As he explains, the phrase “workmanship of risk” refers to any operation that does not rely on controls such as fences or depth stops to prevent the very real possibility of spoiling the job from cutting too far or incorrectly. This can easily happen with unguided tools when the maker lacks skill, his or her attention drifts, or unanticipated variables (such as sudden grain change) arise. The “risk” Pye refers to, then, is not risk of physical injury from using dangerous tools – the risk is to the object itself.
This mode of work is contrasted with the workmanship of certainty, which is “always to be found in quantity production, and found in its pure state in full automation. In workmanship of this sort the quality of the result is exactly predetermined before a single salable thing is made.” These are work operations that rely on jigs, fences, or other means to control the result. The chief example presented is that of the printing press, which is compared to the riskiness of writing with a pen.
Of course, we’ve all experienced that mechanized production can go wrong, too – the tool can jam, the router bit slips in the collet, or stock can become skewed in the machine. (How many times have we had paper jam in our printers?) While it’s true that mechanized work can be ruined, this observation misses Pye’s point, because mechanical errors like these cannot be attributed to a worker’s lack of manual skill or dexterity. This can be seen more clearly in the example of the typewriter, which Pye calls an “intermediate form of workmanship.” He tells us that although “you can spoil the page in innumerable ways… the N’s will never look like U’s.” Don’t miss this: The heart of the distinction revolves around the degree to which an operation is jigged or guided.
–Joshua A. Klein, excerpt from “A Fresh and Unexpected Beauty: Understanding David Pye’s ‘Workmanship of Risk’” in Issue Seven