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.

Review of the month; Artidee XOR Crystal Polyester Casting Resin

When working with steel and stone, it’s not too uncommon to combine it with multitude of other materials. Wood and steel go together like butter and bread. Stone and wood too as the two give a nice accent between the two natural materials. I’m not sure if I’m glad that leathers and fabrics are more familiar as materials than plastics. Nevertheless, it’s better to dip yourself into unknown regions from time to time and do something new. You’ve most likely noticed that I’ve been rather absent from writing posts during the last few weeks, and that’s because I’ve been working on projects that simply took most of my time. One of the projects I just finished was to produce a replica of a cocoa fruit for the local botanical garden for exhibition purposes.

Whether or not the project was a success will be left to dark. The customer was happy and that’s all that matters. Nevertheless I strongly feel that it was my inexperience with resin casting caused more troubles that the final product was ultimately worth, but it’s all a process of experimenting and learning with these kinds of things. While resin casting is very much similar to other forms of casting, sand and vacuum casting being most familiar methods to yours truly, polyester resin has its kinks one can’t really see beforehand before without experience.

The resin used in this project was as mentioned in the title, Artidee’s XOR Crystal Polyester resin. As with other materials like it, it comes in a composite form with the resin as a separate canister and hardener in a glass bottle. You don’t need much hardener with XOR to engage the curing process. This is very similar to stone plaster, in which one of the best ones I’ve had the (dis)pleasure to use required some 3% of the overall volume. There was an incident few years back, where a younger craftsman in training used too much hardener with the stone plaster, causing it to release fumes, heat up to a point that it broke the glass jar he mixed it in. I didn’t try this with XOR, because I doubt the customer would’ve been glad to see their product being completely fucked up by simple curiosity. Nevertheless, the fact is that often adding slightly more hardener than needed can cut hours from the curing time. This is not all too universal, but we all need some sort of placebo at times.

The curing process in XOR requires that its cut from air contact. If it is air cured, then the surface will remain sticky. This is a crux with the resin, and this is something that needs to be taken into notice when selecting the resin you want to use. In principle, it should be pretty easy to cut all air circulation from the plastic, this isn’t always the case without proper built. After handling all sorts of chemical throughout the years, it’s not all too hard to simply see and smell chemicals that would be able to kill you. XOR is one of those, and I intentionally tested using a plastic cover to cut off the air from the casting. The results were that the damn plastic began to bubble and melt even going to the extent of dripping tiny droplets of running acrylic into the casted surface. Now, logic would dictate that it wouldn’t be the best idea to make a mould housing out of plastic, but I just needed to be tested to some extent to know it myself with solid, undeniable proof. It’s for the experience and firsthand knowledge, and nothing can replace that.

With any casting material, the finish is important. The better the finished surface, the less work you need to do with it to make it presentable. In all honesty, the unrefined finish of the XOR is pretty good if your mould has good, smooth surfaces. Depending on the geometry of your mould, the resin may have some difficulties on invading every nook and cranny you have in there. While the resin has arguably a high viscosity, it is more similar to slightly runny honey, so to speak. It can handle high geometry just fine. The cocoa shells are strongly dimensional with high amount of details due to the uneven surface of a fruit. XOR did a good job at replicating each and every of those details.

Of course, if the casting has been in contact with air, it has that sticky surface as mentioned above. In this case, it would better to just take few millimetre layer off with whatever tool you want to use and polish the actually hardened surface. If you’ve ever polished plastic with manual labour, this option may sound absolutely awful. Polishing any plastic is tiresome and one of the dullest jobs out there. Nevertheless, I must say that even with the best possible circumstances the surface of the casting will be slightly cloudy. It’s transparent for sure, but it’s not crystal clear by any means. It would be a good idea to bring some plastic polishing paste of similar with you when casting with XOR, just in case. It’s a whole another matter whether or not you want to actually go through all that polishing, and let’s be frank; you sure goddamn might as well. You’ve put a decent money into this, you might as well spend an evening with a bottle of beer and keep scrubbing the plastic until it shines like Picard’s bald head.

