A Second Slice of Pye

Note: Oh dang, I promised myself I wouldn’t use any puns. Also, you’ll notice the comments are disabled for this post. This is not because I am averse to criticism (feel free to visit Sawmill Creek, where trashing me is a sanctioned sport with letter jackets and a leaderboard). Instead, I simply ask you to think about this for yourself, without the noise of comments. Decide for yourself if I’m full of crap.

My first blog entry (ever) on David Pye was purposely left half-finished, with no real conclusion. My hope was that readers would take the next steps themselves. Some did, some didn’t.

So to conclude, I think the amount of risk between things Pye describes as “risk” and those that are “certain” is so small in reality that they are useless distinctions. In general, making things involves risk. We try to control it at the workbench and on the factory floor. But ultimately – and this is important to me – hand processes and machine processes are ruled by the same narrow factors.

“Will I screw up this part with this operation?”

“What can I do to prevent that from happening?”

I ask myself these same questions at the router table and with a chisel in my hand. The answers are always the same:

“Keep your wits about you. Know your materials. Don’t rush. Pay attention to feedback.”

I find no significant continuum of risk that offers any help in understanding my work. Instead, where I do find meaning is in thinking about the difference between tacit and explicit knowledge – but I have no desire to open that can of worms on this blog today (or likely ever).

So why am I writing this? To dissuade you from using the expression the “workmanship of risk” when describing your work. Though Pye would be horrified by the following fact, it is an expression that (unintentionally) belittles the work of some and props up the work of others.

When I was the editor of Popular Woodworking, it had about 220,000 readers at the peak of its circulation. Our surveys indicated that about 99.8 percent of them owned machines. As someone who wrote about hand tools, I became quickly sensitized to phrases and language that would come off as elitist – or at the very least evangelical.

I know this because I made these mistakes myself. A lot. I heard from the readers. And I learned.

Quick example: When you say you love hand tools because they are quiet and allow contemplation – and you don’t have to hear the roar of machines and wear safety equipment – you are:

  1. Wrong. Real handwork is fricking loud and dangerous.
  2. Disparaging the things that bring joy to many machine woodworkers.

Confession: I love putting on my earmuffs and cranking up my 12” jointer. I enjoy the hum it makes as it spins up to speed, and the tactile feedback I receive from its cutting action.

So the “workmanship of risk” and “workmanship of certainty” distinction sounds – to a machine woodworker and to me – like “hand tools require skill; machine tools require you to push a button.”

Put another way, “risk” sounds cool and daring. “Certainty” sounds like owning a condo in suburban Wichita (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

I feel certain that most hand tool woodworkers aren’t elitist. But the language thing – it’s tricky.

And that’s why I’m not going to write about this aspect of our craft anymore. It’s back to animal idioms and thinly veiled poo jokes from here on out.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
This entry was posted in Yellow Pine Journalism. Bookmark the permalink.