Sunday, September 6, 2009

Comment Reply -Toscano

A reader named Toscano replied to my previous post with a comment. After attempting to answer I found my reply exceeded the character limit for the 'comments' section, so I have elected to create a new post...


Hi Toscano,

thank you for your comment and questions - much appreciated.

You wrote,

"The quest for this kind of perfection is admirable, yet I want your thoughts on the practical aspects of it. As a craftsperson, one relies on patronage to make a living. This level of work must make it very tough to find the right kind of patron for it. You have touched on this issue before, but I'd like to hear your thoughts on how you try to strike a balance between achieving work that you as the maker are satisfied with and a patron can afford. Pushing the envelope is one hallmark of an accomplished craftsperson, but shouldn't also expediency?"

There are a lot of points wrapped up in your comment, I'll try to tease those particulars out in attempting to answer.

First off, a quest for 'perfection' - to me, that means simply to walk a road that never reaches its destination. 'Perfection' is very much in the eye of the beholder, and I don't consider anything I've done yet to be 'perfect' - yet nonetheless I try with each piece I make to improve in some respect. I'm sure a high-end watch maker or machinist at NASA might have very different ideas as to what constitutes 'perfection' so I leave a determination of the nature of 'perfection' as something which is rather subjective.

As I pointed out in a couple of posts back in January, this 'quest' is like playing darts, or basketball, in that it is essential that in practice I must strive to aim at the target, be it the bulls-eye or the hoop, in a focused and consistent manner. Just throwing the dart randomly and unconcernedly at the board is unlikely to yield anything other than the odd accidental bulls-eye - in other words, no real skill is developed, and therefore little can be drawn upon when the need is actually there to hit that bulls-eye.

Another way of putting it is that I would much rather have developed a level of skill and capacity above and beyond the daily requirements of my trade, so that when called upon, I can do the more difficult work, whatever is required. That call may never come, but, I like to keep the tools sharp, so to speak. Sharpening is a core skill to acquire, not just for our tools but for our skills. And finally - I simply find this stuff so fascinating that I can't help but want to explore and learn, and make the sort of pieces that I find wonderful. The carpentry path is long-established yet it seems that some great trails have become overgrown with weeds since few people choose to walk them these days - for me, it's largely a matter of picking up these old trails, following them where they lead, and just maybe, here and there, forging a path into some new ground. I hope others follow, and will follow those who take the lead too.

You are quite right that craftspeople must rely upon patronage to make a living, and it is, to steal a phrase from Calvin and Hobbes, pretty tough sledding sometimes - especially given the economy in recent months I have found. I was talking to a friend yesterday and he asked me, given the struggle for work, if I ever considered trying some other career path. While I think there are other careers I could do and enjoy like pattern-making or wooden boat building, I love the carpentry route I am following too much and see no reason to jump ship. He then asked me if I would just go and 'bang nails' (today's translation: staple) like most carpenters out there. That was a tougher question to answer. To do that sort of work would very much be engaging in NOT achieving that kind work that I would be satisfied with. I think I could do it if I had to, but it would break my spirit after a while and I would begin to hate it. With my mentality, I would be a poor fit on a crew as a roughing carpenter, so I don't foresee many opportunities in that direction anyhow. Everyone who does carpentry knows there are finish carpenters and there are rough carpenters and they are very different people in terms of how they work and what they do.

Case in point: My neighbor recently had some renovation work done to an entry parlor. His first carpenter was a guy who liked otherwise to work with heavy timber, and would be most pleased to be doing projects involving 50 ton jacks and cables to move buildings around. This parlor reno wasn't exactly his cup of tea. He did a fair job at first, but when things moved to the finishing stages, he increasingly became a fish out of water. After mangling the install of the door jambs, his frustration boiled over and he quit. His replacement arrived a week or two later, and managed to complete the work with his stapler, compressor and chop saw. Trying to be helpful, I pointed out the problem with the door jambs (the header being twisted open more than 1/8" in one spot) to the second carpenter, however he chose to not deal with the issue and just covered everything over. He was in a hurry to get to another job you see. And hey, with the door closed, you can't see the header misfit(!). It was interesting to observe. My neighbor hasn't noticed the door jamb issues, among a number of other areas of poor workmanship, so he is pleased with the results. I choose to not break his bubble of illusion, and keep my mouth shut. Most clients cannot, I have noticed, tell good work from mediocre, and thus are not usually prepared to pay for the better work since it takes a bit longer in some cases and thus costs a bit more and they can't see the difference. That's a large part of the problem.

