EXP

When you employ a craftsman or an artist to create a product for you, the basic idea is that you pay for the production of the product, the product itself and whatever else goes into delivery and so on. However, if we were to philosophically to consider this, we’d be paying for the creator’s experience as well. After all, a piece by a master craftsman does seem to fetch a higher price due to its quality than the same piece with somewhat less elegance by the master’s student.

It could be argued that the quality and finesse of a product has some relevancy to the amount of experience the creator has under his belt. In a modern production environment this may not be the case, as automated machines are able to produce a very even quality. To put that aside, the amount of experience a craftsman needs to learn to master his craft doesn’t end. In a way, to call someone a master is sort of oxymoron, as there is always room to improve one’s skill, but we just tend to use the term to nominate someone who has skill beyond the standard qualifications, if you will.

The experience we’re talking about here isn’t just few times working hands-on with something, or just few years. Ultimately, to be considered a master of a craft classically requires a small lifetime. What many seem to forget about other fields is that they contain the same seed from we all learn from; failure. Failure and the will to overcome that failure by solving whatever problem caused that failure to come true is what makes us learn. As an anecdote, I’ve seen people having a swell time in the workshop and haven’t seen much troubles. However, at some point they are just faced with a wall that they can’t overcome easily because they have lacked the challenges failure brings with it. I have to say that most, if not all of my experience really has been accumulated through numerous hardships that have sometimes required me to scrap numerous work hours due to a simple mistake or an unseen problem that could not have been avoided without a necessary experience.

As such, experience costs a lot of money, but we rarely see this in the product price itself. Then again, perhaps it should even be visible in there to any extent. Experience however does have an effect on the price in few ways. Like I discussed earlier this month, accuracy raises the price due to the sheer amount of time it takes for a craftsman to ensure the required dimensions are to a point. Thank God for standard tolerances, I tell you. Those things are a life saver in, money saver and time saver. Anyway, with experience gaining those accuracies is, in principle, easier as you have that knowhow to back unto. This sort of experience doesn’t really appear on a conscious mind all that much, you just have both the muscle memory and the gist of doing something right. It’s like opening a bottle. You instinctively know that lefty loosy and righty tighty and you twist the right way without thinking it too much.

And yet we all just stop thinking and wondering which was the direction on an occasion or seven.

For a moment, consider how much time and effort you’ve spent on your hobby or field of work and how much easier things just are nowadays for you, and how much you still require to learn new things and experience to be just that much better.

You know this already by hear, but it never ends. Perhaps the best way to put it would be that we can master something well enough at some point in our lives, but due to the nature of world, the evolving technology, changing tools, new requirements and numerous other things that can change a thing within a month, we can never truly master something. Perhaps that sort of search for perfect mastery of something is in vain, but it is without any shroud of doubt very admirable, whatever it is.

So, to return to the point. The best place where you can see quality and worth of your money is in whatever restaurant you frequent. The more open view to the kitchen, the better. There you can see that sometimes the more expensive price can fetch a more skilled chef. Watching a master chef working in his kitchen is a wonder. Applies to really everyone at their own work, really. Have you ever seen a master secretary? That’s a sight to behold in itself, especially when it comes to time and event management.

However, experience and mastering the craft can make a person a bit blind as well. I mentioned that changes can keep one from being a master of something, but it could be argued that mastering a craft in a version of sorts that turns archaic down the line. Traditional and digital painting being just one example that pops to my head. Sticking to one style and way and being its master may exclude tools and methods that would make things so much easier at times. This sounds like I’m talking about martial arts or something.

A good example of this really is how traditional metal and such craftsmen are becoming a sort of rare species due to how the same products can be largely made faster, easier and more efficiently. For example, if you were to employ a craftsman to make a ladle, surely you would get a fine and well made ladle with no second piece like that existing in the world. That is, if you don’t order multiple pieces and ask him to do a limited mass production. However, ordering some Chinese factory to produce ladles for a fraction of the price and gain so much more in quantity with the same quality is reality we must face.

But experience. Don’t underestimate it, and if you want to ensure something as it should be, don’t be afraid to ask for it too

Divided by six thousand

Time is money, and accuracy demands time. This may not sound like a thought that we don’t know, but yet most often than not fail to realize that we live in a world where most things are not at not perfectly accurate. No, I’m not talking about journalism, I’m talking parts making and design.