But you know what’s the problem with that? XOR doesn’t really polish well. If the surface isn’t what you wanted when you took it from the mould, you’re going to have some work ahead of you to get it shiny as hell. As my comparison point is with hard materials with stones, gemstones, jewels and different metals, it just might be that I am expecting completely wrong kind of result on how the polished surface should come to.

As with most standard quality resins, XOR is pretty high grade. Obviously not the best of the best, but to say that it works just fine for its price category would be apt. It can take some mechanical stress, but not to the same extent as the harder acrylics. I wouldn’t use this to make gear parts or similar, I would go for harder resins.

That’s the bottom line; for a 20€ resin it does its job, but there are better options out there. It’s good for prototyping and all that, but if you have the chance and budget to go for something better, go for that.

We’ll be back next week, hopefully more in schedule with Monthly Music.

This blog is not for self-promotion, and that's why what I've done has not been posted. Here's an example of the resin shows itself, having replicated all irregularities on the surface and all that
This blog is not for self-promotion, and that’s why what I’ve done has not been posted. Here’s an example of the resin shows itself, having replicated all irregularities on the surface and all that

The trouble of being your own customer

Being your own customer is a hazardous business. Your customers may have the utmost trust in your skills, but you yourself know what you are not able to do and what you lack. You see the other side of the coin that the customers are never meant to see.

There’s two kinds of mindsets that craftsmen in this situation will have. The first one is that of perfection, where not even the slightest error is tolerated and everything has to be 100% perfect. No less, no more. These minor errors do not really matter when you’re making something for the customer, as the customer won’t be seeing them. As an example from software side would be interesting bugs and coding errors that do not rise during normal gameplay and only are apparent through when looking at the code. However, video game players are known for finding coding errors out and pushing games to their limits. This kind of errors and mistakes do not appear in normal use, if even at all. Another example would be a chair you want to create for yourself. Here the chair would have the greatest carvings and the greatest comfort, but it begs the question whether or not it’s worth it all. However, the craftsman knows the errors he has made, and when you are in the perfectionist mindset you can’t allow yourself to create a product that would have any errors in the making. It’s not only stressful and taxing, but it distracts you from making products that matter, that is products for your actual customers.

The other mindset is that of… well, there really isn’t one proper word, let’s call it good-enough. In this mindset there are room for errors and mistakes, but the overall product excels as well as the perfectionist product, it just might look/sound less attractive. These errors might be called character flaws, if you will. Making a product this way is faster and gives you more time to work on actual customers’ wants and needs, as most of the you can most likely meet your own needs with the same products you’ve made for your customers.

Then we have the third option of being artistic and selfish in your doing. It serves nobody and can be dismissed as it is.

It’s important always to differentiate when you’re working on a product that your customers would want to have, and when you’re creating a product solely to appease your own wants. You can create a perfect chair for yourself, and most likely a lot of your customers would like to have this same chair in their house. Then we all realize that there’s shitloads of chairs out there and designing a new chair, while seen as some sort of epitome of designing, is completely and utterly useless. Chairs and other furniture gets redesigned multiple times per day and every season gets a new set of designs. While variety is important, all of these use the exact same approach as their predecessors, some to a more successful extent and that’s good. Then we have chairs that nobody ever would want.

There are industries that have become selfish. Game industry is infested with people who only want to make games that they want to play. That’s not being your own customer, that’s being artistic. That’s not being a craftsman, that’s being an idiot.

When you’re your own customer, you know your wants and needs very well, and you’re fulfilling those wants and needs. You can still be either artist or craftsman here. You can ignore what you really need and do what you want. Wants and needs do not necessarily meet, and ignoring needs before wants just doesn’t make good service. The Avengers movie met quite well needs and wants, and for me a little bit more because they had Thanos in the mid-credit scene.

If you’re going to be your own customer, remember to look outside the box at yourself. Do not think what you want outside the core idea, but what you need. You can go a long way just with that, and at some point the core idea has encompassed most of the product at such scale that you can listen your wants a little bit. Being your own customer is actually a delicate method of learning to listen and see beyond your actual customers, and failing at it will cause you to waver to the artists’ side, and this has, and always will, deliver products that only the maker wants, never the user. If you waver, the box you made yourself might looks nice, but the box has become something you can’t use.