Life is short, we all know that. While getting 'stuff out the door' and putting 'food on the table' are honorable and necessary pursuits, I want to accomplish more with my life if at all possible than 'just getting by'. It's all about what a person is willing to settle for and where their dreams take them. It's a matter of having dreams too, of course. That means, for me, aiming higher and pushing my level, and not accepting the norm. Rather than leave behind a trail of completed 'units', of stuff that I got out the door, I would rather leave behind but a single piece that would be of value to future generations. Hopefully more than a single piece of course, but that ideal of striving to do the best work, to build things which honor the material and future generations is what works for me.

As for work that I'm 'satisfied' with - I doubt that there will ever be a piece I make that will not be crying out for some further bit of improvement. And this 'improvement needed' is increasingly likely to be something only I notice. Getting 'satisfied' is akin, to me, to getting complacent and I avoid it like the plague -at least in my carpentry.

And as far as the balance point between my drives in doing the work, and the needs of the patron, well, that comes down to what we negotiate between ourselves, what a patron is willing to fund, and for how long, and what I am willing to do for that. That negotiation is different in every case, and depends upon what sort of relationship one has with the client, established or otherwise, and how one goes about negotiations.

Almost every job has some sort of constraints and compromises inherent in it. Even this lantern I've been working upon is not the full-blown 'over the top' affair it could be, at least in relation to other Japanese lanterns I have looked at. It's all relative, or, as a former employer of mine used to say, at least a distant cousin.

I nearly always do more than strictly 'necessary' in any job, which means I am working to satisfy my needs sometimes, and not simply the patrons.

What is 'expedient' - now this is another word like 'perfection' that is highly subjective. The expediency of stapling asphalt shingles on a roof, a 25 year product, is a practice most German traditional carpenters would laugh at. The 4~6 week build time for a lot of houses in North America, a result of an endless drive for economic efficiency - how would this appear to a house builder from 1825? What would he think, if given the overview of the process, of the 'expediency' of stapling together OSB and spruce studs, covering it with vinyl siding and all the rest, and seeing this building likely crushed into the landfill less than 50 years later (or needing expensive repairs)? Would he likely give us his admiration or find us rational? To take it further, how about the medieval church builders of Europe, working their entire lives on a single building, never seeing the beginning of the process, and likely never seeing the end given that these structures might take more than 100 years to complete - how might they view our building culture and its expediencies? 'Expediency' relates very strongly to the window of time that is factored in I think.

How much of our built culture today do you think future generations will be thanking us for?

I am fully aware that in the case of the lantern which I have been working on for about three months now, that it could be fairly closely duplicated in form with 3~4 weeks work, which would mean the use of metal fasteners and adhesives. It would therefore be a much cheaper product, more highly salable, and of course it would hardly last as long or perform as well over time as what I have made. Here's the thing: I realize most buyers would not be able to tell the difference between the two products. Yet I persist in my 'folly' I suppose, because I believe it to be the right path for me to take. I have personally had enough experiences with buying cheap imitations of some better product and the disappointment that invariably results - so in the work I do and the products I make, given that they are reflections of what I believe and how I see the world, well they cannot be like those imitations in any way. Does that make any sense? I imitate the well-made and designed pieces, but never slavishly - it's not about copying, it's about drawing inspiration from the good things, and seeing a way forward.

