Thoughts on "Real Craft"


 

I’ve been interested that the term “Real Craft” has been thrown around a bit the last couple years in green woodworking circles. The hash tag is full of spoon carving, pole lathes, and the like. After doing some digging to try to figure out the origins of this phrase, I realized I should talk with Jarrod Stone Dahl. Jarrod is a spooncarver/bowlturner from the Wisconsin woods who has been using the term more than anyone else so I thought I’d pick his brain about it.

Jarrod sent me to Robin Wood’s commentary on Chris Eckersly’s 2014 “Real Craft” exhibition. Reading Eckersley’s essay and Wood’s critique hit me in just the right spot as I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how craft relates to process. In short, Eckersley’s main point is that the craftsman has been inappropriately elevated to the status of “[fine] artist”. He cites how Leach’s A Potter’s Book encouraged potters to think of themselves as artists rather than craftspeople. He writes, I believe this is the worst thing that could have happened, because it significantly reduced the chances of any collaboration between studio craft and industrial production.” Eckersley goes on to contend that “the machine… is just a useful tool” and that “real craftsmanship can coexist with mechanized practice”. He says that craft is “real” in the sense that it “occurs in the real everyday world, and not in a fine art studio, nor at a heritage site, nor as a hobby or pastime”.

Wood responded that, to him, what makes one’s craft “real” has more to do with the balance of skill and challenge. Leaning on the insightful research of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, he wrote, “Jobs even though repetitive can be fulfilling if involving skill and challenge and we are recognised for the skill we posses. For Wood, no tool ought to be utilized in a way that makes the process “dull” and “mindless”. He explains that real craft is seen most clearly in the place where there is challenge in the process and sufficient skill to meet that challenge, what Csikszentmihalyi calls being in “flow”.

This chart above is Csikszentmihalyi’s diagram showing how more challenge than skill in a situation results in arousal or eventual anxiety, more skill than challenge results in relaxation and eventual boredom, and work that involves neither results in apathy. I agree with Wood that these insights are particularly relevant to our understanding of genuine craft work. For more on “flow” watch Csikszentmihalyi’s TED Talk here.

MY TWO CENTS

To add to this discussion, I would simply like to state the obvious: craft implies tradition. The application of human skill to developed trades is the most basic definition of “craft”. “Crafted” products (such as furniture) are a result of the craft process. This is why none of us would consider a 3D printed copy of a slat back chair as “craft”. Although precisely fabricated, the production of 3D printed or CNC goods involve no traditional process, skill, or challenge. Don’t read me wrong here. I’m not saying that there is no skill in 3D printing or CNC work; I’m saying it is not traditional skill utilized. This is not a quality judgment because the 3D printed product may be (and likely is) more precisely produced, with details more exactly executed than even the most experienced human hand can do. What is at issue here, however, is the use of the word “craft” in relation to process. Is process truly irrelevant to the meaning of “craft” as Eckersley tells us? If a CNC machine cut all your parts and joinery out for you, would you feel comfortable calling that “craft” simply because it was your human fingers that pressed the computers keys to design the parts that the CNC would cut?

EVIDENCE OF PROCESS

All makers closely inspect created goods. We examine everything from shape and form to execution of individual brushstrokes. Furniture nerds are particularly disposed to this. It’s hard for us to be at an exhibition or historic house without getting down on our knees to stick our heads under the tables. But here is the heart of the thing for me… what exactly is it that we are looking for in those moments?

We are looking to understand process and construction. Preindustrial furniture is rife with this information in a way that machined furniture is not. (Again, this is not a “quality” judgment.) The tool marks left behind so vividly reveal the order of operations, the idiosyncrasies of that particular piece of wood, and the values and training of the maker. It is reading this kind of information that enriches our experience of crafted goods. The most precisely produced furniture with the undersides machine sanded to 220 without flaw, tells us very little about the maker and the creation process. As a fellow creative human being, I honestly find that disappointing. Why would we want to erase our fingerprints to mimic the fingerprints of a machine?

