there are no truths….

flick o the chip

Joshua Klein sent me a note, asking my take on his recent blog post about “real craft” and what that term means.

The first half of his post follows the term, from Jarrod Stone Dahl, back to Robin Wood, who got onto it from an exhibition with that title by someone named Chris Eckersley. I won’t repeat all that here – it’s easy enough for you to read Klein, Stone Dahl & Wood to get the background. One thing I’ll start in with is that all three of these people are friends of mine…and I don’t usually get involved in this sort of stuff. But the heat has fried my brain, and I have a trip to prepare, so there’s stuff I’m avoiding.

Going back & reading Robin’s thoughts, his concentration is mostly about the use of machinery vs “hand” work. He chooses to skip past the “art vs craft” thing. Robin has spent a lot of time in recent years making spoon carving knives; so he knows the ins & outs of factory work…and has interesting thoughts on how work like that can be equally rewarding as handwork, as long as the machines do not take away the skill required by the workman.. I certainly won’t argue with the notions Robin puts forth. That sort of work holds no interest for me

The part I didn’t see discussed much is, if one thing is “real” craft, then something else must be “unreal” craft, or, perhaps, “fake” craft.

One thing Joshua cited was Eckersley stating  that craft is “real” in the sense that it “occurs in the real everyday world, and not in a fine art studio, nor at a heritage site, nor as a hobby or pastime”. Well…that just hits me wrong. This week, we’ll have a short visit from our  friend the painter Heather Neill as she comes north for her exhibition on Martha’s Vineyard. Why Eckersley thinks an artist’s (fine art) studio is not the “real everyday world” is not explained, at least in Joshua’s excerpt. Maybe it is in Eckersley’s exhibition. Heather works harder than me at her “craft” by a long shot. Her head is filled with decades’ worth of projects/paintings/ideas. And each year, she sits at her easel and produces astounding work. So because it’s what one curator once called “flat stuff” i.e. paintings, it’s not craft, it’s art. I guess.

Flying Horses
Heather Neill’s painting “flying horses”

And “heritage sites” – I guess I worked for twenty years making furniture in one. It’s true that in that setting, I had the benefit of a regular paycheck that was not tied to my output. I had to be on the site, working, and explaining to the museum’s visitors what I was making. That kind of repetition and continuum gave me an experience it would be hard to replicate in Eckersley’s “real” world.

When I hear Jarrod talking about “real” craft on his blog or his Instagram postings, to me his use of the term sounds as if it is about marketing, I see him educating would-be customers about the quality and integrity of his work. (I’ve bought work from him, it’s good stuff.) And such a move makes perfect sense, Jarrod puts a lot of thought into marketing his work. I stink at marketing – it holds little interest for me.

Jarrod’s work in birch bark

When Joshua picks up the thread and brings his views into it, all kinds of fun begins. He “state(s) the obvious: craft implies tradition.” His words, his emphasis. I don’t necessarily understand why or how that’s obvious. Nor do I think it’s true. To me, craft/crafted means made by someone – the action of someone making things. Pretty broad definition.  


Joshua’s bench top

“Traditional” is one of those terms that means one thing to one person, something else to another. I make 17th-century style furniture, using only hand tools – but some of mine are now/have always been, more modern versions of period tools. I know I have used the term “traditional” before, I might still. But I’m nowadays pretty careful with the use of words like that – because of their shifting and varying meanings. Or perceived meanings.

The whole hand-tool versus machine debate is a large part of Joshua’s writings on the subject. Another thing I stay away from. I don’t want to work wood with machines. I am writing this blog post on a machine – and I like to do that…but for me personally, I like working wood with hand tools. That includes hewing, sawing, planing, mortising – all the stuff that happens in the shop. I have a neighbor who came by every so often while my friend Pret & I were framing the shop. He kept saying to me, in all seriousness, “I have a tablesaw you can borrow..” and I don’t-know-what-other tools he had. I started to wonder if he thought I didn’t know about these tools, or was somehow too broke to acquire them, or what he might have thought about why I wasn’t using them. He couldn’t fathom that I enjoyed doing it this way.

bevel down chisel

I don’t own a chainsaw, but I really like it when other people cut the logs I want to length with one. Then I can take it from there. I have cut trees by hand, and done the whole job – felling, crosscutting, splitting & hauling. I have also used a chainsaw at my old job. When they are right, they are a great tool. When they are cantankerous, they are a nuisance. To me, damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I don’t cut a lot of logs in a year. I have a 14’ oak, now all split into sections, that should carry me well into next winter now. So a couple times a year, I prevail on someone…then it’s quiet. Joshua discusses the approach that uses machinery to rough out the wood, then handtools to produce the final surface. A lot of people work that way, and it’s none of my business. What other people do is up to them. Means nothing to me.

