The Wisdom of the Hands, and Craftsmanship as Heritage

Some thoughts about the dying out of (our) hand skills

by Ervin Somogyi

NOTE: This is the first of three related essays on the topic of hand skills. Each one is longish, and made longer by the fact that there are footnotes/ endnotes at the ends; this essay has 16 of them. My apologies for the inconvenience in reading that this may cause.

I’ve thought about writing an article about hand skills for quite a long time. They are largely what I’ve built my professional life around, and you’d think that the subject would be of interest to anyone who finds working with their hands to be a source of pleasure. I want to state at the outset, though, I really am interested in hand skills and what they mean, more than I am in craftsmanship — even though the word “craftsmanship” appears in the title. While hand skills and craftsmanship are closely related, they’re really not the same thing.

Craftsmanship is the visible face/identity/embodiment/proof of hand skills. The word attaches itself to the concrete result of one’s having purposefully applied skill, attention, and effort onto a material. This gets a bit of press because it is a phenomenon that’s more or less in the public realm [ENDNOTE 1]. Hand skills (and also body skills) on the other hand, are one’s private and personal property; they may occupy space in the historical record, but they otherwise reside in the individual rather than in the objects or services one might produce. They don’t get much press outside of when the hand/body skills are themselves the main product — as in gymnastics, dancing, martial arts, stage acting, or sleight-of-hand magic. And by hand/body skills I mean the eye-hand coordination, trained musculature, critical thinking, problem-solving, intuition, timing, aesthetic sense, dexterity, knowledge of the materials/medium, experience, attention, and even pride that operates operate behind such work.

I’m a woodworker; therefore insofar as hand skills apply to woodworking I also mean the use of traditional carpentry hand tools such as chisels, scrapers, hand saws and planes, pencil and paper, as well as common power tools such as sanders, bandsaws, routers, cordless drills, table saws, and drill presses. Whether or not electricity is involved, these are all tools whose operations are applied volitionally — that is, there is freedom of individual tasking, measuring, application, judgment, speed, force and timing involved in their operation.

On my part, I use no tools that are dedicated to performing one thing only, over and over again, at the press of a button. I approach lutherie in the traditional way in that I make virtually all the wood parts and component of my guitars, and I don’t farm out any work to be done by CNC machinery — which, these days, has grown into becoming quite an active industry in itself. As I get older I’m taking a longer-term view of my work and my preferred approach to it, and how these fit into the scheme of things. The overall view isn’t all that encouraging.



Every few years modern society seems to have less and less need for manual skills of the traditional kind that I’ve supported myself with. As far as the making of any product or object goes, there is great emphasis on spending as little time on it as is humanly possible — whether this be in manufacturing, electronics, the chemistry lab, agriculture, high-tech, low-tech, or anything else. Or, increasingly: to get someone else to do it while we dabble in the virtual worlds of money, investments, and paper. There is concern among craftspeople that the manual arts are headed toward virtual extinction right along with tigers and panda bears. I mean, a few of these will certainly survive in zoos, but that kind of thing seems . . . well, heartbreakingly meager. And even this present discussion is unique: who ever mentions this phenomenon as a problem? You’d think that this was just too small a thing to have a discussion about. Or — silly and whimsical as it may sound — perhaps it’s so large that we can’t see it?

The New York Times has offered some exceptions to this silence. The August 19, 2012 issue features a positively scary front-page article by John Markoff titled “Skilled Work, Without the Worker; a New Wave of Deft Robots is Changing Global Industry”; and in a July 22, 2012 article Louis Uchitelle writes about “A Nation That’s Losing Its Toolbox”. I quote from the latter below. (If you go the New York Times website you can read both these articles; they’re well written and worth a few minutes of your time.)

