Tag Archives: philosophy of tools

Wooden Spoons and the Price of Craft

I had a sudden and strong compulsion to make wooden spoons around nine months ago.

Part of it was a way to avoid some extremely tedious conservation work. Part of it was a desire to emulate the beauty, at least in spirit, of traditional Swedish wooden spoons. Part of it was an excuse to buy some new tools.

I also wanted to test out some longstanding questions; primarily, as where does technique reside? Traditionally Western craft technique is taught by close contact and imitation of a skilled practitioner. Now it is common to learn by reading a how-to-manual, watching a video, or maybe taking some classes. Technique is often regarded as solely residing in the practicioner.

Many aspects of technique may also reside in the tools themselves. Since I didn’t know anything about spoon carving, this might be a good test: How much could I learn by letting the tools teach me how to make a wood spoon?


It only takes a few simple tools to start making wooden spoons. On the top, a small vintage (ca. 1970’s) Norlund hatchet with my handle, which split when mounting the head. Grrrr. Still, it works fine. Under it, on the left, a Mora knife, next to it a sweep knife made by Robin Wood, and a hook knife made by Pinewood Forge.

Of course, I had to start with the best quality tools I could find. The odd thing was, after I made a dozen or so spoons, the compulsion disappeared almost as quickly as it came on. This may be explained by the thrill of accomplishment when beginning to learn a new craft: mastering the final 20% can take a 1000% more time than the original 80%. One reason many people jump around to different crafts; jonesing for a new quick rush, weary of the long path towards mastery.

This was not a true test of technique completely residing in a tool.  I have been whittling since I was a kid (ball in cage!), professionally make and sharpen knives, and use axes quite a bit. Nevertheless, it does speak to the relatively easy transference of tool based knowledge, rather than traditional object based craft education. Does the saying “Jack of all trades, master of none” serve to warn against tool based knowledge? Could it be dangerous?


A wooden spoon I made out of Swiss pear wood.

I still use the spoons I made and didn’t give away, they are serviceable and some ended up quite elegant, in my opinion. The one above sees the most use in my kitchen. The handle is comfortable in a variety of grips, and I intended the shallow bowl to be good for tasting while cooking. Wood feels weirdly sticky in my mouth though, like a tongue depressor, so I don’t do this.


I’d forgotten about this episode until a couple of days ago, when I received a blog post from a professional wooden spoon maker, Jarrod Stone Dhal.  The Trouble with The Green Woodworking Community or I Don’t Want to be Poor.

There are many aspects of his post that anyone involved with crafts will find of interest. One of his questions revolves around the almost impossible desire to make quality handmade objects at an affordable price. When craft objects get too expensive, people put them on a shelf and are afraid to use them. This might also be part of the reason many craftspeople sell their wares absurdly cheap, and are regarded as failures at business.  I doubt that large companies like Walmart care if what they sell is used. People who make functional items want them to be used.

But how many handmade books — including etsy style blank books, seeming sold for less than the cost of materials — actually end up getting used?  many books get read?  When I worked in an academic research library, I bet almost 10% of the books I recased had never been read.

Much modern craft philosophy emphasizes the making of something as the primary fulfillment. Being in the moment when making, zen like, and so on. This romantic attitude might have inadvertently contributed to public reluctance to pay for the time and skill of craft. “Hey, aren’t you supposed to be doing it for the love? You want to get paid too!?”

Thinking About Making: You, Artifact and Tool


A work-in-progress diagram of the interactions that take place when performing a craft.

I’ve been thinking about using tools for a while now, starting in 2004 with a preliminary (and upon rereading inadequate) exploration in Vol. 1, No. 1 of The Bonefolder. Since then, the cultural literacy of tool use continues to decline. In fact, I often encounter people who think they can pick up any tool and it will work fine without any evaluation, prepping, sharpening, maintenance, etc.  If nothing else, thinking a bit more about tools before using them can lead to more successful craft outcomes.

This work-in-progress diagram summarizes some of my thinking. David Pye’s concepts of “workmanship of certainty” and “workmanship of risk” fit nicely into it; technique forms a continuum between you and the tool, not residing completely in one or the other. In paring leather, for example, using a schar-fix or Brockman paring machine involves relatively little technique from you, but resides mostly in the machine. Of course, you still have to know when to use it, and set it up and maintain it. Failure is often catastrophic, it usually works well or it doesn’t. This is the nature of the machine.

A middle ground between you and the tool might be the spokeshave.  Although a 151 spokeshave needs to be modified to work well, it is safer and quicker than using a French or Swiss knife to scrape the leather. It requires more skill to use than a paring machine, but accidents are usually small tears, or sometimes chatter, rarely catastrophic, can lead to uncomfortably small small pieces of leather.