In production we have four levels of tolerances ranging from very rough to very fine. Very rough is essentially things just done to get them finished without any care about the end quality as the maximum tolerances are around ±1mm. 1mm does not sound a lot, yet depending on the spot that margin of error can really make all the differences. For something like tractor, where you have a lot of parts that are under dire stress, the accuracy isn’t all that vital. As long as it works. Certain medical equipment on the other hand are required to be at certain size to the thousandth of a millimetre at most for the sake of the patient.

A craftsman who works with machines by hand has to gain rather large amount of experience before he has the skill to truly work within the finer points of accuracy. Experience is a major factor, as the machines we work with are not accurate themselves to a degree. Double checking levels and re-adjusting alignments as needed doesn’t really cut it, that needs to be done almost every time a work is being started to make sure things are straight. Accuracy starts with prepping and planning.

Of course, the modern CNC production has made accuracy more or less self-evident to most. The machines’ movement accuracy is nearly perfect and dependent on the systems’ own measurements inside, and the setting the user’s input. A designer has his workload here to design an item that can be machined properly and consider the dimensions of the objects.

Nevertheless, even with CNC machining, the amount of steps the machine has to make to ensure proper surface with proper tolerances can go two-way. A rough milling will leave the surface with a surface that most wouldn’t like and the corners and cuts may be nearly or even outside the tolerances. Even from a machine it takes time to properly finish the item to a finer degree. Often much less than what it would take from a craftsman, and more of than not factories don’t even have individual lathes or milling machines for mass production, just for parts repairs and prototyping.

Just like when design is at its best when you don’t really notice it, accurate tolerances are something that you may notice one in a while, but take it for granted most of the time. Things just have to fit in order for them to work, and that’s how it should be.

And yes, I totally agree. However, it also has to be valued. Object accuracy, to make sure that parts just fit together, is so self-evident that we barely give any thought how important it is to our lives. It’s natural, yet the challenge to have accurate objects rises as the required accuracy goes up. Almost exponentially so. Sure, we could always finish up an item with a sandpaper and a very fine file, but that’s not really doable in modern world. Speed and efficiency have to be considered, and we don’t have the time to dilly dally to get something just perfect. This may sting your ear a bit, but good enough is satisfactory more often than not.

However, it’s also interesting to notice that most modern designers work with absolute measures rather than within tolerances to some degree. Personally I always rally for designers to work with production tools their designs will be realized with to understand the steps and methods needed to produce their design. A craftsman tends to design within or just slightly beyond his skill set to push himself just a bit further down.

If you read into this entry a bit deeper, you might notice that this is part of a theme I’ve popped up here and there; the change of traditional design and craftsmanship being more or less replaced by modern technology. That is not a negative thing in itself, that’s change and evolution. Creating a crown is traditionally thought to be work for the artisans and jewellery makers, but nowadays we have designers and machines that can objectively make better products at a lower cost than the traditional craftsmen.

However, the work these traditional craftsmen do is barely visible and only certain fields are valued to any significant extent. I’m not even sure how well people are informed what sort of job a machinist, for example, has in his hands when he gets the plans.

We live in an age where we can substitute a traditional craft with one person with one machine. Not only is it more effective and faster, but also cheaper for those very reasons. I started this post about accuracy and how it costs money, but here I’m starting to end with a thought that in the future we might not even have the requirement for those traditional crafts and accuracy has become even more mundane that what it already is.

Each craft tends to think theirs isn’t valued enough, but perhaps that’s true. Everybody should be appreciated other fields of work just as much as they value theirs. Nevertheless, a thing like being an artisan might be one of the more useless jobs in the world, in the end, as their niche of being able to produce and design products is becoming a mundane every day thing with the advent of 3D printers and machines far superior to men.

It’s not a thought I amuse lightly. The fact is that the world demands further production and better prices, and work by hand costs. Machining may not have the same spirit and individuality, but it gets things done helluva lot faster and more efficient. New tools replace the old, names and professions change, but the demands and needs don’t change too much. Work can become obsoleted by progression, unless we consciously keep it alive.

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.