[there’s lots of comments on Joshua’s post, including one from Jarrod about “continuum” – a nice take. Jarrod emphasizes utilitarian function – which some might hear the wrong way and think it excludes decoration. I know in Jarrod’s case that’s not true, (I’m expecting delivery any day now of one of his birch cannisters, decorated with punches and pigments). When reading about furniture, I am always keeping my ears up for the “utilitarian = no decoration” crowd!]

I keep going back to what is un-real craft? I thought of a much-hated example, cute little paintings on old handsaws. What could be worse? Lots of things, but it’s a pretty bad example that will do for now. So one thought is that my hand-made, museum-quality reproduction furniture is “real” craft, and the painted handsaw is unreal craft. My outlook on these things is a bit different. I don’t care what other people do. It could be that the handsaw-painting artisan is achieving a near blissful state of Buddha-hood while engrossed in their work for all I know. In which case, who am I to say my work is real and theirs is not? To me it’s about the process, and more importantly, about how I want to spend my days. Which brings me back to Henry David Thoreau by way of Bob Dylan.


I’ve told this story many times, but here goes again. Once, back at my old job, I had a young kid, maybe 10 years old, come into my shop and ask me “Do you have anything here that’s 3D?” The room was crammed with piles of wood, tools, furniture in various stages of completion. As far as I could tell, everything in the room was three-dimensional. I told him I didn’t quite understand, and asked if he could ask his question another way. “You know, it looks really real” he said. Which took me back to the existential days of the ‘60s – when Dylan sang “the princess and the prince discuss what’s real and what is not…” (I didn’t get to it til the 70s, but no matter). So I was thinking the other day about what’s real and what is not, and I pulled up Bringing It All Back Home, and listened – and heard another line from the Gates of Eden – “I try to harmonize with songs the lonesome sparrow sings…”

Dylan’s line about harmonizing reminded me of this section seen on the blog before (when discussing Jarrod, interestingly) from Thoreau.

“One-eyed John Goodwin, the fisherman, was loading into a hand-cart and conveying home the piles of driftwood which of late he had collected with his boat. It was a beautiful evening, and a clear amber sunset lit up all the eastern shores; and that man’s employment, so simple and direct, – though he is regarded by most as a vicious character, – whose whole motive was so easy to fathom, – thus to obtain his winter’s wood, – charmed me unspeakably. So much do we love actions that are simple. They are all so poetic. We, too, would fain be so employed. So unlike the pursuits of most men, so artificial or complicated. Consider how the broker collects his winter’s wood, what sport he make of it, what is his boat and hand-cart! Postponing instant life, he makes haste to Boston in the cars, and there deals in stocks, not quite relishing his employment, – and so earns the money with which he buys his fuel. And when by chance, I meet him about this indirect and complicated business, I am not struck with the beauty of his employment. It does not harmonize with the amber sunset.”

I’ll take either one, the sparrow’ song, or the amber sunset. I don’t care what people call my craft, or theirs. What I care about is how I spend my days. I try to harmonize…    

it’s a sunrise, but similar to a sunset


20 thoughts on “there are no truths….

  1. Sure as hell does not mean usin a CNC machine….!!!…CNC machine ,having a computer do the work is not the work of a craftsman.I DO NOT CARE WHO IS USING IT.

    • Real CNC machines require programming in 3 dimensions, a mix of art and math. So while the loud vulgar machine seems anathema, the model or directions the duplicator follows are in fact a craft of sorts. Besides who does not like a million copies of the same thing? lol

  2. Thanks! You helped me identify one aspect of these discussions that has been bugging me without my quite being able to put a finger on it: the phrase “to me.” We’re supposedly discussing “the meaning of” craft, or art, or tradition, or “by hand,” and everyone starts their own little rant by saying “to me, X means . . . . . . ” which short circuits meaningful discussion of what X means because, after anyone else speaks, in fact even before anyone else speaks, “me” has uttered the equivalent of The Dude’s “Oh yeah, well that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” And once that has been said, no more need be said except for the purposes of exercising our lungs. And yet everyone who says “To me, X means . . . ” expects us all to read, or listen.

