame that I obviously wasn’t clear enough. My apologies. Many of my closest friends and colleagues use power tools to build furniture every day. I highly admire their work and readily acknowledge that their experience and skill is far beyond my own.

My Objective in Exploring the Term

My original goal was to figure what this term “real craft” meant. I wasn't the one who made it up. In fact, I probably would have avoided choosing such a loaded word as “real”. Taken one way, it could sound divisive as if anyone who doesn’t work in X way is “false” or an “imposter”. I don’t think that’s what was intended by Eckersley but I see the potential of it coming across that way. My assumption is that what he was trying to do was to probe the heart of what the term “craft” means. One of the things that David Pye is so praised for among woodworkers is that he furnished us with a precise terminology for issues relating to workmanship. He cuts past the “hand tool” vs. “power tool” level of debate and constructs a better, more consistent framework. I don’t read in him any goal of ostracizing certain kinds of work or workers. He just wanted to clarify the discussion. In that spirit I wrote my thoughts on this term that’s been floating around.

Clarifying My Thought Process

So with the understanding that I was exploring what the heart of “craft” is versus other kinds of workmanship, a simple dictionary definition may be a good starting point. Here is the OED American English dictionary entry for the word:

Craft (noun)

1 An activity involving skill in making things by hand:

1.1 Work or objects made by hand:

1.2 Skill in carrying out one’s work:

1.3 Denoting or relating to food or drink made in a traditional or non-mechanized way by an individual or a small company

Hmmm… So what do we think of this definition? Although it’s hard to argue with the OED, I think that good Pye students would point out that the phrase “by hand” is technically meaningless in all crafts (pottery excepted). That quibble aside, this entry echoes all the other dictionary sources I’ve checked. The two themes seem to be “by hand” and “with specialized skill”.

Even if “by hand” is imprecise, I think it’s worth considering what this definition is supposed to be getting at. How are these dictionaries trying to distinguish “craft” from “make”? Based on the most common understanding of the phrase, I think what they are trying to describe is Pye’s infamous workmanship of risk. But is seeing the workmanship of risk at the heart of “craft” consistent with the way Pye used these terms? I think it is.

In Chapter 2 of The Nature and Art of Workmanship, Pye describes different types of workmanship and concedes the thorny nature of the word “craftsmanship”. Although he warns that “It is a word to start an argument with” (how true!), he defines “craftsmanship” in relation to the workmanship of risk…

“If I must ascribe meaning to the word craftsmanship, I shall say as a first approximation that it means simply workmanship using any kind of technique or apparatus, in which the quality of the result is not predetermined, but depends on the judgment, dexterity, and care which the maker exercises as he works. The essential idea is that the quality of the result is continually at risk during the process of making; and so I shall call this kind of workmanship ‘The Workmanship of Risk’: an uncouth phrase, but at least descriptive.” – David Pye, The Nature and Art of Workmanship pg.20

For Pye, then, “craft” is bound up with the workmanship of risk. (This seems to be related to Robin Wood’s focus on skill and challenge.) I agree.

Where then this can this workmanship of risk be found? It’s not strictly time bound, that’s for sure. The workmanship of certainty has long been with us. Pye again: “The workmanship of certainty has been in occasional use in undeveloped and embryonic forms since the Middle Ages”.  This concurs with Jonathan Thornton’s observation that “the aim of the careful worker in the European tradition was to reduce variation by skill and increasingly, by ever more complex tools.”

All tools fall somewhere on the spectrum of risk and certainty. No tool makes the result completely “at risk” or “certain”. Putting all this together, I see the craft vs mechanization question as a spectrum in which, the further one moves away from “the workmanship of risk”, the further they move away from “craftsmanship”. 