“The scene inside the Home Depot on Weyman Avenue here would give the old-time American craftsman pause. In Aisle 34 is precut vinyl flooring, the glue already in place. In Aisle 26 are prefab windows. Stacked near the checkout counters, and as colorful as a Fisher-Price toy, is a not-so-serious-looking power tool: a battery-operated saw-and-drill combo. And if you don’t want to be your own handyman, head to Aisle 23 or Aisle 35, where a help desk will arrange for an installer. It’s very handy stuff, I guess, a convenient way to be a do-it-yourselfer without being all that good with tools. But at a time when the American factory seems to be a shrinking presence and when good manufacturing jobs have vanished, perhaps never to return, there is something deeply troubling about this dilution of American craftsmanship. This isn’t a lament, or not merely a lament, for bygone times. It’s a social and cultural issue, as well as an economic one. The Home Depot approach to craftsmanship – simplify it, dumb it down, hire a contractor – is one signal that mastering tools and working with one’s hands is receding in America as a hobby, as a valued skill, and as a cultural influence that shaped thinking and behavior in vast sections of the country.”

I’m inclined to agree with Mr. Uchitelle. Even though it’s hard to imagine hand craftsmanship dying out entirely, they’ve certainly not been getting much help or support from any direction. As a result, at this point, craftsmanship in this country is increasingly in the hands of minorities and immigrants: they have a lot of the building, making, cleaning, fixing, and handy-man jobs and the calluses that go with them. Basic vocational education in the U.S. has been declining for a long time, in spite of the fact that young people need jobs and skills. In contrast, Germany has preserved vigorous apprenticeship programs in the trades, and Canada has grants and support programs for its artists and craftsmen that put American efforts to shame. According to Harper’s index, of the 30 occupations with the largest American projected job growth over the next decade, only 4 require a college degree; guess how much people in those occupations will be paid. Another major shift is tracked through the fact that five decades ago the American manufacturing sector generated almost 30% of the gross domstic product and employed one third of the work force; today these numbers are 12% and 9% respectively. Colleges have graduated fewer and fewer chemical, industrial, mechanical and metallurgical engineers since the mid 1980s, partly in response to the reduced role in manufacturing, which had been a big employer of them. On the other hand, by 2011 the financial and banking industry, Wall Street, and people dealing in real estate generated 21% of the national income — double what it had been in the 1950s. These simple-sounding statistics actually represent how tens of millions of Americans live their lives. And this trajectory is itself the result of profound, complex social and geopolitical necessities which, like a gravitational field, make all things fall in one direction.



I’ve come to see three distinct aspects of the geography that hand skills occupy (if I can put it like that) and this is one of three essays I’m writing to address each of these aspects in turn. They can be read separately, or as a systematic exploration of related ideas, or as one idea explored at different levels. This first essay is about the here-and-now geography of hand skills. It’s fairly concrete and not very controversial.

The second essay is about the relevance of hand skills and craftsmanship to the matters of daily life; it’s a bit more abstract and personal than the here-and-now view, but entirely pertinent nonetheless. I’d call that personal perspective The Micro View. Some readers will be more comfortable with presentations of the concrete and measurable; some will be comfortable with intangibles and ambiguity; I myself O.K. with complexity, ambiguity, and things intangible enough to be called metaphysical; to me, these feel closer to the truth of things. And when it comes to the truth of things, I’m reminded of the famous Jewish rabbi Hillel’s insight that we do not see things as they are; we see things as we are. The older I get the more amazing and profound that insight seems to be.

The third essay is the macro view; it’s about the “gravitational field” that I mentioned that hand skills and craftsmanship (and all other things) live within, and that acts on them all invisibly. But, like subatomic particles that can be “seen” inside a vacuum chamber when they’re shot with electrons or alpha particles, the forces that influence hand skills’ and craftsmanship’s trajectories can similarly be observed on the larger societal stage, if one knows what to look for. I want to show you that while the “gravitational field” seems invisible and intangible, it’s really not. And it is entirely awesome.

Hand skills do look like very different things, and take on different significance, depending on whether one is taking the macro or the micro view of them. One can write about the state of hand skills in modern society, as I’ve already touched on. But that doesn’t explain very much; it just describes. One can also focus on the nature and/or inherent importance of hand skills — and why their disappearance might, as Mr. Uchitelle says, be “deeply troubling”. The former is easy to write about: one can make a list of things such as how-it’s-done, how-it-used-to-be-done, who’s-doing-what, how-I-do-it, manual-skills’-various-advantages/ disadvantages/usefulness, or even my!-aren’t-those-hand-skills-awesome? — and then frame these from a technological, artistic, historical, economic, and/or sociological point of view.

