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Thread: What defines a real craftsman?

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Mar 2008
    new york city burbs

    What defines a real craftsman?

    Its 2008, and the innovation of power tools and jigs to do almost anything are very prevalant and widely available at sometimes very reasonable prices.
    If someone begans woodworking today, at a nice young age, and becomes an expert in the use of power tools and accessories and turns out incredible work, no matter what the project, is that person still going to be considered a true craftsman of his trade?
    I dont know if in 50 years from now, cutting dovetail joints and M and T joints by hand will be nothing more than an old art that everyone just wants to try once or twice to see how well they can do it.(ofcourse, those that do it for the hobby aspect of it, will always cut by hand, for the sole reason of enjoyment)
    I know Ill get alot of flak for this, but if someone can master perfect joints with a jig, a router, a dado blade, a drill press, etc....does it make him/her less of a true craftsman than someone who spends 10 times as much time hand cutting it all for the same exact result?
    (I understand that cutting by hand will always be a practiced art, but like every profession on earth, things are constantly invented to make life easier, more efficient and sometimes actually more accurate)

    We all use indoor plumbing, all use (well most of us) oil or gas , solar, to heat our homes, have air conditioning, drive autos, and anything else that makes our lives more convenient or comfortable.
    Practicing an art will alway be around, but when it comes to woodworking, Im not sure if a person who masters his craft using the most modern and up to date equipment should be considered any less of an craftsman then a person who still does things the way it was done 200 years ago.(please dont misread me, I dont want to get banned here, Id never knock the skill of an artist, something Ill never obtain, but I dont see an advantage to hand cutting "everything" and considering it more craftsmanshiip than using modern technology to achieve the same result, sometimes modern technology achieving more accurate results)

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Mar 2008
    new york city burbs
    with the respect they deserve, 2 experts in their fields, members here, robert shaubnut, and Jeff Horton, creating a project of beauty from nothing more than drawn plans an Jeff is building a boat that he will use on open water.
    Both extremely talented, both what I consider top craftsman in their trade.
    The top guns, and both use modern technology to produce their desired results or at least thats what Ive been reading.
    If Jeff/s Kayak comes out perfect, and someone who is making one strictly by hand, no power tool. would one be considered a better craftsman then the other?

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Oct 2006
    ABQ NM
    Quote Originally Posted by allen levine View Post
    ... If Jeff/s Kayak comes out perfect, and someone who is making one strictly by hand, no power tool. would one be considered a better craftsman then the other?
    In my opinion, no. Different maybe yes, but better, no.

    I think regardless of the tools or technology involved, "craftmanship" is reflected in the finished product. I've often said jokingly that the difference between a hack and a craftsman is the craftsman knows how to fix (or avoid) his mistakes. I think there may be a kernel of truth to that, though. This applies not only to woodworking, but many other disciplines.

    I think in 50 or 100 years, there will still be a group of folks who prefer to do things the old ways, but the definition of "old ways" may change. Tools like power saws and planing devices may be replaced by CNC technology and lasers, or something we haven't even though of yet. (BTW, where's the flying car Popular Mechanics promised me in 1966?) The "old school" guys might still be using SawStops, or maybe even their great-granddad's Unisaw. I also believe there will also still be a group of true Neander folks, who prefer the nuances of working the wood strictly by hand.
    When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson
    When the weird get going, they start their own forum. - Vaughn McMillan

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Oct 2006
    Tokyo Japan
    I will certainly agree with Vaughn here, there is a LOT more that goes into this woodworking thing than just the ability to run tools well, be that hand tools or the ones with tails

    This discussion reminds me of a scene in MASH, Charles was treating a solider who had lost his right arm, the guy was a fairly famous concert pianist. He did not want to even try to play the piano anymore. Charles got him some sheet music that was specifically written for a left handed only pianist, the guy still did not wish to try. Charles finally got upset with him and said something to the effect.......

    "I can play the notes, mechanically perfect, in key, just like the are written on the paper, but you, you have a talent that is much greater than just the mechanical, technically correct manipulation of the keys, you have that something that makes the music live, soar and become alive, I cannot do it, but you can, don't give that up..........."

