The Craftsman: A Book Review


“Craftsmanship… the desire to do a job well for its own sake.”  

-Richard Sennett

Beginning with this disarmingly simple premise, Richard Sennett proceeds to explore the largely undeveloped, complex world of craft.  This is the first of three  planned volumes, the next dealing with the crafting of rituals that manage aggression and zeal, to be followed by an examination of the skills used in designing and developing sustainable environments. He intends technique to be the theme that unifies these volumes.  Although there have been numerous attempts over the years to examine craft, often from  the viewpoint of anthropology, sociology, personal experience, labor history, technology or phenomenology (see note A), craft  is somewhat resistant to scholarly explication.  Sennett, with one foot in praxis as a trained musician and the other in theory as a professor of sociology at New York University, seems well poised for the task.

This book is divided into three sections–Craftsmen, Craft and Craftsmanship. In the course of 296 engagingly and coherently written pages, the book references a myriad of philosophers and writers. (see note B) Perhaps it is the holistic nature of craft that demands a multidisciplinary approach?  Or is it over-reliance on research assistants?   The first section compares craftsmen and artisans, examines the workshop as the locus of learning and communication, then reviews how craftsmen have dealt with industrialization.  The second looks at craft as a learned and transmitted skill, with emphasis on the hand, hand skills and tools.  The third places craftmanship in the Pragmatic philosophic tradition (the authors orientation as well) and considers the three basic aspects of ability..”to localize, to question and to open up” (277).

This book was written for a general audience, and it is the best single volume that I know of that begins to explain and define what craft is. It investigates the types of knowledge and working methods that craftsmen engage in and presents craft as “a dialogue between concrete practices and thinking; this dialogue evolves into sustaining habits, and these habits establish a rhythm between problem solving and problem finding.” (9)  It encourages non-craftsmen (eg. architect, lab technician, doctor) to adopt some craft methodologies to their fields.  And for the student of craft, there are more than enough nuggets of insightful observations and lucid overviews to commend this book.

Two sections were of particular interest, and could each become complete books.  The first, “The Enlightened Craftsman: Diderot’s Encyclopedia,” reviews some of the philosophy behind presenting manual and mental labor on equal footing then explores the difficulty craftsmen often have in talking about their work. “Among a thousand one will be lucky to find a dozen who are capable of explaining the tools or machinery they use” Diderot writes. (94)  Sennett then examines some of the difficulties in linguistically explaining craft procedures, “…it taxes the powers of the most professional writer to describe precisely how to tie a slipknot.” (95) then points to the limits of language as the cause of this, rather than blame the inarticulate craftsman, as is often the case.  This is the reason for the large number of plates in the Encyclopedia. “The images, in other words, illuminate by clarifying and simplifying movement into a series of clear pictures of the sort the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called ‘decisive moments.'” (95)

Chapter six, titled “Expressive Instructions”  is very provocative. By comparing four styles of written recipes on how to bone a chicken (Richard Olney’s precise how-to, Julia Child’s comforting guide approach combined with close-ups, Elizabeth David’s narrative approach and Madame Benshaw’s instruction through metaphors) Sennett queries how language can be used to transmit hand skills and craft information.   Interpreting and comparing how instructional manuals function is an useful and highly informative approach in determining how craft knowledge is preserved, transmitted and learned.

The book ends by discussing the subject of pride in one’s work, which Sennett feels is the reward  for the skill and commitment necessary to gain craft knowledge, and happens when the work transcends the maker. Whatever flaws this book possesses may well be inherent limitations of language, and thankfully this book avoids a common pitfall in writing on craft– the wheel spinning reiteration about “being in the moment” while crafting. The major problem with this book is it’s lack of distinction between craft and technology, which may be crucial to an accurate conceptualization of craft.  And should the subsequent volumes be realized, this might prove a fatal error, since they are currently  organized around the theme of technique.  However, this book  is a major step forward towards developing a coherent philosophy of craft, and how Homo faber interacts with his hands, tools, objects and the world.  I look forward to volumes two and three in this series.


Sennett, Richard.  The Craftsman. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2008.  Pb.  $18.00


A.  Kenneth Oakley, Man the Tool-Maker;    David Kingery, Learning from Things;    Edward Luci-Smith, The Story of Craft;    Soetsu Yanage, The Unknown Craftsman;    Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays;    David Pye, The Nature and Art of Workmanship;    Don Idhe, Technology and the Lifeworld, from Garden to Earth;    Carla Needleman, The Work of Craft;    Bruce Laurie, Artisans into Workers;    Annie Wilcox, A Degree of Mastery;    John Staudenmaier, Technology’s Storytellers;    Frank R. Wilson, The Hand; How Its Use Shapes Brain, Language, and Human Culture;   Carl Bridenbaugh, The Colonial Craftsman;    Reinhard Bendis, Work and Authority in Industry;    Steven Mithen, The Prehistory of the Mind;    Edward Mattil, Meaning in Crafts;    W. J. Rorabaugh, The Craft Apprentice;    James Krenov, A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook;    Mary Helms, Craft and the Kingly Ideal;    Thorstein Veblen, The Instinct of Workmanship, ...

