A Craftsman Reads “Craeft”

The idiosyncratic spelling of “Craft” is intended to reference the earlier Anglo-Saxon conception of craft. The 2018 American edition is titled “Craeft: An Inquiry into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts” The 2017 English edition is titled “Craeft: How Traditional Crafts Are About More Than Just Making” Does the publisher think Americans like the “true meaning” of crafts? And the English assume craft is just about making stuff?

Book Review. Alexander Langlands, Craeft: An Inquiry into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts. New York: W.W. Norton, 2018.

People working in craft often have philosophic inclinations. We work outside of mainstream society. We make objects that are not strictly necessary anymore. Combine this with long hours working alone, extremely repetitive hand work which affects the rhythm of our thoughts, getting lost in archaic techniques, and it only seems natural existential questions arise. What am I doing?  Why am I doing this? (and the annoying corollary, why am I doing this for so little money) Does it matter? Is craft in the 21st century anything more than a marketing term for a new cider? As partial compensation, I habitually buy most new books on the philosophy of craft, which means I must be looking for some new insight or different perspective.

With a few significant exceptions, the history of craft is recorded by writers and artists who described the actions of a craftsmen, but were not experts in the fields they described. Alexander Langland continues in this tradition. “I’m no craftsman” he announces near the end of his book. (297)  He does consider himself a “jack-of-all trades, master of none”, though. There is an almost universal prohibition against attempting to learn too many trades in most languages and cultures on earth. But why? Most people I know who are good with their hands are adept at a number of crafts. Is mastering a craft a different category altogether?

Langlands writes with a poetic sensitivity detailing the activity of handwork which renders the fact he is not a professional craftsman irrelevant. I became completely absorbed in his descriptions of hand work. David Esterly’s Lost Carvings (my review here) may have been the model for this style of craft writing: you feel you are inside a craftsman’s head, thinking what he is thinking while he moves his hands and tools. Esterly is a master craftsman writing about his own long years of carving. Langlands admits he is good at talking about it. (297)

Over a dozen crafts are described in Langlands book. Descriptions of performing a craft can sometimes go on for pages, and could have easily become inconsequential and dull. With Langlands firm narrative, however, they are engaging and even exciting. For example, the chapter on making a thatch roof is almost pornographic in detail; from sharpening the scythe, selecting the stubble thatch, twisting the thatch, augering the rafter peg holes, pegging it with a square greenwood trenail, driving the spars, and more. After reading, I felt exhausted and relieved to get off the roof and have the day’s work finished.

Each chapter has a similar recipe. He starts by placing a particular craft in a historical context, mixes in a bit of etymology, describes the importance of the materials, then narrates his own experimental recreation. His background as an archaeologist and British television personality (The Victorian Farm, The Edwardian Farm, Wartime Farm) serve him well in presenting the information in an engaging and readable manor. The chapter on weaving and hurtle fence making, for example, is exemplary: he unites these two disparate appearing crafts through a fundamental commonality of warp and weft. All the while he emphasizes the respect he has for the abilities of earlier craftsmen.

Though the book is filled with interesting factoids — who knew that the tines of traditional wooden French pitchforks are made out of trained branches! — the real value is in Langlands’ underlying conception of craft, “… a vehicle through which we can think, through when we can contemplate, and through which we can be.” (343)  He continues a philosophy of craft born in the arts and crafts movement, then overlaid with a bit of Richard Sennett (The Craftsman, my review here), David Pye (Nature and Art of Workmanship), and Howard Risatti (Theory of Craft). Another great strength of this book is the explication what he feels is the “craeft” way of knowing: evaluating and sourcing raw materials, working within constraints of cost and time, using your hands, and working towards a specific means. Craft, to Langlands, is not just a final product, but the sum total of the involvement in the process by the craftsman with the environment. Is this just a slight variation of farm-to-table cooking applied to objects?

For all of practical and engaging description, and his extensive experimentation, he has a romanticized view of craft, likely because he is an amateur.  “Perhaps harshly, I would not consider a topiarist who uses electric hedge trimmers a true craftsman on the simple grounds that the tool mutes their level of engagement with the material properties of the entity they are working.” (36) Attitudes toward work — even for a real craftsman —  change quite a bit when doing something day after day, month after month, year after year, decade after decade. Pecuniary pressures can also negatively impact a craftsman’s enjoyment of work. David Pye would also take issue with this statement, though on the grounds that an electric hedge trimmer takes a great deal of hand skill to operate, and the source of the power is irrelevant.

