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 no 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.

17 Responses to What is craftsmanship?

  1. Joel August 1, 2010 at 9:22 pm #

    There are crafts and craftsmanship everywhere. From the butcher who can dissect a carcass into steaks, the person in Malaysia who sews t-shirts at lightning speed, the person making jasperware at Wedgewood, to the master carver working on a cathedral. The problem is not is there craftsmanship around – the problem is that most jobs requiring craft and dexterity are poorly paid and looked as a cost to be automated out of existence. What I think you really want is a way to encourage people to learn to make things that are useful but not mass market products, become good enough at them to make a decent living, and raise the entire profile of working with your own hands so the job of working with your hands is considered respectable because working with your hands can produce a very rewarding lifestyle if only the economics work.

  2. Sean Hellman August 1, 2010 at 9:45 pm #

    Very interesting article, and one that raises a lot of questions.A craftsman is someone who is skilled in a particular skill, but we all know that this does not mean that a crafted item does have the quality of craftsmanship as most of us use nowadays. A crafted, or hand made item does mean that it is necessarily a well crafted or quality item. Within any craft there is a range of quality, often with a few very highly skilled people at the top and a mass of people making good items with some people just making crap. Not all craftsmen aspire to be the best, but make for a living and are content just to make the same thing in the same way.I think that true craftsmanship comes from passion and a love for the craft and the work being produced. Dedication and a drive to make or be the best is essential as well.Craftsmanship is also apparent in machine made items as well, it just means more people are involved, but if the passion etc is there in the designers, technicians, quality controllers, then surely a mass made item can be said to have good craftsmanship. The people who make, as you say Robin, may well gain no satisfaction from the process, but is this just down to how work is organised through working for a capitalist driven company an not a more cooperative or co owned one that values its workers or its workers have a real stake in the work being done.

  3. Oxtails August 2, 2010 at 1:24 pm #

    The quality side of craftsmanship is interesting. I suspect part of the charm persuading people to part with cash is non-uniform quality. Tool marks, imperfections etc that give a piece it's unique character. Secondly I think there must be a time element to craftmanship. True craftsmen are so fluid, well practiced and sure in their actions making them much more productive. Even if a learner could eventualy achieve the same quality product, clearly they have not achieved the same thing, if it took them 10 times as long as a true craftsman to make it.

  4. Robin Wood August 2, 2010 at 1:41 pm #

    some interesting and thought provoking comments already, just what I was hoping for. I didn't mention "the Nature and Art of Workmanship" by David Pye a good read on the subject.One area that most interests me is how far craftsmanship (and hence the HCA) is involved in the old industrialised crafts. Sean is bang on the area I am interested in at the moment. Is a BMW car good craftsmanship? Even if it is built by computer controlled robots? Is craftsmanship simply a dedication to quality no matter how it is achieved? Personally I tend to think it has to involve human hand skill and that the BMW is about design and manufacturing. Sean and I are both fans of MORA knives, this Swedish manufacturer has high standards of quality control and sell wonderful carving knives at bargain prices but having visited the factory I would struggle to describe the work as craftsmanship, it is all done by robots.

  5. Dawn Turner August 2, 2010 at 3:11 pm #

    Interesting article, thank you Robin – just wish you'd been writing this blog when I had been doing context studies as part of my Crafts degree – Josie would have been proud!

  6. Brad August 2, 2010 at 5:56 pm #

    I am reading "Shop Class as Soulcraft" now and in reading it I am having many things come together – things I have thought about for years. Matthew Crawford – the author – is a skilled mootorcycle mechanic who left intellectual work to find some satisfaction in his work life. He enjoys the sense of satisfaction gained in producing and fixing real things, yet he doesn't call himself a craftsman as such. To paraphrase his view, while skilled manual labor is rewarding, the'craftsman' is separate from the mechanic or the plumber. The craftsman is similar in that he or she practices hard-earned long-practised skills, but hey do so in the creation of something new. At least that's how I'm thinking of it today. Ha!Whole food thinking leads to whole life thinking, local living, returning to crafts and craftsmanship, manual labor with immediate feedback and the assocaited intrinsic sense of accomplishment: all are attempts to connect to meaning. In my mind what I'm reading lately all rings so true! My office job is strangling me. To answer your question regarding a BMW, I'd say while there may be instances of crafstmanship in it's creation (wooden hand formed dash, tooled leather seat and details) but on the whole engineering acomplishments have evolved us away from the regular use of craftsmanship in production of our machines.