To expand a little further - this word 'expediency' is in many respects a code word for 'lack of patience' or 'cutting corners for profit'. Returning to my above example of the lantern, let's amortize out the time frame: I work three months to build a lantern and it lasts, say, 75 years. A similar looking lantern, built in three weeks, lasts maybe 15 years. Looking at the initial build time, mine takes 4 times longer to build than the copy - some would question my sanity, and wonder why I don't take the path that would make me more money. However, when we pan back with the lens a bit and see the fact that my lantern lasts 60 years longer than the copy, that 9 week difference at the initial construction phase starts to look pretty irrelevant. I guess this is a more extreme example, however I put it to people that most well-made things are not built quickly. and when most of us, I would wager, look upon a well made building, we feel gratitude to the maker and who really cares if it took a few weeks or months at the beginning longer to accomplish that?

You know, most people say to me, upon viewing some piece I have made, or pictures thereof, that they 'simply haven't got the patience to do that'. I've always found this a curious thing to say, since patience is a struggle for all of us when it comes to making things. To be impatient is some sort of emotional reaction, with fear somewhere at the core. I can't claim to understand it all that well from a psychological perspective, however I have seen the results of impatience on the part of co-workers and bosses over the years, and not once have I seen a good outcome. I'll give a couple of examples.

I used to work for a landscaping and irrigation firm in Whistler B.C. during my early twenties. One year we got the contract for the new Whistler Elementary School, a pretty massive job for the company. Towards the end of that project it came time to install the playground equipment. My boss, as usual, had been trying to cut corners to make more money, and as part of that strategy had not brought in enough fill to bring the surface grade up to the correct place in the area where the equipment was to be placed. When it was pointed out to him that the ground was too low, and would therefore pond up in a rainstorm, that more fill was needed, the boss just got stern, gritted his teeth, and said "no time for that - just get it done dammit!" So the equipment was installed - about a week of work. Then the project supervisor came around, took a look and noticed that the area was still too low, and told my boss that the equipment would have to be removed and the areas brought up another 18". Being party to this conversation at the time, we figured it was our next move to start removing the equipment - but, oh no! - that wasn't the plan. The boss was pissed that this was going to take longer, but he thought he could fool the project supervisor by simply filling in the playground, without removing the equipment, with bark mulch, a less-expensive proposition. So that's what we did, even though we knew it was wrong.

The next week again saw the arrival of the site supervisor, and he wasn't fooled in the least by the ruse, especially given that the bottom two steps of the slide was buried in mulch and the end of the slide finished at ground level. He ordered it torn out, the area re-graded, and so forth - and this time my boss realized he had no choice, and so complied. Another week later the install was at last done properly. My boss's impatience with getting the job done and over, and the expedient decisions he made in trying to accomplish that came back to bite him. A job that could have been done properly in one week stretched out to three. I learned well that there never seems to be enough time to do it right the first time, but always time to come back later and re-do the work at a loss. I think that characterizes an awful lot of work these days on construction sites - if not at initial construction phase then 10-15 years later when massive and expensive re-fits suddenly become necessary.

The second example comes from work on the billionaire Client 'E''s place - a project I talked about in the posts from a few months back titled "Bark worse than its Bite?". On that job there was no budget and no pressure to hurry the work, yet I still saw people becoming impatient at various junctures. One time I was making some final adjustments to a joint where two beams crossed without a support post below - the joint was finished to give the intersection of two sword-points, forming an 'X' on the lower surface, and as it was in a highly visible location I wanted the result to be 'perfect'. A co-worker, a nice fellow, who often told me that his goal was to do really clean work came up to me while I was working carefully on one half of the joint to trim the sword-tip miter carefully for a close fit. He seemed in a hurry, and said "what on earth is taking so long?" and then jumped in and started trimming the other half of the joint. I asked him what the hurry was, but he seemed in his own head space and didn't really answer. I finished my half, and could hear him muttering about "getting things done" and "wasting time". Then I watched him take a pass with his plane on the miter, and when he found that his plane wasn't taking enough of a shaving, he then hurriedly reset the blade deeper for another pass. I watched as he started to pull the plane and could tell immediately that the pass was going to be too heavy. He kept going though, just as I was reaching out with my hand and saying "whoa!" Too late. Sure enough, when the joint was offered up, there was a gap (which will be visible from here on out, for years to come) due to the over-pared miter. The difference between a perfectly fitting joint and one with a gap from over-paring was simply the patience to spend an extra minute or two in that case. Nothing to do with expediency really - more a matter of my co-worker unable to deal with whatever feelings that led him to act in a rush.