Langlands pays little attention paid to how craft skills are passed on or inherited. For all of his emphasis on craft as a integrated system and way of thinking, this is a significant omission. When discussing a Viking longship, he theorizes “It’s a craft that relies on building something relative to the materials employed… allowing the materials to speak for themselves, to answer back, to tell you what the natural shape must be…” (333) This sounds more something you would hear from an exercise guru or in a Monty Python skit, not the way a craftsman would think about constructing a ship in the ninth century. “Thor, let the keel timber be what it wants to be!”

There are several chapters where he describes the actions of a skilled craftsman, but he does not investigate the transmission of knowledge. Re-enactment, etymological history, and the study of extant artifacts are his primary methods of inquiry. But this was is not how craft was taught and transmitted for most of human history.

At the risk of coming across as a mystic, but I do believe Craft (with a capital “C”) resides outside of objects. Craft objects are the result of Craft. Learning or experiencing this way of thinking is traditionally taught through close contact with skilled practitioners. But I also think you can get there on your own, it just takes a lot more time. Before the nineteenth century this took place in apprenticeships; now it is more commonly acquired during internships. The transmission of craft knowledge is an important part of the entire craft ecosystem.

A Picnic Table as Art

An art picnic table in Inwood Hill Park, NYC.

I’m always interested in artwork that references tools or functional objects. This artwork is located in Inwood Hill Park, NYC , and interrogates a common functional object, the wooden picnic table with attached bench seats. An all too common approach when creating an artwork referencing a functional object is to do one of two things; somehow make the object non-functional, or make a replica of the object out of a material that cannot function (such as making a wrench out of clay).  Here, however, the artist considers the history of the wood, so instead knots left in the wood, the branches are left on. The result looks quite tortured, much like the making of this object must have been. It reminds me of W.S. Merwin’s poem, “Unchopping a Tree”.

Some of my other posts on tools and art.

A W.O. Hickok Press

On the one hand, I am happy to see this beautiful Hickok press, apparently still functioning, was not thrown into the trash heap. The repurposed aspects of this press appear easily reversible, simply by removing the wine box.

However, many artifacts are totally destroyed by being “repurposed”, which is often code for sold in the interior design marketplace. The Retrofactory blurb dates this press to ca. 1860’s, which seems like a wild guess. Hickok started in 1844, there are very scanty records pre-1930. If this date is correct, this press is the earliest known transitional Hickok book press I’ve ever seen. I’d love to see the documentation.

Transitional presses have metal and wood components. I used to sneer at them, so old fashioned!

Then I used one.

They develop wonderful creaking noises when gradually fully tightened, which gives some auditory feedback on the amount of compression. Look at the intelligent engineering of the thick cross-bracing on the upper platen — this is where rigidity is necessary in a press. The whole press is elegantly built for maximum lightness. The wood and iron elements interact complexly and organically. I think this helps prevent the press from backing off as much as all metal ones. The wood moves a bit, and the steel threads can settle in more parellel? The size of this press is very nice, the tightening wheel at a comfortable hand height. The wooden base is convenient to brace a foot against to keep the press from twisting in operation.

One of my pet peeves are presses that are not attached to a workbench or floor. You know who you are! If you have to hold onto the press while tightening it, you loose at least 30% of the compressional power, and are much more likely to damage whatever you are pressing.

Looking at the image of the press above, I bet a lot of shoes have braced themselves against it, though it was likely also bolted to the floor at some point, note the small slots at the ends of the feet. Given the distinctive shape of the four knobs on top of the wheel, there must have been a specialized press pin designed to fit them.

It irks me to see this beautiful press being removed from the functional bookbinding world, and co-opted into the interior design world, where its only value is to feed the appetite of the 1%. An unnecessary and silly wine storage rack for $3450.00.

More broadly, is sad when our collective culture values one of a limited number of remaining functioning 19th century Hickok presses more as a decorative object than functional one. Tools have become so invisible that we no longer even notice them, or value them.