There are other makers that appreciate historic secondary surfaces but use machines up until the “last pass” in which a hand plane is used for historic surface quality. Because, in my view, tool marks are first and foremost genuine evidence of process, the faux tool textures of Pottery Barn “rustic” furniture seem disingenuous. These marks that are intended to suggest a so-called “handcrafted” piece, betray their machine origins. These marks are not marks of true process. They are surface decoration to suggest that that it is something that it is not. It seems, to me, a more transparent practice to leave the secondary surfaces with the natural evidence of process, whether that be by machine or hand tools.

I am convinced that if more furniture makers had exposure to preindustrial secondary surfaces, we could cultivate an ethos in which makers were comfortable with historically informed secondary surface tear out, tool marks, and irregularity noticeable by eye. And this cultivation is something I think we need to do. It is only when we understand and embrace the standards that were put on hand tools before machines were utilized that will we feel empowered to embrace traditional (i.e. “hand tool only”) woodworking. I mean, the process of working wood is why we are woodworkers anyway, right? If it were only about having the product, it would be a lot simpler investment to simply pull out your wallet.

So what is the ethos of “Real Craft” to me? It’s this authentic traditional craft process that provides honest tool marks which function as evidence of process.

Thoughts, readers?

 

 

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. Also, please refer to our follow-up post for further clarifications.

 

David Young:

Great post, Derek. There’s only one point I think I would semi-disagree with. With respect to any products that are machine produced (CNC or 3D printed, in your example above), I feel it is incorrect to say there’s no “traditional” skill utilized. No matter how a product arrives at it’s finished state, it must first be designed, and I would argue that therein lies your traditional skill. Design dates back as long as humans have built things, and it is steeped in tradition, innovation, skill, knowledge, and process. Without it, we would not have Green & Green, Arts & Craft, Stickley, Shaker, Contemporary, or any other of the craft styles we see today.

 

            Joshua replied:

            David Y,

Your point is well taken… design is not a mechanized process. I was specifically speaking to the process of making here but thank you for forcing that clarification.

  

Jim Dee:

If you disallow craft status for CNC-produced work you must also disallow it for work produced with routers and/or shapers, for in all three the same sort of tool is cutting the wood, and in all three cases the same type of tool and/or wood is being guided by a template prepared beforehand. This is especially the case from the point of view of a person looking at a finished product (and by the way, your switch of point of view from maker to onlooker needs some examination). You are writing as though Pye isn’t out there, and it’s holding you back from making some good points worth being made. This subject and your thoughts on it are very important and worth quite intense scrutiny.

 

            Joshua Replied:

            Thanks for your thoughtful critique, Jim Dee. Pye discusses all kinds of workmanship, but defines the one called “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

I see the craft vs industrial question as a spectrum in which, the further one moves from “the workmanship of risk”, the further they move from “craftsmanship”. CNC work may be beautiful, precise, and exquisitely executed workmanship but it wouldn’t technically be considered “craft”, in my view. My point is merely about terminology, not morality.

 

Ben Erehnstrom:

Early man used spears to harvest game for food and survival. Along came the invention of the bow and arrow, a much more efficient means of accomplishing the same task. I’m doubtful, early man would disdain the use of the bow and arrow for not being a pure enough method of harvest, and therefore resort back to the spear.
Likewise, I believe if the pre-industrial woodworker had access to a saw mill over the traditional pit saw, as a means of processing lumber, they would have jumped at the opportunity. I believe the pre-industrial woodworker paid less attention to secondary surfaces solely due to the amount of time it took to bring these non-seen surfaces to a quality similar to the exposed surfaces. 
As an artisan I agree with you CNC produced wood products don’t appeal to me in the least. I call it “peel and stick” design. Although it can be impressive to the eye, and appealing to the pocket book, it still leaves me cold. 
It’s hard for me to know at what point the use of machines has crossed the line and gone too far, at the same time, I can’t help but feel, if pre-industrial man had the ability to slab lumber in a mill, flatten it on a jointer and thickness it with a planer, they would have jumped at the chance. After all, although there were artisans among them, most were just laborer’s. They produced products we today view as art because we can appreciate the difficulties they undertook to create the pieces we admire, using the methods available to them at the time.