The artists and craftspeople whom I admire, past and present, take risks in their work and strive for excellence. It may appear to be easy mastery, but a lot of struggle and determination lies behind that. Like me perhaps, they are sometimes not entirely successful in what they seek to accomplish, and may struggle in other areas of their lives. If I'm to accomplish anything close to what those people have done, I suspect I must pursue this path with an equal amount of vigor to the past masters. Let me say that I don't wish to starve, or go insane (if I'm not already!), or end up in the alms house either, so I hope to also take a cue from those lessons of the past masters of course.

I practice carpentry knowing full well that I may never get a chance to build some of the wonders I have come across and/or have studied. So I guess I'm not very pragmatic - in fact, I guess I'm a bit stubborn and unreasonable. I don't want to go with the flow of modern times in regards to most of our built material culture. To paraphrase, "If you will follow the way, then you must not follow the world" - I can't remember where I first read that, but it is an idea that has stuck with me for a long time.

I think, and this may well be a delusion on my part, that if most clients could receive an understanding of the differences between a craftsman way of building and the usual stuff, if they could be brought to see the wisdom of amortizing out a purchase decision over the long term and see how good a deal it actually is when durability is factored in, instead of simply focusing on the up front cost, well I think some of them might opt for spending a little more of their money on what I can offer them. I mean, Ferrari has no trouble selling $250,000 cars - the clients are out there (and seem to know the difference between a Ferrari and a Yugo). It is, I believe mostly a matter of connecting with the right clients and letting them know what you can do. Those that appreciate quality work and who have the means will probably support it. For the less financially resourceful, the route to highly-crafted things is to make them themselves.

Some may only be interested in status symbols, or immediate gratification (not likely to be clients for me I'm afraid) but I think there are those, even in this society, that will want something carefully designed, well made, and lasting. Those are the clients I seek and I don't really need too many of them in order to have plenty of work for life.

Those are my delusions for the time being anyhow Toscano. Excuse the lengthy reply.

Cheers,

Chris

7 comments:

  1. i could not agree more with all that you have mentioned in this post , though i could not have said it half so well. in my line of work goldsmithing , i work for some very high end clients and "some" are able to see the difference , other are not . when i make pieces for my own collection i do the very best work possible with out thoughts of the time frame involved. at times i have worked on pieces for 5 or more years (part time ) only to start all over again as my skill had grown since the start 5 years prior . i am sure that in time you find the patrons willing to pay for your level of work. good work will always get noticed . sometimes though it gets noticed long after we are gone.


    gregore'

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  2. Chris.
    thank you for your well-considered response. I just wanted to write a quick note to say that today is a crazy day at work and I will have a chance to give some time to it tomorrow.

    thanks!
    -toscano

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  3. Had to chuckle at the comment gregore' made, that in regards to our work, "sometimes though it gets noticed long after we are gone".

    Here's the thing - it's a fact that dead artists seem to make a lot more money than the living ones. Why this is, I could only speculate (and I won't)

    It's not an insurmountable problem - what you need to do, with cooperation from your S.O. and kids, is fake your own death (best to not have any insurance policies to deal with, as the insurance companies seem to take a dim view of such things as faked deaths), then come back in disguise as your 'long lost identical twin brother' you know, the one with the curly red hair and a mustache. Then, you can represent your now famous (and apparently dead) 'brothers' work, for fantastic money. Perhaps you could even re-marry your wife, once a suitable 'mourning period was over'. The great thing is that you could always be 'finding' new pieces from time to time - the story would be easy enough to come up with: "just came across this one in the attic, it must have been a rare early prototype, made during the pre-2005 period of my brother's existential angst", etc, etc.

    Just kidding I guess. If you're going to be an artist though, the way to make money is to be dead. Surely they must have a class in arts schools, first year, about such an established fact? I wonder what Van Gogh would think if he came back from the grave to see what his pieces are fetching these days?

    Okay, I'm on with the next post, I've had my bit of fun here for today. Thanks for the comments gentlemen, and you're always welcome to add more.

    ~Chris

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  4. Bravo! I know only too well of what you speak.

