Editor’s note: This 1949 column from “Honest Labour: The Charles H. Hayward Years” sums up two opinions about woodworking that don’t get much discussion. The first is one that I talk about all the time with woodworkers over a beer: We have a supply-side problem. One of the reasons that people don’t buy nice, handmade furniture is because there isn’t a lot of it around. Or, as Hayward puts it:
“Any revival must ultimately depend upon the work of the individual, and the more men there are turning out furniture of good quality and design, the more people are going to be influenced in the right direction. It must be remembered that although, as a nation, we have lost immeasurably, as individuals we have gained.”
A close examination of our beer culture is analogous. People had to taste the difference between a $4 beer and a $1 beer to understand why someone sane would charge $4 for a beer (this is in the 1990s). Dedicated brewers made beer even if the money wasn’t there. And lots went out of business in the 1990s. But eventually….
The second point Hayward makes in this column is that we are all too soon to rush to complete a piece of work. When doing our best work, the last 5 percent takes almost as much effort as the first 95 percent. But that is what differentiates good work from excellent work. I cannot always push myself to the limit. I have to eat. But when I can afford to do it, I always sleep with a smile on my face.
— Christopher Schwarz
The Will and the Deed
It looks as though to-day we are at the beginning of a new era. Values are shifting and changing, in many ways coming nearer to an ancient order of things than once we would have thought possible. Work in farm and field has become once more of prime importance, so has the skill of the technician, the man with the trained hands. We are being compelled to live more realistically, to see money as of less importance than things, a token of barter of little worth unless there are the goods available for barter. We may feel indeed that the time is ripe for the revival of craftsmanship, for the craftsman can only be truly valued when things are truly valued, and when productive, creative work is put first in the scheme of things.
We may feel that much of our old tradition of craftsmanship has been lost, that fine tradition which has been described as “the fearless, faithful, inherited energies that worked on and down from death to death, generation after generation.” As a nation we flung it recklessly away, too pleased with our new prosperity to realise that we had flung away the baby with the bathwater and that it had been a very lusty child. Nowadays we can realise something of what we have lost, shocked into realisation by the prevalence of low standards of workmanship against which a robust, inherited tradition is the best kind of safeguard.
Nevertheless, signs of revival are all about us. The need for good quality and design is entering more consciously into industry, and every effort is being made to interest the public in it. The public, that is to say, the purchaser, is in the last resort the judge, and as the general level of taste rises so will the quality of the goods that are offered to meet it. The woodworker, whether he be a home craftsman or professional cabinetmaker, can be an influence all for the good. Any revival must ultimately depend upon the work of the individual, and the more men there are turning out furniture of good quality and design, the more people are going to be influenced in the right direction. It must be remembered that although, as a nation, we have lost immeasurably, as individuals we have gained. The potential craftsman of to-day may indeed be out of touch with his traditional inheritance, but he has hopes and opportunities which his forbears never knew. Lose touch with it altogether he cannot because the instinct for creation is in every man’s blood. And if with fidelity and honesty of purpose he makes use of the wider opportunities which now every citizen takes for granted, then he will be among those who are helping to forge a new tradition in every way worthy of the old.
Ruskin, who sprinkled many a homely truth among his art teachings, said that, “The weakest among us has a gift, however seemingly trivial, which is peculiar to him, and which worthily used will be a gift also to his race for ever.” In how many of us, I wonder, does the gift lie dormant? It is like a seed which must be fed and watered before it can yield its fruit, and wether it will be a weakly or a sturdy plant depends mainly on just how much attention we are prepared to give it. Honest, persevering work is the first requirement, and with it goes the courage to battle with any defect of our own temperament, whether of impatience or carelessness or laziness, that will hinder and thwart our progress. In this way a man may become a competent handicraftsman, turning out work which will not shame him.
But say he wants more than this. He has seen examples of fine craftsmanship and is ambitious to become a really fine craftsman. It means still deeper cultivation, not only by still further increasing the skill of his hands but by feeding his intelligence as well. He has to train his eye to recognise beauty of form and to teach his heart to love it, so infecting his judgment that it becomes intuitively fine, expressing itself in the smallest part of whatever thing he is making. To the craftsman of old much of this came by inherited instinct, fed by the example of the older men and the examples of fine work all about him. We have consciously to acquire it and go out to seek examples for ourselves. Time and opportunity are on our side. What we most need is the will.
And that I fancy is the crux of the whole matter. In our wisest moments we see the good we strive to follow, but we are not always wise. Other things come in to distract and deter us, it is so easy to drift along, always intending to do this thing but somehow never quite succeeding. We hold part of ourselves back, that last ounce it hurts us to give, because to give it we have really to live actively in every fibre of our being and give up some of the easier, indolent pleasures. Is it worth the sacrifice? We know, in our best moments, how greatly it is worth it. When we have achieved a piece of work which we know is really good, when our whole being thrills with the satisfaction of it, we are touching a kind of happiness which nothing else yields, a happiness which alone satisfies the deepest craving of our nature. We need the strength and courage so to work that the things we fashion with our hands express the best that is in us. Our purpose is there, our knowledge, these things we can compass. But to express them at their highest takes the staunch will, the integrity of purpose that does not count the cost. Enough that in so doing we find our own highest fulfillment.