The way of experience is to hold firmly to the knowledge that the end is in the beginning, and that each stage contributes its own share to the final perfection of the job as we want it to be. Taking it so, we can enjoy each stage for its own sake and resist the urge to scamp, which is also fatal. At first it will need a great deal of self-restraint. We do not take kindly in these days to anything requiring that kind of patience. Very few men are brought into contact with work that has old craft traditions, and it is by seeing an old craftsman in action and the infinite care he takes over every detail that is most readily acquired. But because woodwork is a very ancient craft and the use of creative skill is part of man’s inheritance, the right kind of approach will in the end come naturally enough to the man who sets out determined to acquire it. This does, in actual skill and artistry, take him a good many stages ahead of the sculptor, for instance, of today, who is capable of twisting a few strips of metal and labelling them “Man” or “Woman” or whatever name he fancies. The woodworker knows perfectly well it is no good trying such a trick and labelling it “chair” and being forced to meet his problems honestly with as much skill and artistry as he can command, he develops both.
The craftsman’s world does indeed carry within itself all the elements of wider living. In the everyday world we have the same need to be sure of our beginnings; the same need of standards which must be adhered to if we are going to a maturity that knows both freedom and wisdom and a sense of direction. A man is only truly free when, like the good craftsman, he adheres staunchly to the good he knows and builds the good life upon it. The house that has no secure foundation will soon totter and fall, but although we say stoutly enough that only a fool would think otherwise, how often do we fail to apply the practical wisdom which our tools teach us to the management of our own lives. For the rules that appear to limit and bind stand as guides along the highway, safeguarding us from the waste and misuse of the material of our lives — our gifts and talents, our health and strength, and relationships with others. And the true freedom which is the freedom to use our powers to their best and fullest extent, comes from observing them.
— Charles H. Hayward, The Woodworker, March 1955 issue (photo courtesy of Jeff Burks)
The modern craftsman is in a far happier state than the modern painter or sculptor, so much of whose work seems to have lost touch with reality. Not for the craftsman the strange, erratic impulses which would bid him present a chair looking like some queer mastodon from the past. He is tied inexorably to facts. The chair he makes must have stability and a measure of comfort because it is made for someone to sit on, and a person who discovered he was expected to sit on some kind of revolving hippopotamus might turn into a very severe critic indeed. So the chair must be made with precision and care, conforming to certain rules which will act as a brake on his imagination – and even a craftsman’s imagination can have its wilder moments – and will keep him, willy nilly, tethered to the world of common sense and reality. And it is good for us to be so tethered. It is the world for which and in which we are working, whose needs we share and to whose ideas of graciousness and beauty we have it in our power to make some contribution. But only if we are willing to work within the framework it imposes.
It is in this way we attain full freedom to do our best creative work. If we make a table, for instance, giving insufficient care to exact measurements and the accurate fitting of the joints, the results will be a rickety article which will inevitably lessen our chances of making a good finished job of it. For who can put his whole heart into the artistic finish of a thing which is constantly lurching under his hand, and will, moreover, perversely defy all attempts at last-minute remedies. It may even be difficult to find the fault, so small may have been the inaccuracies which, added together, have resulted in a piece of furniture in which its maker can feel no pride and which will be a constant source of irritation to everyone who tries to use it. And so he learns to be sure of his beginnings; that he has first to be accurate and careful, combining knowledge and skill to produce a sound piece of work suited to its purpose before adding the finer, decorative touches which will give shape and reality to his imaginings.
It is here, of course, that the amateur so often fails. He is in such a hurry to reach the “nice” work at the end, when the piece will be assembled and only awaits finishing, that he goes through the preliminary stages at best grudgingly, and it is in these stages that his troubles begin.
— Charles H. Hayward, The Woodworker, March 1955 issue (photos courtesy of Jeff Burks)
Woodworker, photographer and writer Andrew Sleigh kicked of his second series of podcasts on making last weekend for Resonance FM, a London radio station. The episodes are available for a free listen through the program’s website lookingsideways.net. You can subscribe to the podcast or simply listen to select episodes.
In the first episode, Sleigh interviews Deb Chachra, an associate professor of materials science at the Olin College of Engineering. It’s an interesting talk with someone who studies, teaches and classifies makers. (Be sure to read her thoughtful article in The Atlantic before listening; it will add an extra dimension to the conversation between Sleigh and Chachra.)
Sleigh has interviewed a list of interesting people for this second season of his podcast (he hasn’t posted the list, so I’ll let him do that). He also interviewed me about the Lost Art Press approach to creating books for makers – why we look backwards in time for our information. And why I think making simple, well-made furniture is a radical act.
From what I know about the other guests on Looking Sideways, I suspect my interview will represent the oddball, somewhat anti-intellectual view. We’ll see!
So if you need something to listen to on your commute to wage-slavery, Looking Sideways will make you think.