is that “the old way” of doing it?

 How often do folk who choose to use hand tools hear this? The implication of course is that there is now a newer, better, faster way and that I am doing it “the old way” just to show how it was done.

There is a common misconception about technologies in the Western world, we think that new technologies replace older ones because they are somehow better. This sometimes happens but it is rarely that clean cut. New technologies are often introduced because they are cheaper to make, demand less skills on the part of the user or create more profit for the manufacturer. Older technologies often run alongside newer technologies because they offer considerable benefits in many circumstances, particularly for the folk that have the skills to use them.

Ewan Clayton made this point very well in his speach at the launch of the Heritage Crafts Association
“As a calligrapher you only have to walk into a bank and you pass stone carved lettering or bronze cast lettering on the outside. You go inside and you see inkpads and stamps being used, fountain pens and ballpoints. You see carbon paper, fax machines, computers, handwriting – it’s all there at the same time.”

What brought this all to mind today was a passer by at my workshop this afternoon who asked “is that the old way of doing it?” My answer was, well yes this was how it was done in the past but it is also the way it is done today, it still works well. My workshop is passed by a busy footpath, I thought afterwards that perhaps I should have asked the lady walking by if she was “doing it the old way” as a conscious decision not to drive, or use some other modern transport technology. Some things like walking, using a hammer and nail, carving with a knife or using a hand plane have been with us a long time but still work. In fact walking it seems is more common in the most advanced cities in the world like London, Tokyo and New York since driving is just not practical. There are many reasons to use simple technologies; they are cheap, tend to have a low carbon footprint and be eco friendly, they tend to be safe and offer a sense of fulfillment in the work, the products of hand tools tend to have a different feel which I like “showing how it was done in the old times” whilst valid is fairly low down on my personal list.

5 Responses to is that “the old way” of doing it?

  1. pdcawley April 25, 2011 at 4:49 pm #

    There's any number of folk singers with horror stories about bookers who expect them to dress up in cod medieval costume 'cos the songs were old.The songs may be old, but we're singing them now. And that's an important thing to be saying. Songs, crafts and things only survive the years because each generation thought they were worth the effort. The storyteller Hugh Lupton talks about the idea that, as he tells a story, the person he got it from is standing at his shoulder, and the person they got it form is standing behind them and so on back to when the story was first made. Every telling is different, but the storyteller is backed up by a long lineage of other tellers. I reckon that that applies to pretty much all traditional activities.

  2. Gorges Smythe April 26, 2011 at 3:18 am #

    "New technologies are often introduced because they…demand less skills on the part of the user…"There's the main gist, I believe.

  3. Richard Law April 26, 2011 at 6:12 am #

    The corollary is the other comment "Oh that's cheating!" when passersby see me using a battery drill. I see no problem with using a technology that makes parts of the job easier on the old bones. I got tennis elbow from using a breast drill (and bruises), the old ways were not universally better. Mind you a big auger does beat a big bit in an electric drill (easier on the body again), then again I've just acquired an archimedes drill …

  4. Steve Kubien April 29, 2011 at 10:35 pm #

    In my experience, there can a happy mix of the old and new. I always found it easier, faster and safer to joint two boards together with a hand plane. If I had several hundred feet to do…not so much.Today, my shop is a happy mix of both worlds. I haven't graduated to a pole large yet so my modern electric lathe gets plenty of use. My chainsaw is a welcome friend over a maul and wedges when I process a log. Still, the medium, wood, is old. Go to the big stores today to buy a salad bowl and you a huge assortment of plastic and glued-together, mass produced wooden bowls. I make by hand solid, one piece bowls which I trust to be in fine shape for future generations with minimal care.Like all things in life, it is about balance.

  5. Robin Wood April 29, 2011 at 10:58 pm #

    Piers I appreciate the input from the folk music world. As traditional crafts people we are often expected to appear in traditional dress from some bygone age yet we are living and working in the 21st century.I find appearance is important and says a lot about who we are, first impressions count. If I am going to meet a minister I get a haircut and wear my suit, because I know he will be wearing a suit and it creates empathy. If I am demonstrating craft I find a leather apron works wonders, it is almost like a badge of office. The public immediately decide I am a professional craftsperson if I wear a leather apron. Richard, Steve, I agree, we are in the lucky position of being able to choose the best of technology from all periods.