The Economics of Craftsmanship

I’ve been thinking a lot about the economics of craftsmanship recently and it’s left me feeling a little depressed.

I’m sure I’m not the only woodworker who occasionally thinks about how cool it would be to earn a living from doing what we love, but I wonder if that’s even vaguely possible in these price driven, instant gratification days.

It used to be that cheap was synonymous with poor quality, but that’s just not always the case anymore and while you may think that’s a good thing (and it is a good thing on most levels) its bad news for those of us that love craftsmanship because it reduces demand for high quality hand made goods, and as any economist will tell you, reduced demand means reduced supply.

Imagine a sculptor who spends three months lovingly carving a masterpiece from a chunk of solid marble. As much as he loves his craft, he has to eat and cover his costs – that marble doesn’t come cheap and he has to buy it in advance – so if he is to stay out of bankruptcy court the end result of his labours has to cover his expenses – in other words it’s going to be an expensive sculpture.

Now back in the day, the fact that it was expensive wasn’t so much a problem. There was a certain level of demand for marble sculptures and if you wanted one, you had to pay the going rate.

These days however things are different – the sculptor is not the only guy in town and if you don’t want (or simply can’t afford) the marble sculpture you can easily go and find a moulded marble / resin equivalent for a tenth of the cost and that 95% of people could not distinguish from the real thing. And why wouldn’t you do exactly that? What’s the point of paying all that extra cash for something that is basically no better (and possibly worse) than the much cheaper option?

The problem is that while we are not comparing apples with apples, the differences between the hand crafted masterpiece and the moulded sculpture are sufficiently blurred that to most people they are indistinguishable. This means the sculptor is competing head to head with the factory that made the moulded item and this taints the “real” art supply pool to the point where it is in danger of drying up altogether.

This is A Very Bad Thing – for two reasons.

Firstly, because less demand for “real” art means fewer artists and therefore less opportunity for people with genuine artistic talent to be able to earn a living from their abilities.
Secondly, the fewer artists there are, the less real art there will be available and the harder it will be for the average person to get their hands on any of it – already most people go their entire lives without ever touching (let alone owning) a real, genuine, handmade work of art. How can we ever teach our kids to appreciate art if they never get to experience it?

Hand crafted “real” works of art still have one last advantage over their factory made equivalents though, and that is their inherent uniqueness. It’s the one thing that mass produced (even “limited edition”) objects simply can’t compete with. When an artist makes something beautiful, he or she puts something indefinable into it – something that a machine simply does not have. I don’t really know what that thing is – perhaps it a part of their soul, or perhaps it’s just an element of their character. But whether you think it spiritual or prosaic, it is undeniably wonderful.

Knife sharpening the easy way!

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I have recently started to try my hand at knife making (which is way fun – more on that later) but have always found it tricky to get a really good edge on a curved blade – I know the theory well enough, but somehow I can never quite translate theory into practice.

Anyway, a few weeks ago I was perusing amazon.com and stumbled across this Professional Fixed-angle Knife Sharpener System .

The Amazon blurb was a little light on detail and didn’t fill me with confidence, but some further hunting around the internet soon lead me to some good reviews of this product, and given that is wasn’t horribly expensive (US$33.26) I thought I’d give it a try. I also found out that it was basically a much cheaper knock off of the US made Edge Pro system.

To be honest I didn’t have very high expectations, but this product exceeded them by 1000%.

It’s a little tricky to use, but when you get used to it, you can create a razor sharp edge on pretty much any knife blade in a matter of minutes. The basic premise is that you hold the blade on an angled table and pass one of 4 different grit (120, 320, 600 & 1500) hones over it with a sliding arm. This arrangement allows you to select any cutting angle you need and more importantly allows you to be totally consistent.

It takes very little pressure and almost no time at all – about a minute with each of the 4 grit stones was enough for me to put a very good edge on a pretty blunt little pocket knife. The instructions were also very good – clear and easy to read with lots of diagrams.

I can’t recommend this product enough – it really is an excellent tool.

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You can find a video demo of the product here.

SketchUp Rocks!

I have recently been making extensive use of SketchUp to model my woodworking projects before I make them.  The more I use it and the more competent I get with it, the more I realise what an astonishingly valuable tool it is. Particularly given that its free.

As woodworkers, like any other artists, we will often have a vision in our minds eye as to how a project we are planning will look when completed.  But how often is that vision flawed?  How often do we wish, once the project is done, that we could go back and tweak this dimension or that? Or change a line, or soften a curve, or simplify the design?

Well now we can.

SketchUp of course is not new – its been around for years in fact.  And to tell the truth if, like me, you want to do more than pull a few flat shapes into a rough 3D representation of your piece, it’s not that easy to learn .

In fact, if you want to construct the virtual work completely, just as you would the real world counterpart with all it’s joinery and fine detail, it can be a real pain in the ass to learn.

But its worth it!

SketchUp will help you better visualize and understand your design, it will help you make few makes when you are building your piece and will make the end result all that it can be.

If you don’t have SketchUp, get it from here: http://www.sketchup.com/download.

If you have it already, fire it up and learn to use it well (competence is it’s own reward!).

If you’re already great at it, find someone you can teach to use it.

I promise you that using SketchUp will make you a better designer and it will make you a better woodworker. And hey, now you can do woodworking when you’re sitting at your desk.  Gotta like that right?

SticklyChair

This chair is my latest project.  The model is as yet unfinished, but its getting there.  No doubt you’ll be seeing more of this chair as it is constructed.

A few useful SketchUp links:

http://sketchupforwoodworkers.com/

http://readwatchdo.com/sketchup/

http://www.finewoodworking.com/blog/design-click-build

If you have any good sketchup related links, please feel free to put them in a comment.

Why Beauty Matters

I recently came across a BBC documentary called “Why Beauty Matters” in which philosopher Roger Scruton explores the notion that modern western societies have actively rejected beauty in favour of sordid utility.

I find myself largely in agreement with his position, particularly with reference to modern architecture, which seems invariably to produce endless concrete or steel and glass towers that are utterly devoid of character or soul.  Modern art (which I largely consider a con job of “the emperors new clothes” proportions) also comes in for considerable criticism, as well it should.

In my opinion, art is something deliberately produced in order to fulfil a basic need in humans for that which is beautiful.  Contemporary art seems almost to turn this on its head, aiming to shock or confuse rather than to delight.  Peronally I think that if a work needs an expert to explain it, its not art.

So my thought for today…  Perhaps if there was a little more beauty in the world there might be a little less hatred.

The entire doco is embedded below.

Craftsman Library Table

Craftsman Table 5

Craftsman Table

This is a Craftsman / Arts and Crafts style library table in American white oak. The plans call for it to be quarter sawn timber, but that turns out to be very difficult to get in New Zealand so this is flat sawn.  The drawer sides are Radiata pine.

I made this table from plans in issue 73 of Australian Woodsmith magazine, but I have also seen them on the Plans Now website.

I love the simplicity of the design – in typical arts and crafts style, it yells understated functionality.  I am happy with the overall form and construction but a little disapointed in the finish.  I think it should be darker.

Craftsman Table

Craftsman Table

Craftsman Table

Craftsman Table