So I got some surprising kickback when I stated that “craft implies tradition”. Some apparently took that to mean I thought work of integrity was found in historic reproductions alone. Sorry if that tripped anyone up. All I meant to say was that in our reflecting on what the craft of working wood is, we have to acknowledge that these skills and methods have developed over many generations. We aren’t making in a vacuum. When we approach our material (wood) to make our project (say, a chair) we aren’t completely reinventing the wheel here. These techniques have been passed down from generation to generation: the definition of “tradition”. When we pick up our tools to work wood, we are drawing on the thousands of years of craft wisdom. That’s all I meant to say.

Although it is obviously impossible to make rigid quantitative boundaries on just how much certainty a tool must provide in order to be considered workmanship of certainty, I think it is clear that there is a difference between a handplane and a CNC machine. In the words of Pye, “the workmanship of risk in most trades is hardly ever seen, and hardly ever been known, in a pure form, considering the ancient use of templates, jigs, machines and other shape-determining systems which reduce risk. Yet in principal the distinction between the two kinds of workmanship is clear and turns on the question: ‘Is the result predetermined and unalterable once production begins?”

It’s Not About “Who”

I don’t think the issue is about who is a “true craftsman” and who is not. We all make different choices about how to use differing kinds of technology to bring the most amount of joy into our lives. I regularly make use of my smart phone, computer, and DSLR camera. I love it and wouldn’t want to change that. I use a chainsaw to cut my firewood and an axe to split it. I use a cordless Makita with torx screws to assemble simple homestead projects. But when I build furniture, I love to do it in the historic craft tradition characterized by the workmanship of risk which relies on “the judgment, dexterity, and care which the maker exercises as he works”. That, in my mind, is the heart of “craftsmanship”.


I hope this clarifies my thoughts on the matter without stepping on anymore toes. Feel free to leave a comment if you’d like to participate in this conversation. I look forward to hearing your thoughts…


Due to migrating to a different commenting platform, our comments for this post were removed. Because we value this conversation so much we’ve added them here as an addendum to the original post.


Freddy Roman:

It is all too bad people feelings got hurt. But in this world people need to understand Tradition is passed done. Handmade is truly beautiful and showcases something a CNC will never. Mounding made by hand look far better than by a router. But we must make choices and this is the risk we take. To Make something in high quality involves skill, tradition, and sometimes apprentices “the machines” , but in the end hand work and hand tools is what brings out the natural brauty in the wood. Great posts Josh!




Sean McCurdy:

Interesting post on a topic rife with the ability to be misinterpreted. I particularly like that you try to move the conversation past the physical tools used and into a more philosophical realm. Taken to the extreme, one could argue that working wood with anything more than a sharp stone isn’t"traditional".

Working as an engineer professionally, I view the creation process as a management of risk. If you are working to recreate a thousand pieces which must all be interchangeable, you bet that there will be jigs involved. If you’re making a one-off piece (such as my woodworking hobby) then your risk picture looks far different. In my view, then making a dozen jigs simply doesn’t make sense, even if it means having to go back and re-make a part. I wouldn’t assign either of them as the “right” way to do a task regardless of circumstance. Instead, I’d be looking for what makes the most sense for the given situation.

My point being, when discussing terms like these that have different meanings to different people, working to establish your perspective (as this article does) goes a long way towards gaining understanding of the author’s perspective, which does us all a service.

Really appreciate the thoughtful article



Daniel Schwank:

One of the definitions mentioned above is “Skill in carrying out one’s work.” As a tool and die maker, I believe there is an extensive amount of craftsmanship in using CNC machinery to produce precision parts. I have made highly complex parts for the Mars rover, Curiosity, made from exotic materials with tolerances of .0002". This absolutely requires a lot of skill and, in reality, has a high “workmanship of risk”. I believe that both power and hand tools can be considered part of the craft equation, but the end result will be different, as will the journey to get there. Someone once compared the difference this way: With power tools you do something to the wood, but with hand tools, you work with it. I use power for some of the heavy work, but enjoy hand tools for their quiet efficiency, and the wonderful feeling of of creating completely with my own two hands. The subtle irregularities of hand made furniture cannot be reproduced with power tools.



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