Approaching artists’ and craftsmens’ difference

I had this discussion few times around with my friend; I should learn to create more attracting pictures outside my own comfort zone. Naturally I joke that I should just draw erotic images for the change of pace, but usually this is just thrown aside that it would be enough to draw naked women. This made me think the difference I myself have as an artist and as an artisan.

Artisan is someone who by the definition has the skill to craft for the customer, someone who knows what works and why. A craftsman has to have some business mind behind it all and respect the customer, as the customer is God; the one we as his servant must please. To be a craftsman is to be a servant. I am here to create these products for you, by your wishes.

An artist approaches his work from his own angle, disregarding everything else. 99% of the images I’ve ever done have been there just to appease my own imagination, my own will and wants. This is how an artist works. They’re selfish beings that can truly blame only themselves when their product, be it painting or game, won’t sell, thus becoming a farce.

This rises a question; can an artists be his own customer? The answer is simple no; you won’t make a living like that.

Thinking back to my own works as an artist, there’s a lot of them. There’s even more in the trash, and then insane amount of images that I’ve completely forgot, as one of my friend keeps reminding me to tease me at worst of times. I’m my hardest critic, and usually this is the point where people talk. It’s completely upside down to demand the highest possible quality from myself, but that’s almost impossible considering that I am not a perfectionist, so somehow it all falls on its face.

There’s nice amount of crafts that I’ve done as well during my active years. However, unlike into my drawings I’ve usually given more than 70% of my effort, sometimes pushing myself so hard that my arms have lost all of their strength. Here I am my hardest critic as well, but at least this time I have a reason; the customer doesn’t want to buy half-assed knives or crooked tables. A sandblasted stone tablet has to be the finest quality, otherwise I’m wasting both my own and customers’ time.

This is the difference between good artists and bad artists. Good artists know that they’re full of crap and usually have a real job to keep their artistic drives afloat. A bad artist basically does the opposite, trying to shove their own to the customers and barely keeping themselves alive. The image of starving artist is ideal to some, but nobody should really live like that. You could call most of modern design students as starving artists anyway, or most culture students anyway.

A good artisan keeps his artistic side always in good condition. A craftsman can’t really work properly without artistic touch, but that touch needs to be in leash and working for the customer. You can’t really understand shapes and forms without certain vision that can’t really be understood otherwise but as “artistic vision.” For example, certain shape in a knife is there for a functional reason, but some shapes are there just for the looks and design choices.

Personally, I’ve chosen to allow myself to become an artist in print material and all that. I’m not really interested to serve the public even if I have more than adequate potential and skills for that. The way I draw and what I draw exists simply to please my own ends. This attitude I have towards my own drawings and such is perhaps the main reason I rarely develop any more; I have no reason to become better than I already am. I’d rather spent that training time in the workshop polishing my skills at welding or in making a steel box. There’s a reason to become better at steelcraft.

Then why I don’t want to polish my skills as an artist, so I could call myself a craftsman in arts’ side as well?

Perhaps it has something to do with my own space, that drawing and such is a place where I can go by myself and fall into my own world without thinking much about the outside world. This kind of model of working doesn’t suit for customer service at all, and you’d better imagine it.

So, imagine that people want artists to work in the entertainment industry. These artists would do something that would entertain themselves and nothing more. They’d build more and more fame on their work that they made for themselves. Basically, the industry would be full of artists who stroke their trophy works. This time it’s almost real, and all those cigars aren’t just cigars.

Now, if craftsmen were to work in the entertainment industry, always finding ways to entertain you, the customer, rather than themselves. Wouldn’t that be better for all? The craftsmen would get their money and customer would get their products. The craftsman might even even do few of his own works if all things go well. A craftsman has that chance; the chance to do whatever he wants at times if all goes well. An artists has no such option.

Then why stay as artist? Because artists are selfish, that’s why. A craftsmen may be selfish, but only few times here and there.

Perhaps this will encourage few artists to become a craftsman instead. I’ll be using my own artistic side in crafts more, if applicable as well.