Such narratives are mostly academic and expository: they cover the past but necessarily end in the present — where any and all documentation stops. The better ones do some research so that they can supplement the narrative with comparative data and statistics and sound authoritative; and the more adventurous can make predictions about what is to come. However, unless the material is extraordinarily well researched and narrated that sort of thing makes rather dry reading. Also, given the general track record of experts and prognosticators I’d say that the most astute and accurate predictions are the ones no one wants to hear and that are therefore squelched and pushed under the rug — so I wouldn’t, personally, place much stock in anything that sounds plausible and that finds its way into print about how things are likely to be. More significantly and to the point, however (because documentation for such does not exist), there is no hint in such writings that involvement with hand skills is innately good for the individual or for society in any way; the reader is left with the unspoken suggestion that the proper place for hand skills (other than obviously necessary ones such as dentistry, surgery, and bartending) is first at the workstation, and later in books and museums. The future, after all, lies before us and not behind us, right?

At the same time, the approach of examining hand skills for any personal and societal significance — in the sense of having innate worthwhile qualities — is relatively open-ended, somewhat elusive, and definitely harder to measure and statisticize. It consequently gets easily lumped in with the psychological and perhaps even the spiritual and metaphysical. I mean, where in a bookstore would one find anything on hand skills by themselves? On the arts/crafts/craftsmanship/How-To shelf? Or the psychology/spirituality section? Inquiring about the significance or necessity of hand skills is, by my standards, not much different from asking about the importance of a tree — but without resorting to the use of the standard economic, statistical, historical, biological, or practical yardsticks [ENDNOTE 2].

Yet, if handled right, such an inquiry really can touch on something vital. At least, I think so. Most ordinary people I have conversations with seem genuinely interested in the personal dimension of hand skills. Nerds, God bless them, really love the technical stuff. Pinning down the vital and magical part of hand skills is elusive, and complicated by the fact that this aspect of them is fully shared with just plain old bullshit — which offers things that are just as hard to pin down regardless of how earnestly and plausibly they are delivered. But outside of that, genuine elusiveness can make a thing interesting and is often a clue to its inner vitality and relevance; I offer as an example of this your own interest in anything that you care about. Bullshit, in my experience, lacks this hook entirely; like Teflon, nothing really sticks to it for long.



I repeat: I’ve pretty much built my professional life on my own hand skills with traditional tools, as well as certain attitudes of discipline in wood craftsmanship — and as I get older I take a longer-term view of my work and how it fits into the scheme of things. The overall view is not warm and fuzzy, and there are enough reasons for this to fill several books. However, in the interest of keeping this narrative manageable, I offer three main factors.

FIRST: Hand work may be the human way, but it is not the American way [ENDNOTE 3]. Not really. The American way is oriented toward (1) getting someone else to do it for you, or (2) manufacturing; that is, the production, in quantity, of consumer goods for a population that was from the beginning, and continues to be, expanding faster and with greater energy than anything ever experienced in Europe — which has itself been the cradle of almost all the traditions of artistry and craftsmanship on this side of the Atlantic. Manufacturing, by the way, is a misnomer: it comes from the Latin mano (hand) + factus (making), which of course means “made by hand”. Today, that’s the last thing manufacturing is about, and — even though I cannot imagine a reality in which we’ll have no need of people who use their hands — the likelihood that the White House, the G.O.P., the banking industry, academia, or the people who bring us “cheap” oil and better living through chemistry will ever lobby for Manual Skills Awareness Week or National Trades Day is nil. I’d say that, on the whole, hand work survives despite the American way.

