Sunday, 1 August 2010

What is craftsmanship?

Everyone has a rough idea what craftsmanship is but I want to delve a little deeper and see if we can pin it down. I am hoping my blog readers will help by contributing in the comments.

I recently watched a wonderful film about a guy who commissioned his dream bicycle using parts made in some of the best workshops in the world. He enthused about how he felt "there was a return to craftsmanship, people are looking for engineering excellence" and about how people wanted things that had durability and longevity. "People are looking for hard wearing beautiful components which will last".

But is quality and craftsmanship the same thing? To me most of the component manufacturers he visited whilst unquestionably making high quality goods were doing so without craftsmanship. It is possible to make quality goods using a production line, tight quality control and fancy machinery operated by brain numbed people who have op opportunity to express themselves through their work.

The nicest definition of craftsmanship I have found is this "The production and delivery
of quality goods or services from highly skilled workmen." and I found it in a rather nice essay which I would recommend. The thing to note is the skill element and when I visit any place where things are being produced I am interested in the skill element. If all the skill has been passed over to the person who sets up the machine and the person operating the machine has little influence over quality or does not have to be highly skilled then whilst the product may be good it is not craftsmanship. Lets have a look at a couple of the places that made bits for the bike, Brooks saddles are a wonderful old English manufacturing firm and one of the last firms still making bicycle parts in Birmingham which for many years was the bicycle capital of the world. I really wanted to see craftsmanship here, what do you think? Scroll to 3.50 if you want to skip the intro.

Most of the other parts of the bike were made in highly sophisticated modern factories apart from the frame which was hand made to measure welded in Stoke by Jason Rourke. The most interesting part of the build though was the wheels built by Steve "Gravy" Gravenites in California. I can't find an online video of Steve for those who can't watch the iplayer link at the beginning but here is a guy truing a wheel, when done at speed by Steve it appeared almost zen like as a small unconscious tweak here and there gradually pulled the wheel into perfect tension, very similar to tuning a piano, no question this was craftsmanship.

Why does it matter whether or not skill is involved in the process if a highly mechanised system can produce the same quality as a craftsman? Well of course in some areas of craftsmanship machines have not succeeded in replacing hand skill, making a basket for instance. In other areas I am interested in the level of skill because I feel it is through developing skills and through using our skills and having them appreciated that we develop as happy fulfilled human beings. Having visited many factories, workshops and places where things are made over the years I have always taken a keen interest in the relationship between the level of technology and the happiness and fulfillment of the workers. Unlike William Morris I have not come out as a hater of all machines but there is no question that when the skill is taken out of the job then it becomes less fulfilling. This goes for office jobs as well as making things, we need to feel that we are developing our skills, doing something useful and being appreciated for it.

Craftsmanship seems to be coming into the limelight at the moment, I recently reviewed Matt Crawford's "the case for working with your hands" and Richard Sennett's "The Craftsman" brought critical debate to the field. I welcome this as the crafts historically were rather radical, political and relevant to decisions about how we wanted to live our lives meaningfully. I think we should be looking to spend less time discussing aesthetics and more time discussing the meaning of fulfilling work.

I never answered my own question about whether Brooks saddles involved craftsmanship, From the film I have seen, I see quality, I see wonderful heritage, and nice old machinery but I am not sure I see the high level of skill involved in the production that I call craftsmanship. Maybe I will have to visit.

1 comment:

  1. I used to be a hornsmith. I live in the forest, and at that time had no electricity, and had none for 20 years. Everything I made was made by hand the old way, and polished with wood ash and sheep's fleece. I sold my wares in town at a little craft shop.
    One day I took in what I had made and was told they no longer wanted what I had, they had a new supplier who charged less for his products and therefore they made more profit.
    Naturally I checked out this new supplier's goods, and it was obvious that they were using power tools. The actuall work was not as good as mine, but each piece was polished to a shining lustre on a bench polisher. I apparently could not compete with that.