“It has ever since been a pleasure to me to see good workmen handle their tools. And it has been often useful to me, to have learned so much by it, as to be able to do some trifling jobs in the house, when a workman was not at hand, and to construct little machines for my experiments, at the moment when the intention of making these was warm in my mind.” Benjamin Franklin
LETS START MAKING THINGS SHALL WE?
As a part of prototyping and facilitating a 10 week course for high school seniors that helps prepare them for life by getting more consciously connected with their purpose, Timothy Rayner really stood out to me. This deep thinker of seventeen years uses his curiosity like a microscope and language like a poet. Tim is an unusually fascinating lad who could have been a fitting character at the start of the Renaissance, and as he started to think about what he wants to do with his life, he admitted a deep sense of apprehension and anxiety fueled by his belief that there isn’t a place for him in this great country of ours. His struggle is deeply routed in how society paints a picture of what success looks like, and that lovingly crafting and making hand-made guitars and violins has no place in the definition of success. My recommendation to Tim was to take a step back and explore the artisan movement to help him ease the tension—to explore what is currently being hand-made. I asked him to jot down his findings as he explored. Here is what he had to say. I hope you enjoy his point of view and his style as much as I did.
DREAMING OF MAKING SOMETHING OUT OF MY LIFE
Craftsmanship is not just an occupation or hobby, it is a way of life, a different way of life. The craftsman is someone who, unlike many of today’s financially focused white-collar workers, does what he absolutely loves for a living. He is an artist, one who takes pride in his finished work while others find enjoyment from the utility of their work. The craftsman’s honor comes from the honest integrity of creating products of value and joy.
I have firsthand experience of the fulfillment and peace that comes from the art of craft. I am an amateur luthier (builder of stringed instruments) with two years of high school woodshop under my belt, and I am well into the making of my first guitar from scratch. It was not only the fresh morning air or the musty smell of old hand tools and sawdust that got me hooked, but it was watching a piece of solid mahogany being lovingly transformed into something that would soon resonate beautiful music, shaped by my hands.
The genuine passion for making things seems to be a lost art in the US. As we’ve reached the age of mass-manufacturing and production, we’ve compromised quality for its ugly sister—quantity. We transferred all of our production from the shop to the factory, which has increased efficiency and output hundreds of times over, but also accustomed us to cheaper merchandise, which while very cost-effective, lacks in quality and long-term value. If that wasn’t enough, we then abdicated our responsibility for making things in this country and transferred the majority of manufacturing to our brothers in China all in the name of cost.
My theory is that the factory in China is not a healthy environment for change and evolution in a product, but rather a crack house of addiction to cheap and cheerful goods that hold no long-term value. Whereas, the craftsman’s workshop is a Petri dish for improvement and a haven for quality. When an item is made on an assembly line or by machines, it is made according to a strict set of standards; the goal being to produce as many items as the factory possibly can (within reason and budget), all exactly the same—deviations lead to recalls.
This cookie cutter mentality is not present in the workshop. The product is at the whim of the artisan’s imagination, where it is under constant scrutiny and subject to frequent revisions. In this environment there is personal touch and care given to each item made, and a sense of created value between the craftsman and the consumer. So while there was an exodus of manufacturing to China, and the sucking sound of jobs leaving these lands, there seems to be a resurgence across many industries to go back to the workshop, back to the craftsman and the art of lovingly crafting each item one at a time, and appreciating the journey to get there. One such industry is the surfboard industry.
Before 2005, Clark Foam was the world’s leader in surfboard blank production, producing the foam cores for an estimated 80% of all domestic surfboard shapers. When they ceased production in late 2005, the popularity of cheap imported Asian sweatshop-made boards increased. But with this pre-recession detente the surfboard industry welcomed a new age of innovative shaping techniques and craftsmanship.
Surfboard producers adjusted to a market dominated by imported products by reinventing the surfboard itself with new materials, new methods, and new up-and-coming shapers introducing their own twist on the stick. Today, there is more variety than ever in the market and new shapers are springing up all over the map.
While this is not the case for many industries such as the computer industry, where there are many intricate parts requiring precise machinery and engineering, industries like surfboards, guitars, beer, food, furniture, clothing, jewelry, and shoes all have one thing in common: these high quality items are usually made by hand, by private artisans and craftsmen. Take guitars, for example: even to the untrained eye, there is a noticeable difference between a factory-machined guitar and one built by a luthier, and it’s not just price. Everything is affected—timbre, selection of wood, quality of parts, reliability—which sets it apart as a one-of-a-kind piece of work. For me, this fascination with making things was born from the feeling of appreciation and reverence derived from holding a handmade guitar that reeled me into lutherie. As I enter college I wonder if we will start making more of what we consume, and make it with the pride of craftsmanship.
In today’s economy is there a place for a craftsman, and what about tomorrow? We’ve already seen a paradigm shift from factory-made to handmade in the surfboard industry, and it’s in the works in other industries. Perhaps we’re going through a renaissance of consumer habits, bringing back the art and appreciation of quality, vintage and reviving the honor and joy of true craft. There’s a growing market for handcrafted items, and I’m hopeful that the future will hold a host of opportunities for someone like me who wants to take their hobby or passion beyond a leisurely activity.