 

            Joshua Replied:

            Ben E,

Agreed. I’ve written to some of this previously here: http://www.workbenchdiary.com/2015/05/they-wouldve-used-plywood-if-they-had-it.html

  

Peter Lawrence:

This is a fantastic article that really dissects the art of furniture making and the craft behind it. I like power tools. I use power tools. But as a furniture maker the more I use and see furniture being made with hand tools I honestly see the craft more clearly. Hand tools give me that dangerous approch to furniture making because they let me be incontrol over the shape and look of my piece. 
Our culture likes stories and in our day of CNC made products is hard to see any storie at all. The tool marks, The rough to the refind is what really tells the story behind the craft.

 

Clark Schoonover:

When my youngest son was getting ready to head off to art college, we had a discussion about why he needed to learn all of the different styles and methods. I told him that some people can paint a house but could not paint a portrait to save themselves. Others can draw plans for highly complicated structures and machines, but could not draw a human or animal figure much beyond a stick figure. He was very good at drawing super heroes but didn’t really draw much else. I told him that very few people have the ability to transfer the picture in their heads into something real. That is called craft. It could be two or three dimensional, but you needed to learn how to draw, paint, sculpt, or shoot videos or film in order to make your ideas real.

 

Jarrod Stone Dahl:

This is a great subject for discussion and a hard one to have in blog and comment format. But I’ll throw a LITTLE bit of my point of view into the quagmire.

To me ‘RealCraft’ has to do mainly with the continuum and by this I mean the tradition of making, designing and creating objects for utilitarian function. Craft objects to me are tied to the utilitarian origins of the design of the said objects first and foremost. They can be made by CNC (automated tools) electric tools or tools driven by human power. I would argue that ALL are driven by human control to varying degree. The problem is that most of the time the more modern methods of carrying out the work, influence design in favor of profit, and by that I mean, quick, easy, less skill involved in assembly, etc. This is not an absolute but a choice. I could carve nearly the same spoon with a Dremel and spur or axe and knife, save for the finish, unless I sanded both spoons. Design is not influenced by the tool! most of the time. Unfortunately we don’t see much else coming from the most modern methods of design and production. The objects seem to be designed for the machines making them instead of for the objects themselves. If the sawyer took the time and understood the material sawn boards could be just the same as riven. This would mean that crooked wood would not do the job sawn or split if we are to compare quality of a straight board.

So for me it comes down to the history, but not the history in the technical making, but the mind, our mindset as makers. What is it we are making and why? Who are we as makers of craft objects? Real craft to me is making craft objects, being challenged to make to some degree (as Robin’s take) but not limited to (this could solely be in the design world in regards the more modern version of design and automated production) but most importantly understanding the history and context to the objects we make. This is the continuum! What are the varies traditions of the objects we make? This means going back to the very original utilitarian functions the design was created to serve, but also the cultural functions many of the craft objects have evolved too or are very much tied too.. This to me is might be realcraft.

A great subject with no true answers, just discussion and thought…..

 

Liam Murphy:

Although I enjoyed the post, I do not agree that craft implies tradition (C→T). I think your argument suffers from several informal logical fallacies. 
1- You are Begging the question-Your claim C→T seems to be both a premise and the conclusion. Why is this case? Can you explicitly provide reasons why? You don’t defend the idea, you simply assume that we should agree with you.
2- Your argument C→T is an “appeal to tradition.” Well that’s just the way we’ve always….
3- Historian’s Fallacy- We don’t have the same perspective as people from the past. I don’t think we can make broad statements about their perspectives on these topics. Regardless, I think it is safe to say that people in the past do not have the same conceptions of craft and tradition as we do today. Conceptions of craft and tradition change over time. What you call “traditional”, 18th century people may have considered contemporary, or modern.

 

            Joshua replied:

            Liam M,

To your first question, I would simply refer you to the dictionary definition. Check out the OED. Also, this video touches on the history of the crafts: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-history-basics/beginners-art-history/v/is-there-a-difference-between-art-and-craft-laura-morelli

I guess I am not sure where you see me making assertions about what makers of the past believed. You wrote, “I think it is safe to say that people in the past do not have the same conceptions of craft and tradition as we do today. Conceptions of craft and tradition change over time. What you call “traditional”, 18th century people may have considered contemporary, or modern.” I completely agree. Not sure where there is a disagreement here.

