Deflating David Pye – 50 Years Later

The plate room at our printing plant in Tennessee. I wouldn’t advise telling them that what they do is the “workmanship of certainty.”

Anytime someone decides to “think” and then “expound” about the craft of woodworking, you can be sure that a copy of David Pye’s “The Nature and Art of Workmanship” (Herbert Press) is close at hand.

Since its publication in 1968, Pye’s famous idea of separating the “workmanship of risk” from “the workmanship of certainty” has become both a touchstone and (oddly) a sales slogan for people who write and promote handwork.

I first read Pye’s book in 1997, and at the time I dismissed some of his ideas as naive and others as just wrong. (Some of his book, however, is quite thoughtful.) I’ve picked up the book a few more times since 1997, but each time I couldn’t cotton to it.

We’re now sitting here on the 50th anniversary of the publication of “The Nature and Art of Workmanship,” and I think I’m finally ready to pull my pants down to explain why I don’t buy into the “workmanship of risk.”

I can already feel the fountain pens trembling in the puffy-shirted arms in response. So be it.

So here’s my thing: The phrase and the idea of the “workmanship of certainty” is a contradiction in terms and simply does not exist. In my experience of making things by hand and in an industrial setting, everything is “the workmanship of risk.” Nothing is certain.

Let’s use David Pye’s examples to illustrate the problem.

The most typical and familiar example of the workmanship of risk is writing with a pen, and of the workmanship of certainty, modern printing.

Pye then explains how there is indeed risk involved in the creation of the lead type.

But all this judgment, dexterity and care has been concentrated and stored up before the actual printing starts. Once it does start, the stored up capital is drawn on and the newspapers come pouring out in an absolutely predetermined form with no possibility of variation between them…

Pye clearly knows a lot about woodworking – his CV, bowls and sculptures are spectacular. But I doubt he spent much time in a printing plant. Running a printing press – even a modern computerized one – requires immense skill. It’s like driving a 10-ton truck down a garden lane that is populated by baby bunny rabbits. One tiny misstep and you have thousands of dollars of dollars of wasted paper. And a few squashed bunnies.

I’ve worked probably a dozen presses, offset and letterpress, since 1986. Nothing is certain about modern printing. Everything relies upon the skill and dexterity of the press operators.

This same sort of skill is necessary on every form of industrialized manufacturing I’ve been involved in. Making entryway doors on a factory line. Making folding tables in a factory. Bottling liquor. Making magazines, books, holdfasts, dividers, curves and lump hammers.

All of these automated – sometimes computer-controlled processes – require great human skill to achieve. And not just the kind of explicit knowledge you can find on the internet. Industrialized manufacturing is fundamentally ruled by tacit knowledge – the same difficult stuff that we all seek to gain at our workbenches when building furniture.

I basically don’t believe that the “workmanship of certainty” exists. It’s all risk. And therefore, a meaningless distinction.

I have other problems with Pye’s assertions, especially when it comes to sourcing materials. But I think I’ve lost enough followers for one weekend.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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48 Responses to Deflating David Pye – 50 Years Later

  1. I’ve spent 22 years as a printer, buyer, and currently, a developer of consumer packaging.

    You’re absolutely correct.

  2. charleseflynn says:

    You might lose some followers, but you might also wind up on course reserve for courses that use David Pye’s book.

  3. I’ll happily admit that I got bored witless by that book and sold it on fairly sharpish, hopefully to someone who’s happier using words like “materiality” to describe their wooden spoons.

  4. gdblake00 says:

    In my 65 years I’ve learned that one certainty is that everything has risk.

  5. John Thomas says:

    After working in Semiconductor Manufacturing for fourty years I totally agree. Even the field driven by computer controls and rules there is always risk. Having the experienced person available to “spit in the pot” at the right time is required. There are more ways to fail than can be imagined. Skill and experience are always needed.

  6. Your point is good, but somewhere in the education process we have overlooked the principle that because we are moving to better and much improved machinery we need to pay more attention.
    Without “the workmanship of certainty” ie …pay attention; then the result of lack of attention will be a failure.
    However, your are for the most correct.