    If you catch my drift

    The tools will change, but a true craftsman will always be just that, he will certainly use different materials than his grand father did, and certainly different tools, but he (or SHE!) will certainly still be a "Craftsman".

    The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.
    William Arthur Ward

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Nov 2006
    Villa Park, CA
    This may not be *exactly* what you asked, but to me, the really talented people can both design and build. Any journeyman can build to existing plans but only a exceptional master can create something new - something that's never existed before.

    It's sort of the difference between Einstein and Picasso. If Einstein had never existed, someone else would have developed the theories he's known for because the physical world exists and was waiting for someone to describe it. But if Picasso had never existed we would not have the paintings he did - and his way of looking at the world that he put into his paintings (like "Guernica").

    Exceptional artists/craftspeople are always with us. I would love to see what the next generation working in wood will create. I wish I could do it.

    Ancora imparo
    Go into the world and do well. But more importantly, go into the world and do good.

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Jan 2007
    Sacramento, CA
    I tend to apply a computer programmer's mind to philosophical questions like this - which is probably a sternly biased way of looking at philosophical things, now that I think of it. But It's my brain, so it's what i apply to the world.

    Craftsman means, to me, someone who makes things from raw materials for the benefit of society. This, handily enough, is a sufficiently broad definition to encompass the hand-cut dovetail master that I one day aspire to be as well as the Norm Abram's and Tim Taylor's of the world. Equally. Taking a few hunks of the world, futzing with 'em for awhile and then revealing an item that takes advantage of the properties of the original hunk to perform some service to that very same world the hunks came out off. That's craftsmanship to me.

    For the purposes of deciding what is and what isn't a craftsman, the journey is unimportant. It's the end result. It's up to the craftsman to decide the journey as it is their life (or slice thereof) that they're devoting to it. I don't dare presume to assign value to the journey as an outside observer.

    Now ... as a woodworker, I personally apply a certain value on learning the traditional means of achieving this xyz part. And it ain't for braggin' rights or for snotty "i did it by hand" thumping of sternum. No, for me it's for my own education. Those old timers really understood wood and it's various quirks. I'm after that intimate knowledge because that's how my brains function. I want to truly understand the details of the entire process so that I can better understand the wood itself. I have come to the belief that this is a valuable tidbit of woodworking and I'm also convinced that power tools tend to make it easy to gloss over such details. The journey's great, too, so it helps. But I truly want to understand the grain so that I can put out better stuff. Machined or not, I can't help but benefit from a deeper understanding of the wood itself, I figure.
    Last edited by Jason Beam; 06-17-2008 at 04:47 AM.
    Jason Beam
    Sacramento, CA

  7. #7
    Join Date
    Mar 2008
    new york city burbs
    end product is the same, craftsman is a craftsman.
    People will always work with their hands, and create things because this is a hobby that they chose.
    If a person can create beautiful work, whether he uses hand tools or power tools, I guess they are one of the same.

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Feb 2007
    Difficult one this, and I'm afraid I'll make even more difficult, who is the artist? if we can use the adjective "artist".
    The person that conceives the piece or the person that makes it? This was the one the main changes in the Italian renaissance.

    Say for instance, Greene & Greene buildings, they ideate them but they didn't build them with their hands.
    Of course they surrounded themselves with talented craftsmen, but would those crafstmen be able to create the buildings themselves? Of course they aported their expertise but who was the thinker?

    Translate the question to the car industry, the people that work there are crafstmen? Then why the people that builds a Rolls Royce is regarded as such?

    Can a plumber be a good craftsman, I say yes, his work may not be even seen, and most of the times not even can it be described as artistic but when we want to describe a good plumber we say he/she is an artist to emphasize that he makes his work very well.

    I think that the example that Stu posted goes quite well with I'm saying.
    Best regards,

    __________________________________________________ __________________________________________________ _________________
    web site:
    I also dream of a shop with north light where my hands can be busy, my soul rest and my mind wander...

  9. #9
    I think the subject is really quite complex.

    I think the definition of the term "craftsman" is like is really in the eye of the beholder. I've seen stuff for sale at craft fairs that were pretty crude and junk IMHO but was selling like hot cakes and people spoke very highly of it.