B.  Aristotle, Arendt, Heidegger, Marx, Cellini, Diderot, Kant, Hegel, Ruskin, Plato, Darwin, Merleau-Ponty, Burke, Mumford, Dewey, Bacon, Weber, Wittgenstein, Greetz, Csikszentmihalyi, Simmel, Homer and many, many more.  

Comments on Clarkson, Conservation and Craft

Book conservation, possibly more than any other conservation discipline, consists of a skill set that is closely linked to its craft roots. Conservators must not only be able to intellectually understand the mechanics, chemistry and history of book structure, but also need the hand skills to actually do bookbinding: performing, for example, a full treatment where a text needs to be rebound in a style sensitive and sympathetic to its structural requirements and time period. So what prompted Christopher Clarkson to write,  “European hand bookbinding practice does not form the best foundation on which to build or even graft the principles of book conservation.” (Clarkson, 1978)

 Although written 30 years ago, these words are still extremely provocative. In a very narrow interpretation, the phrase “ European hand bookbinding practice” could mean typical trade bookbinding practice, and the statement is entirely uncontroversial— not every book should be rebound and of course a 10th century manuscript should not be stuffed into a typical late 19th century trade binding! (1) But what if Clarkson is pointing towards a broader reading, establishing a dichotomy between bookbinding and book conservation, potentially even between a craft and a profession?  Given the close relationship of the two, how could they be separated?

 A few clues can be found elsewhere in the same volume of The Paper Conservator.  This issue begins with a policy statement, noting four basic purposes of publication:

“1.  To conserve the traditional crafts of conservation… .  2.  To stimulate the craftsmen to develop a methodology with which to record their techniques and experience… . 3. …extending knowledge about craft techniques in closely related fields… . 4. To assemble a reference source of craft techniques for trainee conservators.” (My italics) (McAusland, 1978)

 These multiple references to craft are perhaps even more shocking that Clarkson’s original quote, and somewhat explain his need to propose a break with the past, at least in a philosophical context.  It appears that in 1978 that book conservation was considered a craft, or at least craft was a large part of it. But professionalism was on the rise at the same time; Paul Banks was elected President of AIC in 1978 (a first for a book conservator) and his The Preservation of Library Materials was published the same year.  Did a rise in professionalism necessitate a break with craft tradition in order to escape habits, both in thought and praxis, built up over centuries?

 I am certain that if I mentioned “the craft of conservation” in 2008, I would be greeted by suspicion, jeers and critical blog posts from my peers. Today, conservators have, to a large degree, distanced themselves from that dirty little word—craft– at least in their own minds.(2)  This distancing seems to be the core message in Clarkson’s statement, as a necessary first step. In order to rationally and objectively approach a conservation treatment, it was necessary to step outside of the preconceptions of a craft tradition, and attempt to examine the book and the goals of the treatment from the outside.  Sometimes a conservation treatment might closely resemble how a bookbinder might repair a volume; sometimes it might be radically different.

 How can the craft of the bookbinding be preserved in a professional context that has struggled to escape its craft based roots? Are there dangers, however, of completely refuting the craft of bookbinding while formulating a new theory of conservation?  Almost 1,700 years of mostly unwritten craft skills have been passed on during the history of bookbinding.  Many structures and techniques have been abbreviated, forgotten and lost. Some have been rediscovered later, existing as primary evidence in book structure, or extrapolated through praxis.  A conservator could start a treatment, with no knowledge of bookbinding technique, but if the treatment was at all complex, it seems the conservator, even if ignorant of craft technique, would end up reinventing it. Maybe this is how the craft will survive.

 As books cease to be viewed as primarily a vehicle for transmitting textual information, and move closer to object-type status, I predict the physical information their materials and construction contain, and their visual appeal will become increasingly valued. (3) Paradoxically, we may have to wait until books no longer fulfill their original function (to be read) before we fully value the craft skills that created them, and then will have to rediscover those skills. 

 In another 30 years, perhaps, the field of book conservation will be mature enough to reexamine its relationship to craft. Hopefully some of the craft skills will still be present or rediscovered, and might be reincorporated into some future conception of conservation.


1.  Ironically, this style of binding, with all of its structural faults, remains the ideal of fine hand bookbinding in most of the public’s imagination. 

2. Most of the public, unfortunately, uses the terms bookbinder, master restorer and conservator interchangeably. A paramount task for conservation is to educate the public on these differences.