  7. I’ve clearly never fully understood this term from the original source. This would be my own interpretation. As I’ve always been told in Sunday school, the word sin comes from the old English archery word sine. A term for when you completely miss the target, or in modern terms “air ball”. If I throw a ball at nothing there is a general certainty of hitting it. AKA mediocrity. The risk is to add the basket, and risk the air ball, try for the basket, and hope for the swish.

    • Lorenzo says:

      As I read Pye, he only make he distinction in situations where the outcome isn’t predetermined. My five minute university recall of the book is that it got my wheels turning on the role of risk.

      I didn’t read it a disparagement of any method of work. It’s a thought process, if you will, to manage risk that people sometimes call craft. The risk sometimes drives serendipitous outcomes or why would Chris make multiple prototypes of a chair? The people who were good at managing the risks were termed Mechanics in days past. Even when I started woodworking in central PA, if you were called a mechanic it was a path to full and relatively prosperous employment. Those of us who fortunate enough to learn the craft by working side by side with more experienced people sometimes learned to do some tasks in a certain sequence or using a certain method to reduce risk even if we didn’t at first know exactly why. It didn’t have a lot to do with the tools or Watts you used to do a task.
      Pins or tails first is risk management.

      Pye wrote that workmanship of risk is:
      ‘ … simply any kind of technique or apparatus, in which the quality of the result is not predetermined, but depends on judgment, dexterity and care which the maker exercises as he works. The essential idea is that the quality of the result is continually at risk during the process of making; and so I shall call this kind of workmanship “The workmanship of risk”: an uncouth phrase, but at least descriptive.’

      Where he screwed up about workmanship of certainty I think, was to use examples like printing where he wasn’t familiar enough with the craft to know where the risks are. I think he just meant there was less opportunity ( or risk) of serendipitous outcomes.

      Thinking about risk, I took away to do the known risky parts as early as possible. At least if you screw it up, you have spent less time on it and have more leeway For plan B.
      There is always a plan B.

  8. Nick says:

    Chris, I don’t think you’ve lost anyone, at least not anyone who has ever worked in a so-called automated industrial process and really grasped what was going on around them. It just seems the author is trying to force a point no matter what. When reading the excerpts you quoted, “pretentiousness” comes to mind, and that’s the kind verdict.

  9. Paul Murphy says:

    Timely. I haven’t read the book. I just popped in to the library yesterday to check it out, but they don’t have one. It’s going to be hard for me to read with an open mind. The ideas that I hear associated with the book don’t sit well with me. Take for example a great classic, one that you’re now republishing. I’m speaking of Roubo. Aren’t all the jigs and fixtures described in the parquetry section meant to reduce the risk of cutting the tiny geometric parts inaccurately? Isn’t the whole point of that section reducing risk, and increasing certainty? There is no 100% certainty, but there’s a heck of a lot more than zero. I try to spend my time at the bench figuring out ways to get known and desired outcomes. It’s very popular nowadays to boast about working inside of some “zone of risk”, as if that’s a good thing. With luck, I will be able to read the book without prejudice. Time will tell what I think after I’ve read the book, but he isn’t a sacred cow to me.

  10. ejcampbell says:

    If you lose followers because of conclusions based on significant personal experience that contradict accepted wisdom, you haven’t lost anyone you’d wish to converse with. At first glance your comment struck me as crazy, but after stopping to think about it and my experience helping build engineering prototypes, I think you’re on to something. But maybe you are just moving the boundary between craftsmanship of risk and certainty. I’d like to hear from someone with experience in a totally computerized automated assembly line. How risk-free is that?