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  5. Chris,

    First of all, apologies for the somewhat late response to your post. I have just started a new teaching job and preparing lectures and dealing with administrative issues was particularly crazy this week. Thankfully, the weekend is here and I have some time to write and possibly even continue on a project I've been working on for almost a year now. How's that for expediency? :D

    My original comment was prompted by something I remember (hopefully correctly) reading in Toshio Odate's book on Japanese tools. If memory serves, he talked about the speed that was necessary for a craftsman to acquire in order to finish commissioned projects at a rate that made it practical for both him and the client. I should point out that he did not suggest that this speed should or did come at the cost of the quality of the work. On the contrary, my interpretation was that experience affords a kind of muscle memory, so to speak, an intimacy with the craft and the tools that allowed the work to be fast and accurate at once. It reminds me of some videos I have seen of Japanese blacksmiths who appear to work at superhuman speed, while producing work of exceptional quality. I can only put this down to an implicit knowledge and understanding of the subject, methods, and tools involved. I am also reminded of such things as the carpentry tests that Japanese apprentices take to become accredited (perhaps my terminology leaves something to be desired here, but I think you know what I am referring to), where accuracy as well as speed are required and rewarded.

    It is this kind of expediency I was referring to in my comment. I am highly appreciative of the effort to produce work that is as high quality as is possible given the means and experience and agree with you that, in that sense, time is of secondary importance. As you and others have mentioned, however, this attitude is not always shared by everyone. Not that it has to, or that this should be of much consequence. Perhaps not unless one relies on patron support, though. It's this kind of balance that I wanted to hear your comments on.

    The late Sam Maloof also, on a few occasions, appears to have talked about this need for developing methods that expedited the process without sacrificing quality.

    cheers,
    -toscano

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  6. Hi Toscano,

    thanks for your comment once again. Your point about speed is a good one, and as you mention, is very much an ideal in Japanese carpentry. As I have mentioned in previous posts, in such things as the Japanese carpentry exams, the most difficult aspect is the speed to which the test must be completed, far more so than the technical difficulty of the exam.

    In order to be able to work fast, one must have thoroughly internalized the skills so they are absolutely second nature. However, when one moves into areas of a project that are of a prototyping nature, or when there is benefit to be gained from slowing down a little bit, and say precious materials are employed, well, it seems it is worth it to me to take an extra step sometimes.

    Most Japanese workers that I have observed do not necessarily work fast, however they definitely do work long hours and do their tasks very steadily and with attentiveness. When there is a time pressure on the work, it is more normal to extend the working hours than to speed up the rate of work.

    And it depends upon the work too - routine tasks like ripping piece of wood with a saw, planing it to square and to dimension, cutting basic mortises and tenons - this work is such a normal part of the process that a competent worker should be quick about such things.

    As for Sam Maloof and his methods, well, I would be at some variance with the choices he made to build his pieces, beautiful as they may be. One point to be made about his pieces was that he made a relatively narrow range, and made the pieces again and again, year after year, with slight improvements here and there from time to time. Anybody who does the same thing over and over, and therefore can employ set jigs and machine set-ups, a predictable type of material, established work procedure, and so forth, will inevitably be quicker and more efficient at what they do. This is the basis of division of labor after all.

    There's a sweet spot somewhere, a different point in all likelihood for different people, in which the work is done quickly, expeditiously, and yet quality does not suffer. Dawdling wastes the customer's money obviously, and few patrons are likely going to want to knowingly support that, but going so fast that the work is slipshod is unacceptable as well. I'd take the slow and good over the quick and dirty any day, in most things.

    Everything should be able to be done better with repetition. This lantern, for instance, given the design and prototyping, has taken a fair while for me to make. If I were to make another one, I'm sure I could knock the time down by at least a third. And if I had 10 to build, by 60 or 70% faster or more. The first try takes the longest. The same is true in manufacturing at large - developing a prototype anything, like a new car model, can take months or even years and then once the production details are finalized, the items can be made relatively quickly in most cases.

    Thanks so much for the discussion Toscano - I hope your new teaching gig goes well for you.


    ~Chris

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