The SECOND factor is related to the first: our culture is based in a focus on “progress”. Nothing remains the same for long, nor is anything designed or intended to. Technologies, attitudes, the ways in which things are done, and skills sets of all kinds — including manual skills, of course — come and go. One example of a lost skill set is the thoroughly outdated modes by which people have communicated with one another — and I’m not just talking about land telephone lines, morse code, or the telegraph. Does anyone particularly mind that Beowulf is written in an incomprehensible form of our language that is no longer used? Well, outside of a few academics, not particularly. Or how about the same in Chaucer’s writings, or Shakespeare’s, or even Jane Austen’s? Ditto here. None of those archaic styles of address work all that well any more, and very few people miss them. Modern English is a perfectly adequate replacement. (Interestingly, Latin, Chinese, and Hebrew have been around in more or less the same form in which they were spoken since the time of Christ.)

Ditto, increasingly with the general mastery of traditional skills of “homemaking” (food preparation and preservation, making and mending clothes, etc.), mechanical and automobile repair, home workshop and garage projects of all kinds, etc.: these are increasingly the realm of people who are paid to do it. The human and social landscape has changed too much; society, technology, the movies, trades and arts, etc. have moved on — and so have the things that we occupy ourselves with during the day [ENDNOTE 4].

The THIRD factor, bluntly put, is: who cares about manual skills — as distinguished from product? Who cares about our hands’ abilities? It seems to me that those of us who use our hands to make a living in a field that we probably didn’t go to college to get a degree in — as well as some trained licensed professionals who did, and who all share a concern with doing the job in a meaningful way as opposed to just getting it done to specs, and whose lives are enriched by having manual skills — are just about the only segment of the general population who would be bothered by their erosion. Where is the societal crèche (if I could put it like that) that nurtures such values? Academic education is famously uninterested in the execution or furthering of hand work; that’s not its bailiwick. Ditto business; its focus is eternally on the bottom line. Except for the New York Times articles mentioned above, the media haven’t mentioned the erosion of manual arts as a problem; neither has the church, tabernacle, mission, synagogue, or temple. Political organizations, financial institutions, commercial/trade groups, and military and civic organizations are likewise silent on the subject: they’re all chasing different realities and priorities. Elementary education likewise ignores training the hands; the three R’s don’t include them. Finally, no one with any prominence, influence, or a platform for anything promotes or celebrates manual skills — as one might publicly acknowledge such common things as loyalty, courage, honesty, talent, academic or commercial achievement, athletic ability, success, or just plain wealth and clout [ENDNOTE 5].

I mentioned “trained licensed professionals” above. I have in mind conversations I’ve had with my dentist and my optometrist; both have mentioned that the advances in technology in their own fields are resulting in more streamlined techniques and standardized production of crowns and lenses which have eclipsed former less efficient methods that relied on more trained individual attention, discrimination, and skill — but that nonetheless produced subtly more satisfactory, craftsmanlike, and even elegant results. Well, think of it: why should there not be better and worse made crowns and lenses just as there are better and worse made guitars, cheeses, and lawnmowers? I’m sure that my dentist and optometrist are not the only ones who feel these things. Finally, the processes that we are witnessing seem to be, like the marching on of the seasons, global and unstoppable.



I was having a conversation with a friend who needed an appliance repaired and was having difficulty in finding anyone who could do it. Our conversation naturally turned to how more and more things seemed to be being made that were not expected to be repaired. The idea behind them seemed to be to discard them and purchase new versions. Well, old things need to make way for newer things — from airplanes to clothes pins [you do remember clothes pins, don’t you?]. In household goods the ubiquitous substitution of plastic for parts that would formerly have been made of wood or metal does nothing but insure this turnover. In this vein, one aspect of lutherie that I appreciate is that I am making objects that I hope will be around in a hundred years, that are fully repairable when need arises, and that are worth repairing.

There is a dividing line between “doing business” and doing something for a different reason. Not everyone is motivated by the bottom line only; some will be following a desire to do/create something that has their personal stamp on it, or that represents them in some way, or do work that has some personal significance, or that will carry value and outlast them, or that speaks to some other aspiration or is a calling. If that work involves making objects and goods (as opposed to providing services) then one will want those things to be reliable, repairable, satisfying, and have a long half-life. And here we run into an interesting and pertinent equation that sort of got lost in the shuffle of the Industrial Revolution: if you want to produce something “better”, you have to put more of yourself, your materials, and your time and skills into it [ENDNOTE 6]. For purposes of this discussion, this is very much the realm of manual skills combined with personal attention. The formula is: if it’s coming out of your own hands, then whatever you create with them has a better chance of having personal significance — for one’s self and others [ENDNOTE 7].