  7. Woodman.... August 2, 2010 at 6:45 pm #

    I think what you do, Robin, is craftmanship. What I do when I make a knife entirely myself, is craftmanship. What the designer who produces the program that's going to control the computer guided machines, "may" well be craftmanship. The result though, I don't call craftmanship. It is production engineering, and good engineering, but it's not craftmanship.

  8. Sean Hellman August 2, 2010 at 8:58 pm #

    You are given two objects, say a knife and in all respects they are the same.How could you tell which is the production knife made by machine, which still has to be designed and the process thoroughly thought out, by people and the other made by a craftsman with the aid of other machines and tools, but this time hand operated.Could you tell which is which? and if so how?You may say something about hand tooled finish which gives the object an irregular and imperfect quality, but even this can be copied and programmed into a machine.Is it about each item produced by the craftsman being unique, so no two are exactly the same? Again I am sure that this could also be done on a production line.If I was a mechanic or plumber and someone said I was not a craftsman, and could never be, I would be insulted. After all we both manipulate physical material. I have come across mechanics who are craftsmen because they take pride and are dedicated to their work.

  9. Brad August 2, 2010 at 9:56 pm #

    Sean – I don't disagree in spirit. I have been part of engineering organizations my enitre working life. I take pride in that work most defenitely. But, I know that the things I conceive, realize, and build myself at home give me more satisfaction than systems repaired and projects well managed at work. My definition was an attempt at it – not claiming it's THE defenition.

  10. Jay August 2, 2010 at 11:50 pm #

    For me it's the marrying together of intelligence, thought and care at every part of the process.That can probably materialise in different ways – but if you take thought, care and intelligence out of any stage then I think you start wandering off into a different realm.

  11. Jock August 3, 2010 at 12:54 am #

    "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."I have seen the same thing myself. Some years ago we were building a set of warehouse units next to a bicycle repair shop.While we were sitting in the sun one lunchtime , the bike man wandered over, armed with a wheel rim , an axle , a handful of spokes and a small socket tool. As we chatted he stood there assembling the wheel. He then spun it freehand and tweaked the spokes to balance it .The whole process took about 10 minutes. It was a pleasure to see . No doubt about it , he is a craftsman . The same job done to the same degree of accuracy , in a factory assemble line by multiple workers is just that , a job done well by competent assembly workers . With the gradual split between craftspeople and assemble workers , there comes a closing of the gap between the craftsfolk and and artists. A topic worthy of discussion in itself.ka kite , Jock

  12. jackbaumgartner August 3, 2010 at 6:34 pm #

    I do not have a great deal of experience or wisdom, but I cannot resist this exciting conversation. With the greatest of respect to this forum, here is my attempt to join in:Is the question of craftsmanship in this context at least partially an issue of tools and tool technology? Where is the line drawn between a tool being manipulated in direct response from the hand, mind, and eye (and soul)of the user/maker and the tool being manipulated by the tool designer- who has implemented increasingly rigid controls and a singularity or multiplicity of precise functions into the tool's design, so that the tool operator has much less hand, eye and mind involved? Does that line also exist between the chisel and the bench plane, or between the hand saw and the table-saw, or between the automated cnc machine, and a sign carver with some chisels. Is the tipping point where the tool designer suddenly has vastly more control over the quality and design of the finished product than the tool user? Has the energy of craftsmanship once shared between makers of tools and users of tools before the dawn of the industrial age come increasingly to rest with the designers of the machines and tools and abandoned the tools users. Now in most shops the marvels of engineering, creativity and "craftsmanship" are the machines in the shop rather than what work is produced by the workmen therein. I suppose the same could be said for a man with a beautiful collection of hand tools, lacking the motivation, knowledge and skill to use them. I am also reminded of a lesson I learned in western art history. Here is a poor re-articulation: At some point in the late 19th century the definition of genius slowly – then more speedily- began to shift from meaning one who practiced their craft within the traditions of their craft with a supreme skill and creativity, to meaning someone who is able to come up with something "new" and original. Craftsmanship as a sublime cooperation of the hands and mind has, it seems, given way to the preeminence of the mind. Duchamp reached the end point rather quickly and abandoned art to play chess. To me, how I interact and solve problems with my work through my choice and use of tools, with the balance of freedoms and limitations they allow, is an integral part of craftsmanship (and I believe that there are many other integral factors -such as materials). Remarkable as modern machines are (some of which I do covet), I thank God for Robin and his bowls (not to mention his blog- supplied to me half way around the globe via some very sophisticated technology).