  11. Jeff Ward says:

    Sounds like a meaningless nit being picked, to me. The distinction isn’t meant to be absolute, only relative. Personally, I think this thin work, which is part of a much larger and useful lifetime of work by David Pye, is quite useful. Pye attempts to frame some distinctions between tools and types of workmanship and although there should be a better typology than risk/certainty few people have attempted to create a coherent and systematic framework after Pye; the attempt was admirable, although obviously imperfect. The distinction, at least as far as I remember from my reading, was as much about control and freedom as it was risk and certainty. Some tools afford great freedom (risk) while others are constrained to do a narrow type of task (certainty). A pen can do many varieties of script whereas a set of type is of a predetermined face. That’s about the size of it, and that what makes it powerful as a distinction. A chisel fitted to a block (as a plane) does a narrower range of work, at lesser risk of failure, than a chisel when used freehand. Only an absolutist would declare the need for absolute “certainty” about this distinction. Have a beer and relax, fanboys.

    • I say there is almost no continuum. All making involves great skill and risk, from chisel to CNC. That is not what Pye asserts. If that’s a nit, I’ll take it.

      • Jeff Ward says:

        You can say it as much as you like, but that doesn’t make it true. In fact, the chapter/distinction that you dislike is followed by a chapter that teases out the distinction more fully, as an alternative to the binary of hand/machine work which he does not feel is meaningful. You’re ignoring the majority of the book over a petty definition.

    • Don Schwartz says:

      It should go without saying that any machine requires some skill in its operation. There may be no workmanship of absolute certainty. But that does not diminish Pye’s insight. A degree of skill reduces risk of error or failure, and enhances certainty of result. The skill needed to build a jig reduces the level of skill needed by the user of the jig. Cutting a straight rip with a handsaw requires considerable skill, but less than a side axe. Doing so with a table saw much less so, particularly if it is provided with a fence, and the fence is properly set up! Were it not so, we’d never use one. If I am skillful, I can carve a spoon from a lump of wood. But it is not pure workmanship of risk, depending in part upon the skills of the makers of the steel and the knife, and the bevels thereon. But the carver’s skill is considerable. But if I have a spoon – and a duplicator – I can make a million more spoons with little effort in each. The duplicator stores its maker’s skills, as does the knife. Much less skill is required of the user. It’s a matter of degree.

      • Jeff Ward says:

        It occurs to me that part of the reason for the confusion in these passages from Pye is that people conflate “certainty” with “guaranteed result”– that isn’t what he’s talking about, he’s talking about repeatability, which is what Don has alluded to here– it isn’t so much that a duplicator “stores skills” so much as it’s a machine that is designed to do a very narrow range of things with some certainty. Pye is writing in response to mass production, in which a skilled designer has replaced the skilled artisan for the most part, allowing the use of deskilled machine operators. This comment gets precisely at the core of what Pye was proposing. It has nothing to do with the presence or lack of skills in machine operators.

    • Mark White says:

      Very nicely put Jeff, I really can’t believe it needed explaining, this post says more about Chris Schwarz than it does about David Pye.
      I don’t own a puffy shirt.

  12. Bill says:

    Certainty? As Marvin Gaye once said “There’s only 3 things that’s for sure – taxes, death and trouble …”

  13. Jeff Ward says:

    My personal favorite description (from David Pye’s earliest work on design) is that as humans we engage in a vast amount of “useless work on useful things.” Functionally, most aspects of “design” are useless, though we endlessly entertain ourselves by doing it.

  14. Pascal Teste says:

    I did not read the book, but from the quote it seams to me that you have to put it back into the context of the era it was written. The 1960’s brought us the Xerox copier, and later the laser printing technology which certainly removed much of the uncertainty of before in terms printing that is.

  15. jenohdit says:

    I think a much more relevant question is whether industrial printing is an autographic or an allographic art.

  16. You didn’t loose me. I’ve never personally followed the logic either. I’m glad someone said it. >

  17. johncashman73 says:

    Thank God. Everyone I have ever seen write or speak about Pye revere him. I found his work tedious, and consumed with splitting the wrong hares (to continue your metaphor.) Thanks for pointing out the emperor has no clothes.

    Now do Eric Sloane.

  18. Steve Baisden says:

    Perhaps our education has made us crazy. Do you suppose we should either put blade to wood and be done or have another try at Fermat’s last theorem.