Manual skills are, in effect, orphans of social values. The way things are going, in the long run, a few hand skills are likely to be found useful and kept; a large numbers of them will be replaced by “newer” hand skills, and the rest will disappear. This seems exceedingly odd to me. I mean, we wouldn’t have had hand skills — some of remarkable sophistication — for thousands of years if they didn’t serve some useful function, would we? And yet, like the separation of church and state, we’ve come to something else that state is separate from.

And so we come to the question of how societal powers vs. our humble and temporary hand skills can coexist. Or, are past forms something to be sloughed off when they’re no longer useful, like a snake’s skin? While to the average person this probably seems as unremarkable as discarding the shells of seafood after it has been eaten, for me such treatment of a skill set that sets one apart (or has set one apart, as an individual, from the rest of humanity) represents something closer to abandonment of heritage. Sociologist Michael Hout of the University of California at Berkeley echoes this in his comment that “in an earlier generation we lost our connection to the land, and now we are losing our connection to the machinery we depend on.”

To be fair, nothing is forever and I’m sure the passing away of hand skills would not bother most people if such erosion — the loss of what is in effect a part of our heritage — were to be gradual and spread out over generations or centuries. But to witness permanent losses of anything that has informed and shaped one’s life from one generation to the next . . . as we are witnessing in the gutting of the very oceans, forests, and life-species of our planet — and less dramatically but just as fellingly* in the loss of handiness** of people in general. Increasingly, people who work with their hands are doing things that we call service jobs: in restaurants, laundries, gardens, medical technology, house cleaning, janitorial work, etc. If you’re paying attention, that’s hard to take without flinching.

[* This looks like a typo but it isn’t.]

[** It’s an interesting word in itself, and especially in this context.]

We all know that heritage and inheritance have to do with things that are passed on. They come from the same root: the heir, who is the receiver of something passed on. But I don’t believe the average person ever thinks about the difference between “heritage” and “inheritance” aside from the latter’s representing money and goods that one might receive upon someone else’s death. Heritage is a bit more diffuse . . . like national parks, one’s personal integrity, or a particular economic history and the expectations that might come from it. An inheritance might be the ’86 Ford Mustang you got when Uncle Milt passed away; your heritage is to have had Uncle Milt and how he taught you to whittle things out of wood when you were ten. I whittled when I was a kid; but who whittles any more? For that matter, when is the last time you heard or read that word?

Likewise tradition. According to the dictionary, it comes from the Latin traditio, which means a passing on, a handing or giving over, a relinquishing, and even a giving up. Incidentally, by an extension of this last meaning, the same root gives us the words traitor and betrayal . . . which are indeed a form of giving up or handing over. A tradition is something that we do or participate in, value, and that is not quantifiable. The bottom line is that if you don’t participate in hand skills you are in no position to pass such things on to anyone else, regardless of who else in your family might have practiced them.



Any long-term discussion of the place of hand skills in the world we live in would be incomplete without a consideration to how heritage and change coexist. And we do have change. Our society’s continual inventiveness and “progress” mandates the antiquation and obsolescence of most hand work. Skills, attitudes, and training are continually shifted as one product, technology, industry, design, approach, priority or need disappears and a new one comes to the fore. This is true in the laboratory, at the workbench, in the factory, in commerce, in film, in communications, in information gathering and dissemination, in electronics, in the kitchen, in the hospital, in the schoolroom, on the battlefield, in the marketplace, in the workplace, in aeronautics, in industrial extractive techniques, in construction, in agriculture, in general efficiency across the board, etc. At least, this is what things look like to me. If I may say so we have, like technological and mechanical nomads forever moving on to new territories, created a heritage and tradition . . . of loss of heritage and tradition. This an oxymoron that’s literally crazy-making, albeit we are conditioned to see it as rational and progressive.