  13. Brad August 3, 2010 at 7:32 pm #

    Well said, Jack & Jock and all!Jack I think you hit one of the nails we're dealing with on the head when you said, "With the gradual split between craftspeople and assemble workers, there comes a closing of the gap between the craftsfolk and artists…"And Jock you said, "…how I interact and solve problems with my work through my choice and use of tools, with the balance of freedoms and limitations they allow, is an integral part of craftsmanship"These two statements together articulate what I was struggling with. A master mechanic has mastered the set of rules, methods and tools that become the bounded environment he or she operates in. A master craftsman has done so as well but has a creative freedom the mechanic lacks. That freedom exists outside the engineering design and process constraints the mechanic lives in. The mechanic understands, troubleshoots, fixes, and assembles what others have conceived. The craftsman envisions and creates whole things.Again just thoughts around these issues…Thanks for listening.

  14. Robin Wood August 3, 2010 at 8:03 pm #

    Well I could not have hoped for this much insightful and good natured debate. It seems craft is a continuum merging into fine art at one end of the spectrum and industrial production at the other. I personally have found reading all the comments helpful to visualise both what is involved in the core of craft practice and to better understand the edges where it overlaps. I am packing to go to Japan tomorrow so my further input to the discussion will have to wait until I get back but I look forward to reading any further comments then.

  15. B August 10, 2010 at 3:00 pm #

    "Chisels mens hands to magnify" said a poet once, which says "craft" to me.I think the difference between craft and manufacture is whether the end product has the maker's direct influence on it. A good craftsman/woman's product is unique, and a good manufacturer's product although probably of higher accuracy and equal quality, isn't.

  16. Timtim May 8, 2012 at 10:46 am #

    Thanks so much for this article. I'm a student doing research for an essay we are supposed to write about Architecture and construction. And the topic question of building and craftsmanship keeps appearing. I'd like to say, from my research, craftsmanship has one main level of quality to it – not only the material choice, but the skills set (quality) of the workman (labour). And i don't think this skill set is limited to machine or man.Provided the a workman is able to produce a great product with a set of materials, he is a good craftsman. (of course it goes to reason that for this to happen, he will know what material will help him attain this product).

  17. Graeme November 9, 2013 at 4:37 am #

    To my mind a craftsman (she or he) has more than the technical knowledge required for the craft, they also have the cunning: the know how to coax the best result from the materials at hand or how to turn a defect into an assett, especially with woodworking.

    A craftsman can not only produce consistent quality product like a robotic factory but given the time to master the craft and the materials they can exceed that quality and subtly adjust the design to provide exceptional quality (function, durability, appearance) and when they do that consistently they would be an artisan in my book.
    If craft comes from skill/cunning/guile then a craftsman has more than technical skill, they have understanding. This is where the machine process fails, it cannot produce craftsmanship because there is no hu-man in machine. The machine operators are technicians plain and simple. Then too the quality control staff assess the factory product against set criteria and more often than not lack the craftsmanship to identify defective product. A good craftsman will know when they have produced something that is below par. Labour saving devices are often reducing the skill that is required so to my mind lessen the craftmanship in the craft, think of clogs made with a copying machine.
    I also think there is a difference between craftmanship and hand-crafted. Quality hand-crafted products can be made in labour intensive production/assembly lines without meeting a craftsman at any stage i.e. someone who could make all the components and assemble the final product, and know if it is well made or not.
    So for me a craftsman has command of the process to make a product plus the skill/intuition/cunning to adapt the process to get the best from the materials on hand. Craftsmanship then must require hu-man control of a process to produce a consistent quality product.
    The technician has some skill or a lot of skill but is a captive of the process, they can exhibit craftsmanship with manual skills but don’t necessarily make it to craftsman.