 

            Liam replied:

            Joshua, 
My issue is the claim that craft implies tradition, and that you seem to discount modern production methods because they are not based on traditional craft processes. I agree that craft involves tradition, but I think the use of the word “implies” creates too strong of a causal connection between the two concepts. In formal logic the term “implies” has much stronger implications than in ordinary language. Check out a definition for material conditional if you want to see what I mean. You may not mean to indicate such a strong connection. However, the rest of your argument seemed to support excessively strong connections between tradition and craft. In my other post I was simply trying to make the case that traditions aren’t a fixed or finite thing, and that they shouldn’t be used to define other intangible concepts- in this case crafts.

 

            Joshua replied:

 Liam,

Thank you for your clarifications. To help me further understand your view, would you be willing to you provide your definition for “craft” or “craftwork”? Is it perhaps bound up with the utility/functionality of the object? It seems to me that what you’re saying might “imply” that all made objects without exception (from studio furniture to red solo cups) could properly be considered “craft”. Forgive me if that comes across as sarcastic. It’s not. I am simply interested to see where you would draw the line between “craft” and other kinds of workmanship, if you have one at all. Thanks for hanging in there with me. I’m really enjoying the dialogue.

 

            Liam replied:

            Joshua, I’m not sure I believe that there is real definition of craft. However, I think I like the Ancient Greek concept of techne the best.  
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Techne 
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/episteme-techne/#2

I think the concept of craft applies to things besides making physical objects. I think it can include anything from writing code to turning bowls.

 

  

Polly Beckton:

You let this from Eckersly pass by without specific attention to the last few words, as did the comments from Wood: " Eckersley goes on to contend that ‘the machine… is just a useful tool’ and that ‘real craftsmanship can coexist with mechanized practice.’ He says that craft is ‘real’ in the sense that it ‘occurs in the real everyday world, and not in a fine art studio, nor at a heritage site, nor as a hobby or pastime.’ "
Seems to me that work at a heritage site, i.e. Williamsburg or etc., or for the vast number of part time woodworkers (hobbiests or “pastime” woodworkers are these days deserving quite a lot of credit for preserving the traditions you speak of and for renewing the processes of craft. I would like to offer my salute for all those, and even for those who strive to make woodworking a (fine) art, for doing the good work of preservation and evolution of tools, processes and (in many cases) sharing their information and often wisdom with all of us.

 

            Joshua replied:

            Polly,

Thank you. Yes, you’re right that “heritage sites” should be commended for preserving historic craft. They serve a wonderful educational role in our cultural landscape.

 

 

Andrew Ladouceur:

The general sentiment of this blog post reminds me greatly of the writings of John Ruskin. I think anyone who finds themselves agreeing/identifying with the author here would equally enjoy some of Ruskin’s 19th century works on architecture, notably a particular chapter from The Stones of Venice, entitled The nature of Gothic.

A copy can be found here:
https://archive.org/details/natureofgothicch00rusk

The rest of the book is equally enjoyable, as is his The Seven Lamps of Architecture.

 

Nick:

See – I’d have to say that this project exibits all of the charatristics that you ascribe to #RealCraft, yet is thoroughly modern in that it has to be produced by CNC – https://vimeo.com/channels/staffpicks/74350367
http://metropolismag.com/Point-of-View/November-2014/First-Look-Getting-to-Know-the-Finalists-of-the-MoMA-PS1-Young-Architect-Program/index.php?cparticle=6&siarticle=5#Dillenburger

The discussion arround #RealCraft seems to me needs to engage more with modern form of making – and also the move to make more modern objects – rather then simply reproducing the historical.

ETH Zurich has a fantastic Masters on creating #RealCraft with digital fabrication tools (http://www.dfab.ch/education/mas/).  
Just becouse you don’t work the wood by hand does not make it less then #RealCraft if real craftmanship is involved.