The sociology, technology, and iconography of this progression is recorded in the many books that are continually being written about the way things used to be done, and where we’re likely to be headed, and choices that were made, or forced on us, or were handed down to us. I’m a serious bibliophile myself, so I’m happy to have interesting and well-written books about where the world as I know it came from. But I think it is important to understand that non-fiction books are mostly records and interpretations of the past; they are mirrors and museums, more so than fishing holes that are stocked with tonight’s dinner. Fiction books are about tomorrow’s dinner — or the dinner that we might otherwise have tonight.

O.K., so everything changes. Is there anything that doesn’t? Well, human motives haven’t changed much outside of being shaped this way and that by culture. But then human motives are not an artifact of culture; our protoplasm comes pre-loaded with them. Otherwise, in our very human embrace of the concrete and quantitative, some of the few cultural tools that have enjoyed the longest half-life are our various measuring sticks — much more so than any of the things being measured [ENDNOTE 8]. While these sticks have been called different things in different languages, they are in fact older than the pyramids. We call them things like:

(1) miles/kilometers/leagues/knots;
(2) hours/minutes/days/months/years;
(3) pounds/kilograms/tons/ounces;
(4) percentages and portions;
(5) dollars/pounds/franks/marks/rubles/yen/pesos;
(6) feet/meters/inches/light-years;
(7) quarters/ halves/wholes/eighths;
(8) most, least, biggest, best, worst, tallest, smallest, on-a-scale-of-one-to-ten;

On a more abstract yet still very human level there are also

(9) the perennial balancing of what comes in vs. what goes out; and
(10) the age-old calculation of mine vs. yours/ours vs. theirs. The one other man-made thing that seems permanent is:
(11) the desire to earn one’s bread by the sweat of someone else’s brow. For what it’s worth, this is foundational to Capitalism. Socialism, on the other hand, was predicated on a rejection of this.



These descriptions of losses also, I believe, must include traditional women’s work of the kind that doesn’t figure in GNP calculations. By this I mean the training that working-class women used to get so as to be equipped to be wives and run households: food buying, cooking and baking, doing the laundry and hanging up the wash, taking care of the kids, learning to assign chores, cleaning the house, making and mending clothing, budgeting, canning and preserving, working hard and being dutiful mates, perhaps growing some fruits and vegetables, perhaps doing some home schooling, and training the daughters to follow suit. Surely these all count as useful skills that have also been largely lost, no? And what urban women occupy themselves with such tasks today? Non-working class women have largely and traditionally been brought up to be above work, and to live by being something between ornaments and wombs; they could always rely on the help to get things done.

A common response to the working woman’s traditional domestic station is “that while it was once necessary we’ve now advanced to the point that these forms of drudgery are no longer necessary; and we have no time for them anyway now; women are liberated from all that and are part of the work force”. Well, true enough; women have moved on. But it strikes me that while in my mother’s day most housewives engaged in food preparation, it is now so rarified an occupation that, starting with Julia Child, a lot of its chief practitioners have become T.V. stars. Can openers, microwaves, and pre-processed foods of every kind have invaded every kitchen, and we spend almost as much time watching these shows as we do in actual food preparation. On the plus side, while I can’t say I’m likely to meet any woman who longs to go back to how things were, it is also true that there seems to be a resurgence of interest (at least in urban middle-class culture) in organic food, nutrition, cooking classes, healthy food, slow food, etc. — all of which I hope are here to stay.

I will return to this topic further on but I hope, for now, that I’ve made my point about losses with the above descriptions – with the caveat that the above applies largely to middle class women, and mostly Caucasian ones at that. Studies show that African-American women feel considerably less liberated today; they are more certain of having to work at something all their lives, whether they have had a choice about it or not.



In truth, innovation and obsolescence aren’t always a simple gain/loss equation. Part of the “loss” is that things are also transformed. I just touched on the loss of the domestic skills of sewing: you know, making and repairing clothing. Historically, the sewing machine was designed to help that work. But for some time now, sewing machine skills have been largely relegated to sweatshops, without anyone raising a peep. The humble home sewing machine has become an industrial tool at least as much as a personal one.

