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: http://www.sketchup.com/download.

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?

SticklyChair

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:

http://sketchupforwoodworkers.com/

http://readwatchdo.com/sketchup/

http://www.finewoodworking.com/blog/design-click-build

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

Welcome!

Welcome to the Craftsman Studio.

Here you will find my thoughts on woodworking and design, my projects and other random ramblings.

Whilst I do not claim to be a great craftsman, I do aspire to that and am working as hard as time allows to achieve that lofty goal.  This blog will document that process.

Your comments are most welcome.