Fundomentaly we move on and learn as a sociaty & the ‘Craftmanship of Risk’ or of ‘Skill’ evolves as we learn & grow. There is good CNC based work that meets or exceeds both your Pyn’s defination of Craft – its being produced by Architects in design/build practices though.

Limiting #RealCraft to reproductions of histoical objects with traditioal methods fundomentaly undervalues the imporance of Craft and of Craftmanship today.

#RealCraft is still alive today, but it is truly living though those who utalize digital tools in the pursuit of craftmanship.

To be honest I’m not sure if #RealCraft is truly still alive in those who fetishize the historical, there is seems to be on life-support.

 

Charlie:

Thanks so much for posting this article and encouraging the discussion that has come about because of it. Fostering conversations such as these, ones that critically examine not only the work we do, but the ideas and concepts surrounding it is one of the most important things that professional makers can do. And it is extremely difficult. Nowhere more so than in the actual defining of the term “Craft” and dealing with its centuries of accumulated baggage. So thanks again, and here are another two cents.

It is true that craft implies tradition, but as Nick points out below, it hugely undervalues Craft in general to use it as a definition. At best, taking tradition as a defining quality of craft presents a huge array of paradoxes for us to confront. When did the first Craft come into existence? And how so if there was no tradition behind it? How do we separate those historical methods of production that do count as part of the craft tradition from those that do not? How long must we wait, and how many chairs must we make using a CNC router before we can officially call that Craft? At worst, such a definition relegates craft to an extremely narrow, antiquarian box where it is likely to whither. Romance alone will not save more than a few of us.

Take, for example, the carved spoon; a craft on the rise with a long and rich history behind it. As Jarrod brought up earlier, the spoon is not a Craft object simply because of the hundreds of thousands of spoons that came before it. Nor is it a Craft object because it was made using an axe and a knife. The long lineage of spoons is evidence only that certain design characteristics do a good job of meeting certain needs. Similarly, the global presence of the object simply points to the universality of those needs, not any status as Craft.

Rather than a definition, tradition is a symptom, an indication, really, of one of the fundamental qualities of Craft. Craft objects exist as part of a long continuum of objects that are tied together by human needs and ideas. They are, at root, innate, tacit, utilitarian — fundamental. Which gives Craft one of its most incredible and important characteristics; the ability to bridge the gaps of time, language and culture through a connection to real, physical aspects of the basic human condition and the world around us. What ought to be the focus of a discussion and definition of Craft is the object at hand; it’s purpose, design and success or failure at accomplishing that purpose — it’s utility. That utility, the object’s ability to fulfill a physical need while remaining aesthetically pleasing to both hand and eye, all while remaining affordable and accessible to the everyday world, is the holy grail of creating an authentic, relevant, modern day craft object.

Don’t get me wrong, I have a degree in history, turn bowls on a pole lathe and make windsor chairs using predominately hand tools. I wholeheartedly embrace the ethos of the tool mark —just not solely for its own sake. The reason there are tool marks on the underside of a table top, or saw kerfs extending well into the inside of half blind dovetails, has nothing to do with the correct or best way for dovetails to be cut or a board milled. Nor were they left out of the desire to enrich anyone’s experience of the object. They were left because real world constraints of time and efficiency demanded it. To forget this is another step towards backing ourselves into a corner from which it is increasingly difficult for us to eek out a living as a professional maker. Worse still, it can easily limit the ability of craft objects to spread throughout the modern industrial world we live in and effect real change.

So yes, we absolutely should study historical examples of the objects we make, but not to encourage blind mimicry, or to prove to ourselves that it is possible to carry out a task using only hand tools. Instead, we should study objects to gain a better understanding of the purpose and function of those objects, and to thereby develop a deeper understanding of the tolerances of real craftsmanship that will allow it to remain both authentic and relevant now and in the future. That, as Eckersley writes in the original essay, is the meaning of “Real” Craft: “real in the sense that it occurs in the real everyday world.”