  19. Rainer Heilke says:

    “absolutely predetermined form with no possibility of variation between them” Wow, really? So, all of those newspapers I’ve seen during my lifetime, where an ink has run out, or the paper folded running through the rollers, or came with any other errors, didn’t/don’t actually exist? Waking up in the morning involves some risk; death is the only certainty in life. If one accepts this truth (re: death), then how can any activity be afforded this definition of certainty? I may be splitting hairs as well, but the difference between one side of that hair and the other side isn’t very far apart.
    Then, there’s the tangential discussion of how “certain” an activity’s existence can be in an ever-changing world. How many newspapers have gone under in the last decade alone? But I digress…

  20. I am a bit familiar with small scale printing processes, the sheer amount of things that could go wrong (and do go wrong) is ridicule.
    The same goes for anywhere automation is involved, including software – you just get a better capability to duplicate your mistake and spread it all over as fast as possible.

    • This reminds me of something I read yesterday, written by a 3D engineering CAD draughtsman. When asked by a customer what were the advantages of 3D CAD over 2D CAD, he replied “3D CAD allows you to make a better class of mistake more quickly”.

  21. fedster9 says:

    The first rule of work:

    Everything Is Easy When Someone Else Is Doing It

    in my decades of experience in multiple fields this is how everything is judged by people who did not have to actually participate in doing it. Hence I am not surprised people with no hands on experience would describe something as a sure bet.

  22. Keith Mitchell says:

    Having worked with CNC routers and molders, printing and laminating even working on microprocessors, I will say it’s all risk, and there is no autopilot. But I think there is also a great high felt when you are cutting something by hand and know it could all go to hell in an instant, with no tools to blame but your own brain. Keep cutting through the nonsense, and lets never forget philosophy and armchair woodworking are just supplements to the real craft.

  23. J.C. aka BLZeebub says:

    Maybe it would be better put, “the workmanship of relative certainty.” I hear what you’re saying and I’ve had the same issue with Mr. Pye’s postulate. There will always be the unknown sum, the fly in the ointment and unintended consequences. Kind of like politics.

  24. Joe Babb says:

    Funny that I’ve never run across Pye’s writing in all the reading that I do. But I agree with you that it is all risk. Even when I’ve done a task many many times, I’m still pleased and a little amazed when it comes out the way I want. I keep working toward minimizing risk by learning to pay close attention. But nothing is certain.

  25. Antony Brinlee says:

    As a engineer I am used to running automated lines in many different parts of the world. There is just as much skill required to set up and run a manufacturing line as there is in making a fine piece of furniture. In both cases you are paid commensurate to your skill level. That is the true and only measure of your craft.

  26. mike says:

    I just bought the book. Chris I understand your point but nearly every operation in my shop is a trade-off between speed, skill and risk, among other factors.

  27. Chris Poplin says:

    All I know of David Pye’s work is what I have gleaned from others, so I will limit my comments on it to this: It seems he took a reasonable theory and tried to stretch it too far, apply it too absolutely, and then made his classifications too imprecise.
    Having spent almost twenty years in manufacturing, I can say that Pye’s biggest problem, at least in the quotes Chris provided, was confusing a skilled trade(printing) with machine operating. And Chris seems to be doing that as well. My job title was GMO-General Machine Operator, and I find the notion that it required “great skill” to be laughable. Indeed, the entire time I was with my last employer, they worked at reducing the amount of skill required at every step of the process, to reduce training time(and I could make you an expert on almost anything I could run in two weeks or less) and to allow an increase in automation. How much? Well, one of our customers has a line minded by two operators that does the same thing it took us sixteen operators and two maintenance electricians to do. The skill, in that case, is in the constuction and programming of the machine, as Pye seems to suggest. He would perhaps have been better served to say “predictable” instead of “certain,” as in being able to reasonably predict not only the result of the ideal process but the most likely failures.

  28. Tom Rathbun says:

    I agree with you totally, Years spent as tool maker and a machine tool instructor, tells you are right. CNC machines get hiccups, material not to spec, measuring incorrectly and an operator having a bad day. There is no certainty of work.

