As we try to settle into an online community for the duration of this outbreak, I thought I would try to open up some discussion on mission-related topics.
The attached pages are from David Pye's 1968 book, The Nature and Art of Workmanship. I hope they stimulate some discussion, particularly as we integrate our new CNC machine into our workspace. Please feel free to share your thoughts. And please forgive the antiquated pronouns.
OK. I apologize for starting this discussion off with a reading. It is a question I'd like to throw around with anyone interested however.
Since we will have access to a very capable CNC machine later this year, the question of whether something is made using the "workmanship of risk" or "certainty" is on my mind. The attached photos, for example, show a sculptural guitarist's stool that I have made for many years. It requires a great many hours of shaping, smoothing sanding and finishing. It is difficult to charge enough to cover the time invested in this piece. It is also subject to potentially catastrophic stresses during the assembly process. You can see in the second photo where I had to make a repair. This stool will be sold as a second as a result.
If I have the CNC create a reliable, predictable set of parts for this piece that allows me to spend less time on construction and risk less during assembly, am I still selling an original handmade piece? The CNC will permit me to lower my overhead costs and reduce the price. Is that a good thing? Is it inevitable that I have to lower my price or should I reserve some furniture pieces as truly handmade and price in the associated time and risk?
I’ll jump in on this topic since I always like to push up against terminology and perspective. The author makes a good case for “tools” being what they are, regardless of power source (hand energy vs. electrical, donkey, or otherwise). I think that the “risk” is apparent regardless, since components of a piece of work show the vision of the “creator”, the “craftsperson” since there is risk in design. How a craftsperson gets to the end result of a vision is the “craft”, is it not?
So, maybe the argument is really not about man-made vs machined, but about how a person goes about manifesting a design, and perhaps new terminology is needed as we progress in resources and technology. Changing the perspectives carried on from the past might be the next step. With the advancement of AI potentials, the human mind, with all of it’s aesthetic for individual designs, some based on the emotional value of how a piece of work makes someone “feel”, maybe should become the new norm.
So, taking this to Greg’s conundrum about the CNC use to fabricate, without as much risk, parts for the stool design, why not minimize the risk of the fabrication? His design is the risk, his prototype is the “hand-made’ risk taking. What he inputs into the CNC is not from the CNC itself as a designer, but from his emotional decisions about form and structure. Is that not what makes a true “craftsperson”?
And towards the question of how ethically to charge for a piece of work, partly powered with a hand tool, and partially executed with fabricated parts (whether a table saw or CNC or power sander, etc.), our overhead is what it is. If we work from a place of integrity, we know what time went into our design process, our prototype process, and ultimately the making of the work via whatever resources we use for that project. Based on all of that overhead, the cost to a customer would reflect the worth of the design and the human element of emotion resulting.
I have a potter friend from whom I’ve received many mugs, for instance. He does them in production on a wheel, yet each one had some amount of handwork associated as well. Each is a mug of his design, yet each one feels different, and the emotional reward of drinking my morning tea out of one or another is the result of his“craft” design and intention. If Greg were to make a limited production run of the stools, for instance, with the CNC producing certain parts, he still has to spend the time structurally putting the parts together with skill and attention to structural integrity, as well as any personal finishing design touches he feels his way through in those moments. Each stool will feel different, maybe even look a bit different depending on how he felt when working on them. That is the world of craft, and I vote for letting go of being arrogantly stuck on “hand-made”, and instead, lean into the idea of what “craft” is all about.
I would agree mostly with Gail. There was an article in an issue of Southern Vermont Living about this debate within the past year where I am briefly quoted, but I wanted to share some other thoughts I've had around these issues.
I have resisted even the awareness of CNC in my work because of a stubbornness to let go of what I've come to see as a "dreamy" era of woodworking, which is simply an era where we didn't use CNCs in the way we can today. But as Gail has said, our overhead is our overhead, and at the end of the day, society is run by the whims and justifications of finances and logistics, and by how we've all constructed these systems of making a living.
I've felt conflicted for a long time with the feeling of what I feel when I put in (and get out of) my own work, and how different that usually feels from the attitudes or perceptions of the clients, of other people in my life and their varying familiarities with what it is like to make something. I have often ended up feeling at a bit of a loss when I've poured what inevitably feels like an intimate, personal venture into material and technique exploration, and that end result is reduced to a product for sale. I've felt like that change in presentation ignores my journey with the object, and changes the nature of the time spent, and the energy I'm wishing it to bring into its new life.
I've felt like the answer for me is a few-fold. First of all, I've tried to keep my personal ventures into what I am curious about making for myself for those I care about. I typically enjoy experimenting by building things to live in my life and the lives of those around me, because that is the form of making and sharing that feels most authentic to what I feel during the process and wish to impart with the objects I leave behind me. I also have felt that keeping that separate from the way I make a living has been helpful. I've made my living in ways that often feel less involved, challenging, or that I'm less or differently personally invested in, so that I can retain that stronger personal curiosity to be expressed for myself and loved ones. That has helped me in the workplace to remain efficient and effective, because I'm not owning that work in the same way. And it has helped me to appreciate the role of more and more advanced technologies in our current context of making and selling things. It allows us to pick the joys we want to spend our time on, as makers, and carers of craft and process, and lets some things happen quicker, simpler, in the way they just need to because of the pace and expectation of manufacturing today.
To argue with the use of CNC, - that is, to wonder at the effect it has on 'stealing our craftspeople' - feels short-sighted to me, in that it represents an argument with some of the fundamentals of how materialistic/capitalistic society functions at this point in time. The pace and cost that people have come to expect from objects joining their lives is not one that is often achievable in a fully justified way by a traditional handmaker. And to me, some of this comes from a removal of people from their materials, the source of their objects. Like with the food revolution we've seen, there seems to be a movement of people realizing that things come from somewhere, and most of us can very well make some of our own things. I remember in college feeling baffled by how impressed some friends were with what I felt to be some of the most basic of tasks, and yet it drove home to me the intensity with which they felt that they couldn't do that thing, let alone make something themselves. Which shocked me even more, and made me pretty uncomfortable with some of the ways we model life to ourselves. And that is part of where my teaching began. I feel, and try to take this tack in every class, that all of us can make things. And building that understanding of material, of mistakes, and of failures in design being a part of the learning process, rather than an actual failure of insurmountable gravity, may be more rewarding that trying to convince people that what skills I have, and what things I've made, are worth the price I'm charging, and worth the respect those of us more familiar with process often feel toward handmade things.
The notion of empowerment, and of being able to impact your own environment, to have a hand - quite literally - in the objects we live with and pass on through our lives, is a profoundly personal, deeply rewarding feeling for me, and one that I feel is the best way to subvert the helplessness, the easy solutions (IKEA), and the throw-away culture I saw when living in bigger cities. It has made me feel more connected to my surroundings, to my environment, to other people, and to myself. And that grounding, capable feeling is maybe a more helpful way of looking for balance between advancing technological tools, and the more intimate pursuit of communicating meaning through form.