Differences Between Craft as Hobby or Business. Does Monetization Decrease the Enjoyment of Making Things?

Some finished and in-progress wooden paddles and spoons.

It may seem odd for someone who conserves and makes things for a living to have a hobby. Mine is making wooden spoons and paddles.  After all, isn’t this pretty much the same activity as my job? Both involve similar craft skills: working precisely, measuring, knowing material properties, and hand tool use. Two years ago, I wrote a piece on the beginning (and temporary ending!) of my spoon carving hobby.  More recently, I started to think about how spoon making as a hobby is different from knife making or bookbinding as a business.

This Sears Craftsman mini hatchet is a great weight and size for how I work.

One of the primary differences is that a craft business is, uh, a business. Once you come up with a product that sells, you need to make more and more identical ones, often according to a client’s order or deadline. With spoon carving I have no such constraints, since I have no intention of selling them. This is freedom from having to make a consistent end product, which is the corner stone of craft. Or maybe I am not skilled enough at spoon carving to turn out an easily and naturally consistent product?

Many people can make one of something, but to make hundreds requires discipline and often knowledge of traditional craft techniques which make the work of repetition easier and more certain (in the David Pye sense). With spoon carving, if a piece of wood splits at the end, I don’t care, I’ll just make it a bit shorter.

My only self-imposed restraint is not to use sandpaper, and leave the faceted knife cut finish.  This is mainly for the pragmatic reason that I don’t like creating a lot of dust, not for any purity-craft-workmanship-ideal kind of thing. I have no qualms about using a bandsaw to rough out blanks, which Pye would consider workmanship of risk.

I had a small steel stamp made from my handwriting to mark them.

In fact, I couldn’t sell them since they take so long to make; I’d only make a couple dollars an hour. I can only give them away. Freedom from monetary constraints increases my own agency in making, so it is a more relaxing activity, as a hobby should be.

But don’t get me wrong, I feel lucky to be able to spend a day making knives or conserving books, rather than being a wage slave making nothing but money.

The lines become blurred when I make a knife to make a spoon.

When monetizing craft, there are continual pressures to simplify production, increase output, or raise the price in order to keep up or outpace the cost of living to profit. Continuing education and research into materials and techniques is a way to accomplish this. With conservation and knives, I keep up on new techniques, philosophic approaches, and materials. With spoons, my primary interest is the process of making them: whittling, shaping, and carving. The history of them and what other people are doing is interesting, but doesn’t influence me all that much.

A hobbyist has the freedom to make what they want, when they want, without regard to how long it takes, how other people make it, or how other people regard it. These are some of the pleasures of a hobby, pleasures that can diminish by making a living selling your work. Caveat Venditor!

What is the Oldest Thing You Made That You Still Use?

Bottom half of a sheet metal tool box I made in shop class.

A few days ago I wondered, what is the oldest thing I made that I still use? After digging through a lot of stuff, I think it is this sheet metal tool box that I made in high school shop class in 1981.

At that time, it was one of the standard projects in metal shop. I still use the skills I learned when I made this: how to layout and bend thin metal, how to follow a two dimensional pattern to make a three dimensional object, how to join sheet metal, and the value and economy of using off the shelf parts in conjunction with handmade ones. I didn’t have enough time to paint it, so it remains with the layout blue exposed.

I still use the toolbox for storage, even though the spot-welded, piano-hinged lid failed a long time ago and is lost. The bottom part of the box is currently holds over 15 pounds of scraps, and is totally solid.

It is comforting to have had this tool box for the past 38 years, and still use it, even though it is damaged. Like an old friend, it is easier to overlook its faults. It is satisfying knowing this toolbox will outlast me — like most of the tools I make and use, and the books I work on —  a persistent reminder we are not so important.

 

Standing at a Vice and Teaching Craft

Jules Amar, The Human Motor;or the Scientific Foundations of Labor and Industry, London: George Routledge & Sons, LTD., 1920 (p. 418)

Amar’s The Human Motor is extraordinarily precise in dictating how a worker should position themselves while working. After all, this was the era of Frederick Winslow Tayler and scientific management. Such dogmatic instruction now seems a little crazy — position your feet at exactly 68 degrees! — and it would certainly put a damper on worker motivation and engagement. However, there are corollaries in teaching and learning craft technique.

Most people hate to be told how to accomplish a task in such excruciating detail, yet several bookbinding teachers I’ve encountered have a dictatorial style which embodied this “one right way” approach. Is our musculature (and ability to manipulate it) so much the same that there is only one right technique to accomplish a specific task? Traditional craft does usually have a very specific end product ideal, so it makes sense to follow exact procedures to achieve exact results. Considered optimistically, traditional techniques have undergone a Darwinian type evolution, resulting in efficient production. The downside of this results in people unthinkingly replicating the techniques they were taught, irrespective of the results.

There is a difference between being told how to do something, and learning how to do something. Learning styles vary: some of us are experiential learners, some didactic learners, and sometimes it varies with the task to be learned. Trying and possibly failing with a variety of techniques can teach us a lot about craft, and often not just the project at hand.

Granted, there are easier and harder ways of doing most craft actions. This is possibly one of the most common reasons for taking a class or workshop: to learn easier ways of accomplishing a craft action. Learning one successful way, then branching out and experimenting with others, is often a good foundation. A constant challenge is balancing the workload in able to continue learning with the pecuniary pressures of working efficiently.