But, one might ask where else would the sewing machine wind up? I don’t know a single adult woman who doesn’t work; so who, exactly, is going to be sitting at home mending or making clothes these days? Sewing skills have been displaced and replaced by a whole world of new women’s roles, interests and behaviors. The day that husbands could no longer earn enough by themselves to ensure the survival of their households, or went to war so that the wives had to go to work, all these changes became inevitable. The bottom line is economic survival, always. It makes sense for me to accept that as soon as women were given the vote and allowed into schools and the workplace the sewing machine was doomed. I’m making no value judgment here: one thing simply, slowly, and unnoticeably became part of something else. Does it not seem to you that this is the reality? Returning to our topic of loss of hand skills: who has time to develop and perfect them in the modern world? And to turn the clock back, to reestablish a more stable world in which older skills sets help to hold everything together — which seems to underlie a lot of today’s political wishful thinking — seems to be somewhere between highly unrealistic and insane.



This movement that I’ve been describing — which involves physical, mental, social and attitudinal capacities in addition to hand skills — is, as I’ve mentioned, usually attributed to large and uncontrollable forces of “progress” in its various forms. It is believed that all of this has to be this way; that any and all change is necessary — including, of course, any modern society’s degree of reliance or non-reliance on manual skills. Unless one is talking about an agrarian society, change sweeps the known and familiar away, like a stealth juggernaut [ENDNOTE 9].

A case in point is the phrase (and reality of) “planned obsolescence”. It didn’t come out of nowhere: it’s a tacit but essential societal value, and I think one could argue that most hand skills can be regarded as being like the next generation of hatchlings on a chicken farm: all of them will grow up and sooner or later wind up in our ovens, barbecues, and cooking pots. As such, however, regardless of what one thinks of or how one views the passing of hand skills, it seems to me that this phenomenon is not an operating principle in itself — such as a cyclic or pendulum nature of reality might be, and as it is considered to be in certain modes of non-Western thought. In Western thinking these shifts are a symptom, or result, of other factors of change. Therefore, it’s somewhere between pointless and irrelevant to have a serious discussion about the state of hand skills in and of themselves: they’re dependent on the operation of independent forces and principles.

Having said this, I think we’re at a let’s-stop-and-really-think-about-this point. If (1) hand skills are irrelevant to government, the media, the Church, the G.O.P., the White House, the Kremlin, academia, corporate business, Hollywood, etc. . . . . . . and if (2) there is a genuine underlying desire on people’s part to return to a stabler world in which older skills sets and attitudes help to hold everything together — and I believe this desire is endemic — then (3) the importance of such skills and attitudes, if any, must clearly reside . . . . . . where? Well, you’d certainly think it would be in the values-complexes of individuals who rely on these for (spiritual and/or physical) satisfaction and income, wouldn’t you? Who else but individuals such as you and I, the direct beneficiaries of such income and satisfactions, would pay any attention to such things and assign them any value? [ENDNOTE 10]

This might be a good time to again look at the media-as-the-public-voices-of-our-culture as being complicit in the things I’ve described up to this point: our sense of our lives as citizens and many of our social priorities are in large measure gotten through the media. In my case, my “real” life comprises largely of work and a bunch of other stuff that is lumped together under the description of “real life”. None of this involves solving crimes, chasing people around or scheming against them, hacking security codes, young love, corporate shenanigans, cooking gourmet food, having incredibly good looks and a great body, terrorism, regime change in the third world, space travel, finding a cure for cancer, or being victimized in such a way that I wind up on the six o’clock news. I don’t inhabit a commodious living space such as is commonly seen in movie and television sets and, all in all, the dramas in my life tend to be comprised of ridiculously mundane conflicts, defeats, and triumphs of the kind you never see on T.V. This can’t come as a surprise to anyone, right? On the other hand, almost all the models of social reality that we absorb from books, magazines, films, television, advertisements, the Internet, newspapers, stage productions, etc. are patently artificial. Hint: everybody involved is paid to write and do 99% of that — including the techs who do the C.G.I. touch-ups and Photo Shopping! [ENDNOTE 11]



To paraphrase Pontius Pilate: what is progress? Well, at the risk of dating myself to the sixties I’d repeat again that, within a Capitalistic system, the systematic obsolescence of outdated skill sets is, by definition, societal progress. Capitalism, after all, is precisely about constant, steady growth — and the attendant need for re-training the workforce. This is how progress is measured. The GNP is, in fact, its touchstone indicator [ENDNOTE 12].

