How does one set about becoming a craftsman? (I’ll hold off on the ideas of craft vs. art for now)
Typically, the desire to make something is within all of us. Whether it is in our DNA or just our culture, we all have creative capabilities that manifest themselves in different ways. Some paint. Some sculpt. Some of us choose wood as our medium.
I think it’s pretty common to see people approach woodworking with a “let’s see what happens” attitude. My personal experience started with a tablesaw, since I needed to cut wood and couldn’t saw a straight, square cut by hand. I still can’t to this day.
From there, the normal acquisition of tools to make boards flat and square arises. We buy planers and jointers and sanders to help with the basics foundations. Some of us like to do things by hand, so we buy the manual tools of our forefathers in an effort to be more hands on. My personal view is that the board doesn’t really care how it gets flat and square, and the piece that it becomes cares even less. All of these things are immaterial to the end product, but it seems that most people start here without fail.
So if it doesn’t matter how we prep materials, then what does matter? We must have some level of skill with all of the tools (manual or powered) to be able to successfully execute a project without loss of life or limb. I will contend that the single most important tool that we can develop along the path is our mind.
We’re all born with an inherent sense of good vs. bad design. I don’t know how to make clothes, cars, houses, plumbing fixtures- but I know an ugly one when I see it. We can sense proportion and craftsmanship without knowing about the manufacturing process. We judge quality all of the time. To me, there is nothing worse than great execution of a poor design. It shows talent without thought.
My personal path in wood working is a parable for illustrating my point. I began making furniture, but was unhappy with the results, so I stopped. I’d follow the plans I saw in magazines and inevitably over the course of months, be disappointed with the end result: a sum of errors and lost time. I tripped across woodturning somewhat by accident, and like past experience, decide to try it to “see what happened”.
Not surprisingly, I measured success by quantity, not quality. If I made more things more quickly, I must have been getting better, right? Then, a funny thing happened. I started to buy books and read. The books were about technique, but moreso, design. I held my work against the pages and became “unhappy” again, as I realized that I was turning “lots of stuff that wasn’t very good.”
I began to reevaluate my priorities. Was it better that everyone I knew had an ugly bowl or that some people I knew had pretty bowls? I began to slow down. Before long, the work improved. When I started, I measured success in bowls per day. Today, it’s more appropriate to think in days per bowl.
So in summary, I’d like to offer the the following advice to anyone considering taking up the craft of woodworking. Practice with your tools so that you can work safely, but do not rely on the tools to make decisions for you. Read voraciously to become an expert, and use what you learn to guide you in execution.
I’ll leave you with this final thought:
100 years from now, someone might look at what you’ve made. They won’t know how you made it or how long it took. All that will stand the test of time is the object itself and your name attached to it.
Evolve past your tools.