  29. Gerald Yungling says:

    I’ve never read Pye but it seams to me that the primary purpose of most automation is some aspect of speed. Whether you call it accuracy, precision, repeat-ability, efficiency, cost, safety, etc., it all seems to boil down to speed. Which means that the ability to produce faster includes the ability to make errors faster. One of the first and most valuable lessons I learned during my three years writing for a small town daily newspaper was that every time I misspelled a word, I did it 16,500 times. The only thing more certain about the work of the press over the work of the pen was an uncomfortable conversation with the publisher when I botched a headline or made some other conspicuous and embarrassing error.

  30. Jim Dillon says:

    One of my favorite aphorisms by Samuel Clemens says that any philosophy that can be put in a nutshell, belongs there. I think a good corollary might be that any coherent system of thought, articulated at book length, then reduced to fit a nutshell, will LOOK like it belongs there. It’s at least mildly ironic that the man who did us such good service by pointing out how meaningless the phrase “hand made” has become, should in turn have one particular expression of one of his useful ideas turned into a near-meaningless shorthand misrepresenting his whole body of work. Every time I see the phrase “workmanship of risk,” it seems, it’s misused. Often, as you point out, for marketing. “Workmanship of risk” has become a sloppy synonym for “hand made.”

    Check out plate 22b in The Nature and Art of Workmanship. In the caption, he points out that bad workmanship can, indeed, ruin products of the “workmanship of certainty.” His example? From printing. And it’s a lovely example. 18th-century typefaces could be so lovely!

    Yesterday I made the mistake of engaging with family members about politics via email. Today I’m doing this. Hopefully the third instance will occur shortly and I can go back to keeping my mouth shut. It’s just hard to see your (I mean yours, Chris Schwarz) writing used by other commenters here to justify their own proud anti-intellectualism. Thanks for reading this. I leave you to resume thumping your straw man.

  31. seanhughto says:

    Hmmm. Pye’s distinction makes some sense to me whe I compare this – To this – There may indeed be risks and challenges with CNC machine, but anyone who’s seen Curtis’ turnings can appreciate the difference in the product, let alone those who have tried to make tutnings like Curtis and experienced the risks/ failures. 😉

  32. I’d like to say a lot here, but it looks like most of it’s been said. Working on machines is uncertain, always. Our shop (to borrow a LAP catchphrase) works very hard at making things as perfectly as possible. It is not always possible. The little details needed to make as prefect as possible are unwritten and we can only hope they get passed down through the generations.

  33. John says:

    Without risk there is no challenge.
    Without challenge there is no growth.
    Without growth there is no knowledge.
    This is cerain.

  34. Simon Stucki says:

    hmm I never fully agreed with David Pye, but I couldn’t finde a better way to look at different kinds of workmanship. It made me think about risk and control, and embrace risk and try to achieve accuracy without too much control (instead of making a new jig for every new hole I want to drill). And there is certainly a difference between working with a CNC-Mill or a file (or axe in wood). The CNC-Mill probably required just as much skill if not more, but it is a different kind of skill for the most part, it has more to do with thinking and knowledge, whereas the file requires you to do certain movements with accuracy, force and speed and no amount of thinking about it or reading about it will help you, you need to train your body.

  35. ja says:

    To say “there is no continuum” is as polarizing as establishing a dichotomy (which I don’t believe was Pye’s intention). All work is not the same. Were that so, pulling levers on an assembly line, painting the Sistine Chapel, building squares out of Lego, and piloting a 777 would be equivalent (and all workers would be paid the same). Where the distinctions lie is necessarily arbitrary, and context-specific, but they are there. This is your platform, of course, but to say you “deflated” Pye’s statements by presenting a contrary one is hardly convincing.

  36. Jeff Ward says:

    Thinking about this chain of misreading a few days on and reflecting on much of the “theory” that underwrites Schwarz’s book on historic workbenches, it seems that the temptation is to argue strongest against ideas we actually (sometimes unknowingly) agree with. A thread that runs throughout that book is that the oldest examples of workbenches require greater skill and involve more risk to hold boards securely. Modern workbenches with appliances like end vises can hold work with more certainty, although at the price of flexibility and speed. Take that David Pye!

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