    You helped my understanding with your post by having the refreshing presence of mind to let us know that you don’t care what anyone else thinks. THAT repeated assertion finally woke me up to “to me.”

    In a previous life I was trained as a literary scholar. So I come from a world where words have meanings independent of what we want them to. As Wallace Stevens says in a poem about pears on a green tablecloth, “The pears are not seen/As the observer wills.”

  3. Excellent post here. Perhaps the opposite of “Real Craft” is “fake” or “false” where something is made to appear to be “crafty” or individualized when it isn’t. It could be a factory doweled stool with painted on through tenons, or a kitchen franken-workbench from Pottery Barrel that clearly doesn’t make sense or function, or a mass printed peel’n’stick saw painting (I sure hope such a thing doesn’t exist).

  4. Thanks for a very good and very insightful post. Discreetly done, since the players are all your friends.

    Too much introspection about one’s self-worth can be rather corrosive. And letting it out in public leads to a certain level of preciousness that most are unwilling to challenge, but they turn away quietly with a sad shake of the head. Unfortunately, that leads things to farther devolve into pretentiousness that ultimately disheartens beginners in the craft and diminishes their confidence in their place, newbie or a bit beyond, in their “authenticity” as craftsmen.

    At my age, I’m not too fond of preciousness or pretension, but sadly, it seems to be all around us – as it has ever been.

    • I couldn’t agree more with this post. Especially “Too much introspection about one’s self-worth can be rather corrosive.”

  5. When I first read the topic of your post my first thought was, “brother, don’t you know better than to step into that quagmire?” But in you jumped, with both feet. And damned if you didn’t extricate yourself in fine form. A wonderful post. Wish I had written it. Thank you.

  6. “… maybe 10 years old, come into my shop and ask me “Do you have anything here that’s 3D?”

    I would have been sorely tempted to borrow a page from Sam Waterson’s Calvin & Hobbes
    strip about black & white photographs…

    “The items you see here represent material culture from the 17th century and earlier.
    3-D wasn’t developed until late in the 18th century.”

  7. As a person who was foolish enough to spend way too much time at University I feel I’m qualified in at least one area. I can smell an academic a mile away.

    Academic discussions seldom bear any useful fruit and almost always, by definition, end up in the realm of can’t-see-the-forrest-for-the-trees.

    Who cares if you label it “Real Craft” or not? This is another example of someone trying to make what they do seem more important than it really is. Why do any of us work with wood, or clay or paint? Because we derive satisfaction from it. Thats it. It doesn’t have to be validated.

  8. The CNC approach just changes where the craft happens.

    Developing computer software (when done well) is a craft with a short but rich tradition.


  9. Well said Peter. We each do the best we can, in the way we can, for our own reasons – and that is enough.

  10. I had to look twice at the painting of the carousel . Thought it was a picture. The depth is amazing.

  11. […] The meta-conversation with #Realcraft seems to have started in late 2014 with a British designer named Chris Eckersley and an essay written for a show called Real Craft . A response to Eckersly’s essay by English woodworker Robin Wood added a counterpoint. Jarrod Stone Dahl is probably where I initially picked up the thread, via his blog and Instagram. The most recent conversation has been mediated and motivated by Joshua Klein of “Mortise and Tenon” magazine, here, and here. Finally, some interesting input from Peter Follansbee. […]

  12. Dear Peter, thanks for this post, it is an interesting question. Only wanted to say as regards the tradition thing: though craft could in theory exist without tradition (I think) it doesn’t. And any craft undertaken without reference to tradition is not near as rich as one with a deep tradition. I also don’t really like ambiguity…terrible stuff, but that doesn’t mean we can’t define tradition as that which is handed over, or down (what it literally means). So all (great) craft is built upon tradition. You say you want to harmonize, and I do too…it’s beautiful to do so, but I also want to carry on the melody through time.

  13. Right – if the title’s true, it can’t be true! :) Wonderful meeting you at Lie-Nielsen, Peter!

  14. […] The gravity of these literary images is refracted by the other reading that I’ve been doing. As DeQuincey puts it,  “No man escapes the contagion from his contemporary bystanders.” Or, better still, I keep viewing them through  a Claude glass. There was a series of blog posts initiated by Joshua Klein, on “Real  Craft.” It’s not an academic discussion, and academic precision and pedantry is anathema to most craft workers. Interestingly, Peter Follansbee took great exception to a minor point of definition: […]

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