 

            Joshua replied:

            Charlie,

Wow! Thanks for investing such time into your comments! Great thoughts. A few responses:
1. I didn’t mean to say tradition is the definition of craft. I only meant to say that I think recognizing the heritage of the craft process should be foremost in our thinking about it. I’m not advocating blind mimicry at all. I’m merely saying that if we design a spoon on a computer and print it out on a 3D printer, I have a hard time seeing how that is genuinely within the spoonmaking craft. In my understanding, craft work is bound up with the workmanship of risk and Csikszentmihalyi’s emphasis on challenge and skill. In this definition, CNC programming is highly skilled technical work but not spoon “craft”, per se.
2. Re: tool marks, I am in full agreement that tool marks are not an end in themselves. That’s actually what I was attempting to communicate: tool marks are honest evidence of process. No more, no less. The time constraints and values of period artisans are clearly seen in these marks. The reason I (as a 21st century artisan) appreciate these marks is because they so clearly tell the story of the object’s making which is in such contrast to today’s rampant mechanized and plastic factory production. I know that’s not why period artisans left their tool marks but I leave mine to consciously align myself with that heritage. All I’m saying it, if a 21st century maker values tool marks, it think it’s tacky to make it on a CNC machine and then mimic hand tool marks to make it look “hand made”. 
Thanks for you great thoughts, Charlie! Thinking through this stuff “out loud” is really helping me work through these thorny issues!

 

Robert Lindh:

CNC has no place in craftsmanship…An item even only partly worked by computer next to a traditionally,or even machine helped item…is out of place…belongs in Ikea store. PERIOD….A COMPUTER DOING THE WORK IS NOT CRAFTSMANSHIP>>IT IS A PROGRAMERS /COMPUTERS WORK not a humans work!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!…HELL>WHO CAN’T EVEN PROPERLY HOLD A CARVING CHISEL CAN CARVE WITH A COMPUTER/CNC.

 

            Nick replied:

            Robert – working with a CNC is a skill – just like holding a chisel. Either one anybody can learn – Craftmen today use both, but to disregard either as not being a craft would be wrong I would say.

 

Nick:

Joshua-
Those real constraints in terms of time and money are seen in the toolmarks at Bar Ravel in Toronto (http://www.archdaily.com/619779/bar-raval-partisans), the inside has been carved into Gaudi like carved wood, and the narrow or wide toolmarks from the Ball Mill in the CNC router which carved the pieces show the path that the router took and its literal ‘hand’ – just as a Jack plane shows the tools path and the ‘hand’ of its maker.  
In both cases the tool paths and the tool marks were chosen by the artisan making the work.

You talk about CNC programing being a highly tecnhical skill but that it does not fit within what you define as the “workmanship of risk and Csikszentmihalyi’s emphasis on challenge and skill”  
I think that by that defination you would be hard pressed to say that for a woodworker passing plywood across a table saw making kitchen boxes 8hrs a day in a specilized kitchen workshop that craftmanship exists either. In the same way, cutting kitchen cabanites out of plywood with a CNC is arguably not craftsmanship either. In both cases we have sufficient knowledge to know how to do it well enough that there is little question that there will be a functioning kitchen at the end of the process and we can break it down very easily into unit pricing and after how many lin ft of wood that the scorer blade in the sliding panel saw needs to be sharpened.

If you want to discuss craftmanship of risk and of skill, today (if you are not using historical industrial techniques like hand carving greenwood into spoons, or making your own furniture with an anarchitsts tool chest) – then you need to discuss those projects where there is a question of buildability – those projects or objects that are at the bleeding edge of manufacturability. There you see #RealCraft, but the craftman are almost always using CNC as one tool among many.

 

Patrick Ford:

Craft is objects of use in service to quality. 
Craft is first an object (not an identity) which is used to provide a service to the owner for functional needs, ritual or artifact. It is also a service to the material that the maker elevates the elements of the natural world (Earth, Metal, Fiber, glass, leather and wood) to his/her highest level of skill and free choice. Finally craft is a service to our human heritage, a continuame of our creative legacy that is pulled together by quality. It is always changing to relate to our culture but craft never forgets the lessons passed down from master to apprentice. I believe craft is much more important than productivity, precision or consistency. It is our human story let’s not let robots tell it for us.