    I've seen stuff made by "neander" methods I thought were but exquisite and junk. I've seen somethings made with the latest technology that fit in both of the aforementioned categories.


  10. #10
    Join Date
    Jun 2008
    Loch Katrine, Nova Scotia, Canada

    a quote

    When it comes to "who's who" and "what's what" for labels and titles, I always refer back to a posting on an old forum years ago. I printed out that posting and have it stapled to the wall above my workbench.

    Woodwork Safely,
    Jim Barry

    What makes a Master Woodworker

    by C. John Herbert - 1/26/2000

    "What makes a "Master woodworker"? Well..... I guess I feel sort of singled out here, and seen this post before and just didn't bother out of seemingly sounding like wanting to blow a horn of sort, or sound like I have an attitude, but here's my take:

    There are carpenters, cabinetmakers, crafts persons, furniture makers, boat builders, hobbyists, and many other categories of woodworking. I know allot of carpenters who can't build a cabinet, and cabinet makers who can't frame a house, or furniture makers who can't layout a set of stairs. Boat builders who build great boats, but never hung a french door from scratch. Carpenters who hang doors, but never made one, or attempted a mortice. I'm sure there are many who can do several woodworking tasks, but never had the opportunity, therefore not having acquired skill levels. Crafts persons who make beautiful boxes, but have no earthly idea how to cut a cabriole leg. It doesn't mean they can't, just means they never did.

    We can argue all day and all week on who's better than who, or who knows more, or what skill level etc., but when I'm called upon for custom work? Be it a home from ground up, high end cabinetry, Architectural millwork, custom door entries, or Queen Ann chair custom fitted for the clients butt alone...... I know I can not only accept the work, but enjoy the challenge and personal reward, knowing that "I can do it along side of the best". Now it doesn't mean that my work is equal to Lonnies, but the work I do is considered superior and high end by clients, and repeat customers, be it in building, cabinetry, or certain furniture. I say certain because not many are experienced enough to make claims of building everything from a Philadelphia highboy, Chippendale copy to a Mahogany racing sloop, circular staircase to a Georgian Colonial and expect it to be built by the same individual in every style imaginable in one lifetime. I am however one of those who can build from a picture and not need a set of plans, be it a home or furniture simply through experience, mechanics, knowledge of wood, properties, and design. Its one thing to work for someone and do what your told (right or wrong) and another to create and be responsible for it. The success is the repeat business and reputation.

    We can talk titles all day long, but its really just a word. Abused by some, but I like to think that the results of my work through the years has afforded me the knowledge and experience to be part of that group. A word that best describes my skill level for the consumer in selecting a competent woodworker that is just not stuck in one specialization, and won't "dabble" in an area on their dollar, he has no experience in. A woodworker who can do their project, and not require another to undo, or continue because I haven't got the ability.

    Unfortunately, however this may be explained, it can never be done humbly and is a phrase that will always come under attack, and scrutiny. There are no tests, exams, or Bars of peers to pass in front of, just simply pride, knowledge, experience and confidence in your work, ability, and accomplishments in the "art of woodworking". Woodworking is truly an art, from the design to its utility either in originality or copying some turn of the century work. All woodworkers are artists in their own right because of the creativity involved, and some prefer to specialize because of the reward and satisfaction. For myself? I enjoy simply accomplishing the complete product from its rawest state to the end by my own hands. There is no greater satisfaction to me than to come to a treed lot, and leave a completed home that I crafted from the foundation, including the leaded custom entry, to the wall to wall entertainment unit complete with shop turnings, special moldings and raised paneled walls, right down to a period hall clock with Sullivan works. I can't begin to count the projects I took out of pure satisfaction as opposed to monetary gains, and still do to this day. I still learn after all these years, because there simply is so much to learn in this art and every day seems to present a new adventure and its one I chose for my own enrichment and satisfaction.

    There are many Master Woodworkers out in this world, and some don't even know it. They earn a living and sustain self employment , survive the pack and one day he reaches a point of comfort knowing who is and what level and certainly doesn't need any title, but has it simply because its deserving. "

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