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.

 

Just Looking

Once a year I teach a knife sharpening and tool making workshop in the bookbinding department at North Bennett Street School (NBSS) in Boston.  NBSS has the finest bench oriented two year bookbinding program in the world. If you have the passion, drive, commitment, dedication — and are crazy enough to pursue this antiquated profession in the 21st century — this is the place to do it. You will find many kindred spirits in your cohort.

I cover all aspects of sharpening related to bookbinding: blade angles, bevel angles, types of steel, types knives, types of grits, grit progression, hand grinding using power tools, free hand sharpening, and stropping. These techniques can be adapted to virtually any type of sharpening system: oil stones, diamond stones, waterstones, lapping powders and finishing films. Free hand sharpening throws many students into the deep end, for a while, but ultimately equips them to sharpen most types of edge tools. Most bookbinding knives have complex shapes and handles  which preclude the use of jigs or honing guides.

The foundation of this class is critical looking. Critical looking is not only closely watching the instructor demonstrate a technique, but it is looking at what you have done. Often when sighting or aligning, one eye is better than two.

Once you can visually analyze what your hands have done, then you can correct, alter, adjust, repeat your hand technique. Critical thinking is taught via writing in undergraduate curriculums. Could critical looking be linked to drawing?  Taking a photo or shooting a video can be a useful shortcut for note taking that may gloss over important aspects, such as processing and replicating. Drawing really forces you to look closer, again and again and again.

Critical looking is different from just looking. In a narrow sense it means learning to interpret what you are looking at, what the scratch patterns, reflections, divots, rounded bevels mean in relation to how you were holding the knife. In a broader sense it means understanding  what the effect of your actions are. Critical looking is the basis of all sharpening, maybe all craft skills?

 

Below are some images of the 2017 workshop shot by Brian Burnett.

 

All Photos Copyright 2017 Brian Burnett. And he was critically looking.