Tuesday, July 26, 2011

mechanical perfection vs. craftsmanship

Again, it is the old John Henry, but the matter is not only which, man or machine can drive the spikes at the fastest rate, but which can hit true every hammer strike. And of course we, as human craftsmen just can't keep up the pace, but we can strike true. And so briefly, we had a conversation in class yesterday about striving for mechanical perfection. Lila, a professional jeweler strives to make everything she makes as perfectly as if it were made by a machine. It is a tremendous aspiration.

Working with wood gives another angle. Japanese craftsmen, as well as the Amish in our own country, have a belief that our task is not to attain absolute perfection but to simply strive for it, as it is unattainable. The Amish quilter would leave one stitch undone, in reflection on divine perfection. As I say, woodworking is almost another thing entirely. Unlike jewelry, where when the components are placed, they stay that way, woodworking is an invitation to the simple matter of human forgiveness. Wood, as a material continues to be alive, and to move, and the woodworker in his work must not only make the object, but also anticipate where it will go in the course of its life, and the changes in circumstance and moisture conditions it will face. And so as in all things, the craftsman in wood strives not only for quality work, but also for the quality of forgiveness... of materials, circumstances, and self.

Comenius said that the craftsman shapes himself and his materials at the same time. Otto Salomon said that while the value of the carpenter's work is in the object he creates, the value of the student's work is in the student, and so while we are busy making boxes this week, we are really intent on even finer things. And some of that, as we work together in a small space and with limited tools is the most divine of human principles. Forgiveness-- the ability to act creatively under difficult circumstances.

I have been largely negligent in my role as photographer for my ESSA box making class. But in this photo Charles is cutting grooves in box sides for the top and bottom to fit.

Make, fix and create...


  1. This is something I struggle with when making my beds. I strive for mechanical perfection because I believe that is what the customer expects. I'm afraid that the customer might believe he purchased an inferior piece of furniture from a craftsman. After a lifetime of purchasing mass produced goods they might balk at any small imperfection caused by a craftsman. I think it's our job to educate the customers at the value of buying from a craftsman vs buying from a factory. This is an argument I have trouble articulating. However, continually striving for perfection, I think, makes us better craftsman. You are always aware of translating your thoughts to a physical object and conscience of any mistakes or shortcuts you make.

  2. We have grown or fallen so far from our roots. We are faced with choices in everything we do. We can buy cheap from a factory, or we can invest in the work of craftsmen. I say invest because when you simply buy from a factory no growth proceeds from the transaction. When you invest in the work of a craftsman, he or she is brought to a new level of competence and dignity that reflects in the quality of community.

    I think it is so strange that people have through their neglect of others created the situation in which they must retreat to gated communities to protect themselves from those to whom they might have offered growth. That is the essence of immorality and stupidity.