Even though the W. O. Hickok Manufacturing Company is still in business, they have transitioned into primarily a job machining shop due to lack of demand for bookbinding equipment. Their web site mentions they still make presses and job backers on special order. The genuine Hickok 001/2 is my favorite press for general bookbinding and book conservation, much nicer than the copies of it. Please support them!

W.O. Hickok
Manufacturing Company

900 Cumberland St.
Harrisburg, PA 17103
ph 717.234.8041
fx 717.234.2587

wohickokmfg@comcast.net

 

 

 

The Origin of Mohawk Superfine

Quite likely, every bookbinder and book conservator located in North America has used Mohawk Superfine paper.  It’s a wonderful paper for many applications: textblocks for models, endpapers for circulating collections, lining boards and spines, labels, and so on.

Surprisingly, at least to me, the name does not come from 1970s urban slang, or the 1960s Garage Rock band The Superfine Dandelion, but was coined in 1946.

Mohawk originally developed Superfine as the result of a challenge from Yale University Press to produce an attractive, archival text paper for their reprint of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. A Mohawk representative showed a sample of the new paper to a customer in Boston, who reportedly said, “this is a superfine sheet of paper.

 

Drop Spine Cradle Boxes

Nine years ago I designed a new style of cradle box, and it is rewarding to see the idea picked up by others. Below is recent one I made is for this stunning early 20th century French fine binding.  The cradle also supports the slip-case chemise which is quite fragile. The slipcase itself is missing, or maybe it never had one.

French fine binding in a cradle box. Private Collection.

Some other examples from around the web:

A variant from Trinity College, Dublin.

Rehousing a fragile book of engravings at Princeton University.

Display and storage for an artist book from Karen Apps.

Three different types of cradle boxes on the AIC book conservation wiki.

A simpler version made out of folding board.

A group conservation project from Duke University, with some construction details. 

 

 

 

Boards Bindings, Temporary?

A collection of boards bindings from a circulating library is being sold by Antiquates. Considered together, it forms pretty strong evidence against the traditional view boards bindings are entirely temporary structures, since the books contain circulation records.

Bookbinders might be interest in several other items in this catalog, particularly a run of The Bookbinding Trades Journal, or a fascinating book (I have a reprint) that details the murder of a bookbinder’s finishing tool maker by a bookbinder: Cook, the murderer, or the Leicester tragedy: Being a Full and Faithful Account of the horrible assassination of Mr. John Paas, of London, On the 30th of May, 1832, perpetrated by James Cook, of Leicester; with an authentic detail of the cruel means adopted by the murderer to accomplish the bloody deed….  A short summary of the incident is on the British Library Blog.

Lurid scenes of the murder, dismemberment and burning of Pass by Cook. This is also one of the earliest English images of an actual bindery. Source: https://www.antiquates.co.uk/images/ListBbPrintFinalCompressed.pdf

And if a reader of this blog is feeling the holiday spirit particularly strong this year, I confidently recommend that any of these items would make a wonderful Christmas gift for me. Thanks in advance!

A collection of publishers’ boards bindings for sale. Source: https://www.antiquates.co.uk/images/ListBbPrintFinalCompressed.pdf

Boards bindings are traditionally regarded by bibliophiles as rude, drab, ugly, and temporary. This disparagement alone perks my interest.

“Unfit for a gentleman’s library!”  I imagine a Victorian barrister exclaiming, hurtling the ugly blue paper volume towards the marble fireplace, in the process tearing the spine and detaching the front board. “See, see,” he triumphantly states, pointing with his fat forefinger at the vile, dirty, weak and damaged paper covered binding.

Reading list of Clitheroe Ladies’ Book Society Source: https://www.antiquates.co.uk/images/ListBbPrintFinalCompressed.pdf

Although there are a number of differing definitions of what temporary means, a common one regards them as a weak and non-permanent. This was a book meant to be rebound once a purchased — preferably into a “real” leather binding — so the traditional bibliophiles say.

What makes this collection fantastic is that it documents the use of each book, though likely this is somewhat less than the actual use. Twenty times, at least for this volume, as well as an unknown history since the documentation. These books are not in great shape, as the first image illustrates. But they are still functional.

This and other evidence of boards bindings being used many times, refutes traditional assumptions concerning their temporary status, which may have roots in elitism and classism, rather than physical properties.