When I was a boy, little red-headed, freckle face kid, I had an insatiable desire to use tools and make things with them. I still don’t fully understand the draw I had to create anything and everything I could convince the tools, in my small hands, to create.
I learned first how to take things apart, such as pallets. I knew that the reverse side of a hammer was meant for removing nails, but I’d try to pull them up with it and failed time and again. Then one day I realized I could push the V-shaped end around the nail and then use the hammer like a crowbar to get more leverage and the nails would spring right out. I didn’t even know the word, leverage at that age.
When it sunk in, I figured out that even though I was small, with the tools, I could do what a grown man does. I could make things.
And I still remember the first time I used the hammer to pound the nails and the wood I salvaged from the demolition of the pallets. I was swinging the hammer with my hand choked all the way up the handle so I could be sure to have enough control to hit the nails on the head. Then my dad, walking by, chimed in, “Why don’t let the hammer do the work instead of your arms?”
I responded in true boy fashion with, “Huh?”
“Slide your hand down on the hammer and then give it a swing against the nail.”
To my amazement, I hit the nail. Not only that, but in one swing the nail went more than half way into the wood. My eyes must have lit up with excitement. I did it again and the nail went almost all the way in. I hit it one more time to finish it off. I thought to myself, 3 swings instead of thirty, I like this.
My fascination with building things, along with my ability to use tools continued to grow year after year. I’d take on new and more difficult projects. I liked making anything I could get my hands on, building radios, model cars, Legos, remote control cars, tree houses, underground forts, bikes, birdhouses, tool boxes, and work benches. By the time I was 11 I was spending my entire summer getting up at 5 am to go volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. The guy who mentored and taught me how to build houses at that time bought several tools for me to add to my collection from what my dad had given me. At the age of 12 I was the only boy I knew with a full set of mechanic’s and carpenter’s tools – and I treated them like treasure.
I spent all of my free time tinkering with things, and even started using power tools such as circular saws and jig saws. My mind was blown when I found out I could cut circles into wood.
Fast forward to adulthood – I can rebuild engines, build homes from the ground up, including foundation, electrical, plumbing, framing and everything else in between. I can fix almost anything from small electronics to major appliances. I can make any wooden item you need from cabinets to dining tables. I understand how most things work. In fact, there was a time when I did not own anything that I didn’t fully understand, but then smart phones came into play and ruined everything for me.
Now, I wouldn’t say I’m a craftsman as a mechanic, or really any of the above. What I would say is that I have developed a vast degree of problem solving skills that when combined with my knowledge of tools and the resources around me, can accomplish almost anything.
And that, for me, is what’s at the heart of every craftsman - a strong desire to use their creative mind and employ their working knowledge of tools, while utilizing their available resources to create something that is of the utmost importance to them.
(As a side: A tool doesn’t have to be screw driver or a hammer, it can be a pen and paper, or html code.)
It’s not just a chair that they have made. To the craftsman the chair is a series of shapes and angles all cut to precision, that when sanded, polished and put together make a thing that didn’t exist in the world before, and is useful for themselves and others. Of course chairs exist in the world, but not that particular one, not until the craftsman builds it.
“Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction and skillful execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives, the cumulative experience of many masters of craftsmanship. Quality also marks the search for an ideal after necessity has been satisfied and mere usefulness achieved.” John Ruskin
“Real craftsmanship, regardless of the skill involved, reflects real caring, and real caring reflects our attitude about ourselves, about our fellowmen, and about life.”
For me Craftsmanship is the act of going deeply into some something until its right.
Anyone can stand in an assembly line and apply a few screws to a carburetor before it moves down the line. But the first auto makers, they were the craftsmen. They designed, engineered and built the first cars themselves. They had to see the whole picture. They needed a vision of the outcome, and that cannot be done on the surface.
The assembly line worker doesn’t think about the fact that gasoline is released into the engine, then lit with a spark, and the energy of that fire causing the pistons to move in precise order to produce a circular motion that can then be tapped into with a pulley or gear box to make something move. A person with vision, skill, creativity, and the ability to problem solve has to figure out the whole picture.
But craftsmanship is more than that too.
For me, it’s the thing that drives me to continue to persist when all around me there are temptations to sink into a binge watch of Game of Thrones, or to never fill my brain with a challenging thought, or to spend my days in “quiet desperation” (as Thoreau states). But I am drawn to be better than I am. I am drawn to push myself for the love of creating and learning. I am drawn like a hound to a goose to make the world around me better off than I found it.
Craftsmanship is to the maker or creative what umami is to food. Craftsmanship is the outcome of technique, passion and intention over time. That combination produces change in the world, and changes in the way we react to it.
Now, more than ever we need craftsmen. We need people who are more than designers, more than laborers, and even more than artists. We need the people who explore the status quo and push past it, people who are taking the time to learn control over their craft, to be masters.
I think Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbs) says it the best:
“We don't value craftsmanship anymore! All we value is ruthless efficiency, and I say we deny our own humanity that way! Without appreciation for grace and beauty, there's no pleasure in creating things and no pleasure in having them! Our lives are made drearier, rather than richer! How can a person take pride in his work when skill and care are considered luxuries! We're not machines! We have a human need for craftsmanship!”
Skill and care are what makes work valuable. Without exercising either of those, work is useless to the one engaged in it – which causes the quality of that work to suffer, and therefore the value of it to others to decline. That’s why the assembly line is flawed. That’s why great products can be hard to come by. The work of creating them has been hijacked by efficiency, “ruthless efficiency.”
The idea of craftsmanship should not be a luxury, it should be the standard.
And, if I understand anything about my desire to create things, it’s that to create, is to be human.
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