A Treatise on Craftsmanship
I've been doing more woodworking lately. This hobby affords me the opportunity to think, in more ways than one. The opportunity for thinking, I'm afraid, has become frightfully rare in today's modern world, because of our tendency to divide our attention into a myriad of activities, as well as our tendency to rely on artificial memory outside ourselves to provide knowledge, instead of collecting it into our own memory.
These are the two kinds of thinking I'm referring to; one, a rational and pragmatic use of the mind for problem solving and improvisation, and the second, and more important, as far as I'm concerned, the existential and reflective kind of thinking, which is the self-awareness that looks at what we do and how we do it and makes a judgement about the quality and worth of it.
I've already written at great length about the value of the rational and pragmatic type of thinking that manifests itself in the use of one's hands. I am certain that there could never be too much said about the value of this tactile form of thinking, nor could enough research be done to uncover the physical, mental, and spiritual benefits thereof; but that is a topic for later discussion, and it is not the subject to which I give myself at present.
Instead I prefer to speak briefly about the existential matters which are manifested when one works with their hands. Doing a woodworking project affords me time to think, but more recently while I work, my mind is drawn to the work itself, and taking note of the type and quality of the work I'm doing.
I've come to realize that there is a kind of work which seeks merely to see the task done, in which the worker would be satisfied merely to be finished, taking no account of the quality to which the work aspires. To me, this seems to be the most common form of work being done today. Many attend their jobs every day to merely finish the work assigned them, in order to collect a paycheck and go home. They take no notice of the quality of work done, and I think there are several reasons for this.
One may be the fact that a workman rarely assigns his name or reputation to the work he does. He is an anonymous cog in the wheel of a greater organization, and so when he fails to apply quality to his work, it is not a reflection on his own reputation but someone else's. This, coupled with the fact that much work done in today's world is temporal and short-lasting, means that if the quality of work is poor, it won't be around for much longer anyway, and even if the work is done well, so few physical objects are created in today's society that even quality work will soon perish because space needs to be cleared on a hard drive somewhere.
I also believe that so little audience is given to the work of quality craftsmanship anymore, so there is little incentive to invest time or money in higher quality work. The prevailing sentiment is that something which can be produced faster and with less cost is more desirable than the thing which is slower and more expensive. This is the age-old "quantity over quality" argument which saw a great rise during the industrial revolution where things which could be produced quickly with little variation and human error had greater profitability than things which took longer to produce. This, I believe gave birth to the worker whose priority was speed rather than quality, because this was the valued commodity in the market.
Gone is the age where craftsmanship is appreciated. It is now quantity, sameness, and cheapness which are the valued ideals of the day, and there are few who are able to admire the work of a skilled craftsman who has spent years honing his craft. Our attentions are so divided. We have very little time to notice details, and where details are overlooked, there is no longer incentive to spend time on them.
We live in the IKEA age, where mass-produced furniture can be sold cheaply and assembled quickly in one day. I believe this to be a primary evidence that speed and cheapness is valued over craftsmanship.
So, when I build furniture by hand, hand-crafting every detail, chiseling every joint and taking note of every grain direction, I can't help but notice a disparity between the majority of things that exist in the world, and the few things that are handcrafted with passionate attention to detail.
I recently built a desk for reading and writing and studying, and rather than use pocket-hole screws and assemble it as quickly as possible, I wanted to learn new things and advance my craft in the process, so I used age-old methods of joinery instead of screws and glue. I focused more on the process of creating than on the final product, because I knew that in doing so, not only would the finished product be far more beautiful, but I would also be able to look on it with pride, knowing that I sucked the marrow out of every part of the process along the way. And so I used mortise and tenon joints, through tenons with wedges, and pins to hold everything together, so that the desk had the spirit of a centuries-old craft, and also so that I could take my time and truly revel in the process of making.
I've come to realize that after making something useful from wood, the use of the thing itself is gratifying, but it pales in comparison to the process of creating it. I've reached the point where I'm almost sad after having finished a project, because the process of making has become so enjoyable in itself. There is a zen-like state of mind that comes when chiseling a perfectly fitting dovetail or mortise and tenon joint; I find myself looking at the wood grain on an almost molecular level, and with it, my own mindset is transported simultaneously to a humble, and yet elevated sphere of consciousness. The focus on small details is an almost out-of-body experience, which connects me to the same techniques of old, which crafted cribs, coffins, and cathedrals. Even though I am outside the realm of the experts I am a partaker in the race of craftsmen of centuries past. This is a transcendent experience.
From what I have observed, most of the things in this world are hastily assembled in an effort to merely finish the work, and are not objects of pride to which a craftsman has signed his name. Many things in this world merely exist, but they fall utterly short of the glory they could be. There is true glory to be found in an object that has been created with a sense of excellence by a master craftsman. This point is almost so understated that we miss the ability to truly revel in the glory of a simple, well-crafted object. This, I believe, is due to our own lack of attention to details, but it is my sincere belief that if we truly take note of the fruit of someone skilled in their craft, we will notice that a touch of craftsmanship can elevate the object to an object of worship.
Ancient monks would mark their work with an insignia that represented the sentiment, "The best I can do, dedicated to God." And they offered their work as an act of worship to God, not just their prayers and piety, but the crafting of books and wines and furniture. They understood that in our making, we reflect the nature of the True Maker, and to treat the process of making with contempt, to rush through it as though they just wanted the work to be finished, would be a failure to steward the gift of work, and to misrepresent the Creator's image in his creation.
The Old Testament law implements a Sabbath, a weekly rest from work which is to reflect the heart of the Creator in his making the world. The idea is that we are designed to work for six days a week, and to work as though our work were dedicate to God himself, so that on the seventh day, we might rest from our work in such a way that we can look back on the work of our week and, like the Maker, see that it is good. If we rush through our work just to get it finished, we may even be ashamed to sign our name to it, and hope to simply move on to the next project. But if we work with a sense of craftsmanship in everything, we can reach our day of rest and look upon our work with pride, knowing we did the best we could.
Work is not merely a necessary evil, it is our highest calling. It is my belief that if we were to slow down and take note of the details of our work and do it with skill and craftsmanship, we would find a greater sense of fulfillment in our work, no matter the kind. The world is full of things which were made to simply exist. But an object that was created with intense care and passion for not only the end product but the process becomes almost transcendental as it serves its purpose in a humble, yet beautiful way. I also believe that people innately feel a sense of craftsmanship when it has been bestowed on a work in a way that is deeply satisfying to the observer, if they have the skill to notice it. To those with an eye to see it, the touch of a craftsman causes an object to be not only a pleasure to use, but also to behold.
When we do it with skill and craftsmanship, our work rings of the highest form of celestial honor. It moves beyond simply being something we earn a living with, and it becomes an act of worship. This is why I firmly believe it is important to make things with craftsmanship.