It’s all in the hands

Some time ago I was looking for a new coffee table, until I just said Screw it and made one myself. There was an event during my search time that was quite telling when it comes to how people tend to see craftsmen, handiwork and design.

There was a nice table for 40€ in a garage shop. It was nothing special and in a pretty bad shape overall speaking. It would have required me to scrape the old lacquer and paint surface off, clean the whole surface and repaint it. It was also plywood, which isn’t the best material out there to build nice furniture from, but it’s cheap and with proper effort can be made nice.

The effort is the keyword here. The seller said that I’d just need to scrape the surface off and give it a new lick of paint. Being someone who has done it few times in my line of work, I told him it’s far more than that. Scraping the surface takes proper space, tools and time. As the top is plywood, it really would be easier just to change to better quality of wood. The required materials then to refurbish the rest of the table would’ve cost around 120€. That doesn’t include the lost money that time is lost while working on the table. After telling all this to him, he looked baffled. He declined my offer of 20€, which was to be expected. I got materials for the new table for 12€ by using recycled parts from one of my old coffee tables.

The issue isn’t haggling, it isn’t part of our culture. The problem here is that people expect things to be handmade in high quality and to be cheap at the same time. In case of the table, it isn’t just scraping the surface off and repainting it, it’s a lot more than that. Consumers don’t realise that craftsmanship requires mastery, time and dedication. It’s a far cry from industrial mass production.

This is an interesting change of sorts. When industrial revolution hit, mass produced products became the thing to have and to wear. You got new materials that were not used by the craftsmen to the same extent, and fake materials slowly began to take place on the rich people’s chests, like fake ivory brooches. Craftsman became a thing that the common folk would do, because they had no money to put into the new-fangled products ‘everybody’ had. With less master craftsmen nowadays, the people with enough money now can employ high calibre master craftsmen to create intricate jewels and other items. Craftsmanship is experiencing an interesting dilemma, where some are the most expensive luxury items you can find, and yet it is expected for handicraft products to be cheaper than industrially mass produced ones.

Crafting is nothing like in Minecraft. Trust me on this, I’ve had some kids telling me how easy it is to do a pickaxe, they saw it in the game. It doesn’t magically happen when you hit two or three things together. It’s much more time consuming and material intensive than you would guess at first. No craft product is perfect from the get go, it requires some few prototypes and a lot of hours. Materials and time costs, and that is why crafts products tend to fetch higher price than your store bought ones.

For example, purchasing finely tempered knife from a smith will give a knife that will last you through generations with proper care. They may cost around 50 or 80€, but they are well worth it. On the other hand, buy a similar knife from whatever hardware store you use for 10-20€ and you will get a knife that’s basically chrome plated pig iron. Stainless steel tamped on the knife doesn’t give you any assurances on quality of the blade, you’d need to know a lot more about the used steel. A lot of cheap knives I’ve purchased and used had that Stainless Steel tamped on them, and ultimately they’ve been very poor quality and could be snapped into two by pretty much any normal person. You also expend all the surface chrome with one or two proper sharpening. In the end, a cheap knife will cost you more than a good one. Poor can’t afford to buy cheap.

Next time you see a spot reserved for craftsman’s products in your store or in a marketplace, give them a long good look and wage whether you should replace that old and dull generic kitchen knife with something with more heft to it. It may take a bit more to take care of it, but as with any crafts product, as long as you take care of it, it’ll take care of you. This doesn’t apply to your run-of-the-mill mass produced units that are designed to be consumed once and then discarded.

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