Monday, December 12, 2011

Furniture making

I had an interview yesterday with a writer from the Arkansas Democrat Gazette newspaper on the subject of furniture making. A couple of my friends who are also furniture makers had suggested that she contact me. There aren't many professional furniture makers in the state despite our abundance of beautiful woods. She wanted to know why.

First, it can be a hard way to make a living. Homeowners can buy what they want at a price they can afford from any number of suppliers foreign and domestic. It takes plenty of imagination for most customers to walk into furniture stores and choose ready-made things that will look nice in their home. When it comes to having something made by a craftsman, it will most likely cost more money, the customer will have to wait for it, there are no exact guarantees that it will work the way they've conceived it, and most customers don't have quite the visual imagination to know how it will look. Most are so used to thinking in words, not pictures, and will have great difficulty applying their imaginations to how a custom-made piece of furniture will fit their home or office decor.

It can be hard for a craftsman to sell enough work to keep in business and get good at making furniture. I was reminded of Joe Doster, one of the furniture makers who had given my name to the reporter. For years, Joe and I sold our work at the same craft shows. He would travel with a truckload of furniture that he hoped to sell in addition to the cutting boards he made. I would always travel with a piece of furniture or two along with my boxes just to let my customers know that I could do so much more. Loading work in and out of exhibit halls is work. Keeping customers aware of our skills as furniture makers was a challenge. Even with all the shows, taking time away from our wood shops, few would know that our skills were available, and selling fine furniture at craft shows did not work for for either of us.

There is an upside. From the craftsman's perspective there are few occupations offering more potential for growth. For customers, there can be no better chance at making their home environment unique and uniquely expressive of personal relationship with fine craftsmanship and materials. Imagine having furniture made from real woods that were grown in your own state or community instead of particle board. A few still care that there is a difference.

But here we come to the crux. Commissioning work from a real live craftsman in a customer's community, fosters growth within that community. Ask a craftsman to make something unique and of great value, and you've asked that craftsman to arise to his or her highest standards, greatest creativity and to a lofty place within human culture.

Perhaps we've all had the experience of being in a major city where buildings are no longer crafted with such care as they once were and seeing beggars in the street. That is the choice we made by going cheap and neglecting craftmanship.

Comenius (1590-1652) was the first great theorist of education. He said, "We give form to ourselves and to our materials at the same time." In other words, the maker of beautiful and useful things busily shapes him or herself at precisely the same time. Thus the woman with paint and brush becomes the artist, the potter at the wheel, hands wet with clay, a craftsman, and in the vast scheme of humanity there are no greater values than those expressed through the arts. It is an alchemy of the truest sort... turning lead lives into the purest gold.

People gripe that they see a dearth of values in our nation and within our communities. We spend our dollars in other countries and understand that our commerce in foreign lands may lift their poor to higher standards, but we have no shared notion that the same principle works amongst our own. As we've given up on craftsmanship in our cities and towns, we've given up on the effort to arise as a culture of caring folks. We were once a nation of craftsmen. Now we are a nation of consumers, and the great pity is that there are some who do not know the difference or care that there is one.

Make, fix and create...


  1. The best furniture comes from the hands of craftsmen, period. The challenge is the economic reality of our times dictates that most items are made in factories far away in China.

  2. "The challenge is the economic reality of our times dictates that most items are made in factories far away in China."

    Maybe if things get bad enough we'll forget China and begin once again to make things ourselves. The renewal o American craftsmanship would pay off in more ways than one.

    Can you imagine cities in which fine woodworking and fine masonry were used once again?

  3. Doug,

    Thank you very much for this post. Could you provide a link to the article once it is published? I would very much like to read. The last paragraph of this blog post was particularly poignant. That quote should be handed out on pamphlets as people pull into the Ikea parking lot.

  4. Anonymous8:19 PM

    "We were once a nation of craftsmen. Now we are a nation of consumers, and the great pity is that there are some who do not know the difference or care that there is one."

    It's more than a pity it's a crime.

  5. Anonymous10:40 AM

    It's sad that there's so little recognition of craft. The economy can only be blamed for part of this. The lack of education about how things are made is a more serious reason.


  6. "We were once a nation of craftsmen" brings to mind Walt Whitman's "I Hear America Singing":

    I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear;
    Those of mechanics—each one singing his, as it should be, blithe and strong;
    The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam,
    The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work;
    The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat—the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck;
    The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench—the hatter singing as he stands;
    The wood-cutter’s song—the ploughboy’s, on his way in the morning, or at the noon intermission, or at sundown;
    The delicious singing of the mother—or of the young wife at work—or of the girl sewing or washing—Each singing what belongs to her, and to none else;
    The day what belongs to the day—At night, the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
    Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious songs.

  7. Tim, that is nice. I have an earlier quote from Walt Whitman in the blog with a shaggy dog story attached.

    In Felix Adler's essay on the value of manual training delivered in Buffalo, NY 1888, at the National Conference of Charities and Corrections, he described a meeting with an aging poet, who I suspected was Walt Whitman*. The aged poet turned to him and said,

    "That is all very well. I like your factories and your wealth; but tell me, do they turn out men down your way?"

    And Adler asks, "Is this civilization of ours turning out men--manly men and womanly women?" Those are the values of character that come from hands-on learning that our schools neglect and that our children so desperately need. Do you think those experts looking for "non-cognitive qualities of success" will know where to look for them or how to create opportunities for them in our nation's schools?

    *When asked about Adler's quote of the "aging poet," Walt Whitman said, "I guess that's me: and it is very kindly and friendly, isn't it?"

  8. Bill,

    Echoes Ruskin, "“You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both.”