3.  In the past year or two, I have noticed more private collectors wanting a cradle for their book so that it can be safely displayed in their home.  



Clarkson, Christopher. “The Conservation of Early Books in Codex From: A Personal Approach: Part 1.” The Paper Conservator Vol. 3 (1978): 49.

McAusland, Jane. “Manual Techniques of Paper Repair” The Paper Conservator Vol. 3 (1978): 3

Thoughts About Board Shears

Depictions of standing and lying presses tend to be very popular logos for bookbinders and conservators, but an image of a  board shear might more accurately symbolize current hand bookbinding practice.  More than any other tool or machine in a bindery, the board shear demarcates the difference between in-boards binding and case binding, it highlights the difference between the late 18th and early 19th centuries binding styles, it marks a major shift in the role of bookbinders from artisan to worker, and often today it reflects difference between an amateur and professional binder.

A board shear does one thing, it cuts a piece of cloth, board or paper at 90 degrees quickly and accurately. Physically, the board shear is often  the largest machine in a hand bindery. My relatively small 19th C. 30″ Jacques takes up about 20 square feet. It quite heavy and expensive as well.  For these reasons most amateur binders do not have one. It’s imposing presence, however, garners many comments from clients.  Although the large blades appear dangerous, most accidents I’ve witnessed involve pinching one’s finger under the fence, then jumping away from the machine, and in the process stepping down harder with the foot clamp, which squeezes one’s finger even more.  A torn off fingernail is often the result.  And I have seen the counterweight fall off the end, which could have been deadly.

The earliest publishers case bindings appear around 1810, and the board shear around 1840.  There are types of earlier case bindings, wrappers and related structures, but I am just considering publishers case bindings here. It is difficult to imagine a 19th C. publishers bindery without one, since it is made for dealing with the relatively new invention of book cloth and machine made binders board. Machine made binders board, with an even thickness, is perfect for cutting on the board shear.  Earlier water leaf or paste board usually vary considerably in thickness (possibly explaining the remarkable amount of beating prescribed in historic bookbinding manuels) and make it a poor canidate for use in a board shear- the fence must hold the material being cut evenly and firmly, otherwise it will tear rather than cut.  With a bound book, a plough is the most necessary piece of specialized equipment, not the board shear.  

19th C. case binding, consisting of two boards, a spine piece and covered before gluing to the text block, requires much more accurate, repeatable cutting that a bound book.  Late in the 19th C., after case bindings became prevalent, I hypothesize that their movement influenced bound books. In earlier binding structures, when the boards are opened, the spine also begins to move. When a cased book is opened, the front cover, for example, can be opened  more than 180 degrees without any motion being transfered to the text block.  Late 19th C. bound books move the same way.  At this time, if the board of a bound book was opened fully, it was considered shoddy workmanship if the flyleaf moved at all.  I I wonder if it was the public, bibliophiles or the binders who desired this new type of movement from a book.    

The late 18th C. marked the end of the leather bound book as vernacular culture, and the cased book radically changed the nature of bookbinders work.  Mechanization, repeatability, perfect 90 degree angles, reliance on adhesives rather than mechanical strength, interchangeability of a text and cover and the speed at which the binder had to work all came to the fore at this time. When making an in-boards binding, the craftsman has a sense of constructing or building the book, rather than simply gluing it together.  Since the text and boards are ploughed at the same time, slight deviations from 90 degrees are much more acceptable that in a case binding, where difference would be diasterous if the turnins aren’t even with the boards.  The bookbinder, previously an artisan was increasingly becoming a worker.   And he was forced to emulate machine made standards.

In a roundabout way, all of this points to the importance of studying the tools and machines that made books, in order to better understand small, specific historic details and larger picture- how books have informed the human experience.


On Sept 2, 2008 Thomas Conroy added:

I’ve been looking at early binding equipment, and some of the six or eight 1824-1836 patents for “paper cutters” listed in my write-up on the guillotine may have been for board shears rather than guillotines. It isn’t easy to find out, since the Patent Office and all its records burned in 1836. 

Click here

But the rotary board cutter was already in use by 1856, since an engraving of one appears in the edition of Pilkington’s “Artist’s Guide and Mechanic’s Own Book” that also has an early engraving of the roller backer:

Click here

The rotary board cutter would satisfy the edition binder’s need for squareness better than the board shear, so perhaps the board shear’s ability to cut square was less important than you suggest. In any case, do we know when board shears were first equipped with gauges? I don’t think early guillotines had them, and there were still guillotines being sold with only one side gauge into the 1890s.


March 20, 2009

I noticed that in Nicholson’s Art  of Bookbinding, both the 1874 and 1856 editions have a picture of a man at a “Table Shears” on page 175.  It doesn’t have gauges, as you mention, but it is in the section of the book that deals with cloth work, not in the section on bound books.