The most risky way to pare leather overall is with a French or Swiss knife.  The locus of technique is almost entirely dependent on your skill.  It takes a steady hand and a lot of practice, but I have seen binders become suprisingly adept at it. Similar to the paring machine, failure can be catastrophic, like cutting a hole in the middle of the spine. All three of these methods of paring are not mutually exclusive, often they are all used by the same binder for various purposes at various times.

There is also room for conservation work in this diagram. Your intention on the artifact is much more limited due to ethical considerations about preserving existing information inherent in the artifact, there often has to be more creative thought put into material selection and tool use. If you are paring the leather on the original spine of a book that will be rebacked, there is little or no margin of error. A loss becomes a loss of information in the artifact. You can’t buy another one. Your tools have to work perfectly.

Materials also place limits on an original design. Often beginners want to experiment with something new, unique or unusual.  There is nothing wrong with this, but it is usually much more difficult than performing a craft activity in a more traditional manner. Unusual materials can require unusual tools.

One of the joys of craft is when the three elements in this diagram are so integrated that we think through the tool and into the artifact. It becomes embodied, a natural extension of our hands.  We often call this muscle memory, or getting a feel for something. Again to use a paring example, when you are competent, the leather pares down quite simply and easily without much conscious thought. When you first learn to pare leather, you need to conscious of how hard, soft, stretchy and thick the leather is, how sharp your knife is, the blade angle of the knife, the bevel angle of the knife, the angle you hold the knife at, where you start the cut, and the amount of leather you are cutting at one time.  This is a lot to keep track of.

I think many of us forget how much of an interplay there is between these three elements. It is important to remember that when things are not going right in any craft, it is not completely your fault, or the tool, or what you are making: it is usually an inter-relationship that can take some time to sort out. That’s one reason why we take classes to learn things.

To be continued….


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.  

Ascent of Man

It is always heartening to find traces of resistance to technological culture, like the graffiti pictured below.

I noticed the first example last year in Oxford, England.  The monkey on the far left looks positively joyful, perhaps existing in a pre-technological garden of eden. The transition between the man making a fist and the one holding the gun is compelling, and it is with the appearence of the gun that the man stops walking–in the next picture he reverts to kneeling. The advent of tools, in this case a gun, threatens the entirety of past evolution and seems to put a halt to human progress.   I often think of fire as the original technology, but warfare might be earlier.   Kubrick had an extended scene about monkeys discovering a bone cub which they use to kill each other in the movie 2001. On the other hand, several of the technologies that are used in Book Preservation (such as microfilming)  were originally developed by the military industrial complex.

Another take on the ascent of man, pictured below, was found last month while in Istanbul, Turkey.  A similar message, but a bit more ambiguous.  Is the man’s final step through a black door?  Is it into a grave?  Or is it a representation of an unknown future that we are carried into by our feet, since we are walking upright?  It reminds me of the monolith in Kubrick’s movie, 2001.

Some of the earliest forms of art used stencils, such as a hand, and it is interesting to see how durable this technique is. For a quick means of reproducing and distributing a visual image, is is perhaps unequalled.  Most of the graffiti (or writing as it is now termed) I see in NYC tends to be mindless tagging or acid etching of windows, which is not very interesting to look at.  But it accomplishes some of the same basic functions as all graffiti by saying “I am here, I have left my mark.”

Come to think of it, blogging could be considered internet graffiti–there are millions of people leaving their digital mark of what they thought about something, not knowing who will see what they have posted. As much as I love using and thinking about tools, I am always aware of their dual nature as Marshall McLuhan summarized so succinctly in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.  “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”  I wonder how using a tool like the internet will reshape us?

Leave it to Beaver


I found this stick while I was walking in upstate New York, and was amazed. It is remarkable how close the beaver came to eating all the bark and cambium, without biting too deeply into the sapwood, which are the slightly rougher areas. The marks reminded me of a David Pye bowel– using a hand placed gouge as an example of “workmanship of risk”. But this was teeth/paw/eye corrodination.

This stick is not craft, because craft is a learned human activity. This stick is the left over activity from a meal, the bones of a beaver brunch.   If this stick were used by the animal for some purpose, we might consider it a tool, if shaping enhanced its use.  Could we consider non-purposeful shaping a kind of animal art?

An average sized beaver is about 60 lbs. They can swim underwater for 25 minutes, and eat through a 5 inch diameter willow tree in about 3 minutes. To chew, they hold the stick in their front paws, much like we hold corn on the cob. The stick below was about 2 inches in diameter.  Look at those crisp bites through the endgrain.  


I started thinking how many tools I would need to replicate this stick– a somewhat dull chisel to get the bark off, a small gouge for the cross grain slices,  a curved bowel adz to slice the endgrain.  I would most likely have to make a miniature scrub plane to get this high degree of regulation on the surface.  And even with these tools, I doubt I could do such a good job. And it would take me much, much longer. 

I realize that teeth are not tools, and that a beaver is not a craftsman.

But looking at this stick reminds me that the skillful use of simple tools is an efficient, beautiful expression of craft.