There is Much More in Workmanship than Not Spoiling the Job

Where then can the workmanships of risk and certainty be found? Neither are strictly time- bound, that’s for sure. Not only can free workmanship with hand-guided tools be found today, but its antithesis, the workmanship of certainty, has been around from antiquity. “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.” Pye explains that the most common reasons for employing the workmanship of certainty are speed or accuracy – both especially important for quantity production.

In Pye’s thought, it’s an oversimplification to say that the workmanship of risk is synonymous with the work of the past, because it has “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,” he argues, “the distinction between the two kinds of workmanship is clear and turns on the question: ‘Is the result predetermined and unalterable once production begins?’”

Pye saw the craft vs. mechanization question as a spectrum in which a move away from the workmanship of risk is a move away from craftsmanship. But this is not to say that using unguided tools automatically produces beautiful work because “there is much more in workmanship than not spoiling the job, just as there is more in music than playing the right notes.”

Pye did not imagine that the workmanship of risk would ever again become employed in quantity production, but he did foresee items that are “colloquially called ‘hand-made’…will continue to be specifically made simply because people will continue to demand individuality in their possessions and will not be content with standardization everywhere.” He wrote that workmanship free of jigs or guides has “an immensely various range of qualities [and an] aesthetic richness, delicacy and subtlety,” and that “there is something about the workmanship of risk, or its results; or something associated with it; which has been long and widely valued. What is it, and how can it be continued?” These are the principal questions that his book seeks to answer. 

–Joshua A. Klein, excerpt from “A Fresh and Unexpected Beauty: Understanding David Pye’s ‘Workmanship of Risk’,” in Issue Seven


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