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.

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:

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?


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:

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

Go figure!

I was perusing the projects over at Lumberjocks today (as I am wont to do) and I came across a guy who had made a small hall table.  He had done a good job – the overall form of the piece was good, the finish was great and he was clearly a skillful guy as the construction seemed excellent.

Do you hear the ‘but’ coming?

But… this table was made entirely from very heavily figured curly maple and in my view this was a mistake.  Why?  Because it’s just too much.  It’s almost as though the figured wood conflicts with, rather than compliments the piece.

To me, when you look at a piece of fine furniture, your eye is first drawn to the overall form and proportions, then to the wood it is made from, then into finer detail like the finish, inlays or edge treatments, etc and finally back to the piece as a holistic whole.  Like there are layers of visually pleasing detail that take you on a little voyage of discovery.

In this case though, you were immediately side tracked by the figure in the wood, and consequently missed out on the rest of the journey.

I love figured woods and would love to use them more than I do (they’re hard to get here in New Zealand as they have to be imported), but IMHO they are best used as accent pieces rather than the whole hog.

Form follows function

This design truism is often wrongly attributed to sculptor Horatio Greenough. It was actually originally coined by the American architect Louis Sullivan in 1896, in an article titled “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered”.  The full quote is as follows:

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic,

Of all things physical and metaphysical,

Of all things human and all things super-human,

Of all true manifestations of the head,

Of the heart, of the soul,

That the life is recognizable in its expression,

That form ever follows function. This is the law.

Frank Lloyd Wright, who would later achieve great success as an architect and the designer and creator of some of the most beautiful Arts & Crafts furniture was Sullivan’s apprentice at the time.

Pure functionality does often produce great beauty as I have discussed before, so for the woodworker “Form Follows Function” is a pretty good maxim to remember. Although you might also want to consider that you can just a easily sit on a wooden packing crate as you can on a Chippendale side chair and I know which I consider the more pleasing to the eye – and I’m not even a great fan of the Chippendale style.

Embellishments don’t cut it (or, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sows ear).

I think sometimes that we woodworkers get to the point where a project is nearly finished, step back and look at it and decide that it needs something extra.  Often, we’re not sure what it is that it needs so we try a few things.  We add some stringing or some inlay; we route an edge profile or add some other edge detail.  We do anything to bring that piece into closer alignment with the image of it that we have in our head, but more often than not this fails miserably.  Our attempts to make the piece more beautiful or more functional end up making it less so.

The problem is that beauty comes about via the holistic integration of form, function, materials and construction, and afterthought embellishment is just that – an afterthought.

Dont get me wrong – I am not an anti-embellishment modernist; embellishment certainly has its place and is often a defining feature (think inlays on federal furniture or cabriole legs on a Queen Anne chest).  The point is that the embellishment must be integral to the greater whole, not added on as an after thought.  Nor should embellishment be considered essential to beauty.  In my opinion, a simple Gustave Stickly table is quite as beautiful as an ornate Rococo one.

So my advice to woodworkers is as follows:  Don’t be tempted to “fix” your piece by adding to it without a great deal of thought.  You need first to really understand what it is about it now that is “wrong”.  Is it the dimensions? The materials? Is it too chunky?  Too flimsy?  Out of balance? Or perhaps some combination of all these things.

It’s only by this kind of deep analysis that you can understand the problem and hence come up with a solution that works.  Accept too, that sometimes the best way to fix a piece is to take something away rather than to add to it, and sometime there is no fix – your piece sucks and that’s all there is to it!

So what is “Functional Art”?

Functional Art is the term I have coined to describe objects that are carefully and deliberately designed and constructed to be both highly functional and very beautiful.  We are surrounded these days by things that are cheap, but that are not very well designed, not very well made, and butt ugly to boot.

There are of course exceptions to this rule and the Apple products are perhaps the best example of this.  Have you every looked carefully at a MacBook Pro?

Or an iPod Nano?  These are truly beautiful objects that not only look wonderful but deliver a wonderful level of performance and functionality.  The popularity of the Apple products is proof positive of the hunger that is out there for beautiful things that really work. When was the last time you saw people queuing all night outside a store to buy a Nokia?

The key to creating functional art lies in paying close attention to the details that really matter and in woodworking there are 4 things that need focus.  These are:

  • Design and function
  • Choice of timber
  • Craftsmanship
  • Finish

It’s only by attending to each of these that we can hope to create something outstanding.  If  your project is badly designed, it matters not that you have constructed it with great accuracy, or made it from the most finely figured lumber, or finished it perfectly.  It’s still a badly designed piece.

I don’t expect that everything I make will be worthy of the title “Functional Art”, but I do intend to try.