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.


Whatsit #3

It has been almost a decade since my first two whatsit posts,  Whatsit #1 and #Whatsit #2. Number 2 was identified by Tom Conroy, #1 is still a bit of a mystery. For those unfamiliar with this colloquial American term, a “whatsit” is an unidentified object, short for “what is it”? The Mid-West Tool Collectors association often features a number of them in their quarterly publication, The Gristmill. You get a lot for your annual membership from them, including a reprint of a classic tool oriented book. The Early American Industries Association usually features a panel discussing a number of them in front of a live audience. Full bore geeky fun!

Recently a colleague has sent me images of a seriously odd, unidentified tool she found in her conservation lab.  She first thought it was some kind of cloth cutting tool, but it didn’t really work. This makes sense given the conically shaped brass end of it: a cloth cutter would have to have two steel blades. The shape of the handle indicates it is used by pushing forward, but I’ve never seen anything like it.

Here is a more detailed description of the business end. “The cone is not solid.  The brass sheet overlaps the wooden handle for about 1.25 in.  The cone is secured on the handle with two brass “pins” (visible in the photos, 1 pin on each side) onto the handle.  The blade-like part opens wider than is shown in the photo.  I can move it to a  90° angle with the cone.  When I open the blade fully and squint at the base of the blade, it looks as though the same pin(s) attaching the cone to the handle may also attach the blade to the handle.  Maybe it’s a single pin that runs all the way through.” She later mentioned the blade opens to almost 90 degrees.

The size of the brass end seems too large for bookbinding applications, my first guess is it is a type of gardening tool called a dibber or dibble.  Possibly the blade would aerate the soil or cut small roots??  It is odd how new the handle and brass cone looks when compared to the wear and discoloration on the blade.

But I’m not sure of any of this And why did it end up in an institutional book conservation lab? I’m stumped.

ADDED: Sept. 27, 2017. MYSTERY SOLVED!  John Nove, coment below, and in a personal email sent me the identification.  It is a  Humboldt Sharpener for Cork Borers.  Well done John! https://www.humboldtmfg.com/cork-borer-sharpener.html



The stamping reads ” MADE IN WEST GERMANY”
This is the other side. Even the blade pivot pin is made of brass, which suggests light duty use.