On the other hand, how could any of this be individual progress? Progress for the individual (outside of job promotions and professional advancement, that is) is measured with a different yardstick: there’s organic growth and maturation from youth through adulthood, and then aging. This is not different from an apple, really: it grows, ripens, and then withers. To ask whether the apple “makes progress” as a fruit nonsensical. The apologia for societal progress is always spoken in terms of Economics, demographics, the middle class, Balance of World Power, technology, “market share”, and mechanisms such as “Supply and Demand”. Human progress, on the other hand, is explained by citing physical, mental, psychological and spiritual factors of growth, maturation, and decline. Entire libraries have been written around the cleft between these respective realities. Please be smart enough to not confuse individual progress with societal progress.



It seems clear to me at this point that we keep on circling around and returning to the topic of disappearing hand skills as interpreted through a personal vs. a societal perspective, and that it seems to be a genuinely useful question. Really, what is there in between?

For myself, I can tell you that my brain has had enough to do in wrestling with the challenges of turning slices and chunks of woods into guitars; it is not actually up to comprehending the world and its changes. I am aware that, as I have gotten older and have added to my mental database, that I have an increasingly personal perspective on the matter of hand skills — rather than a statistical, societal, educational, historical, economic, moral, hierarchical, or intellectual one. I repeat: I’ve pretty much built my professional life on my hand skills, supplemented by certain attitudes of discipline in craftsmanship; and it’s been a life I’ve liked. On the other hand, I do believe that to the extent that we, as a people, move away from using our body parts and senses to get things done, we become insane — that is, isolated and cut off from things that keep us grounded in a life that makes sense. Put in different words, I think it’s healthy and beneficial to be reminded that we are creatures of the earth and that are, indeed, made up of the very same materials.

It is also argued here and there — although the dialogue is not exactly a heated one –that hand skills are not disappearing. Morphing and changing, yes; cycling between being important or negligible with the movement of the worldly pendulum, yes; dying out, no. The buggy whip industry is history; but our laptop, personal computer, and I-pad industries are in full swing. In short: that the situation on the whole is no worse than it’s ever been. The logic of this is arrived at also by citing the periodic resurgence of cottage industries in making specialty consumer products such as wines and beers, cheeses, bicycles [ENDNOTE 13], custom-designed shoes and clothing, jewelry, guitars, fixing up vintage cars, restoring antiques, or whatever the fashion of the times calls for. There’s an article in the July 5, 2012 New York Times about how sewing machine sales to individuals are significantly on the rise, along with great renewed interest in sewing, quilting, making things out of fabric, and in general being more self-sufficient instead of rushing off to the department store to buy something new. I’ve also become aware of late, through my partner and her network of friends, of how important the world of knitting, yarn stores, wool dyeing, knitting classes and books, etc. has become.

I am not fully persuaded by these kinds of arguments. My attitude comes from the fact that I’ve listened to many accounts of how someone’s father and/or grandfather had a home workshop in which he made furniture, fixed things, did machining work, puttered and tinkered, or did something else that bespoke of hours spent quietly and skillfully putting his hands to wood or paint or ceramic or metal; but very few people today have time for such pursuits any more. Also, you’d think that in times of economic hardship people would fall back on whatever personal skills they had and try to rely on them to make a go of things; but we have tens of millions of unemployed now, and I’m not seeing any large amount of turning toward things that one can do by one’s self. The groundwork for such possibilities is absent, and most people need jobs that are offered to them by an employer. As to the resurgence of interest in sewing and working with fabrics, I do have the sense that these activities are appealing to largely retired or approaching-retirement individuals; even many of my guitar making students are of this demographic: they’ve had regular jobs all their lives and now they want to do something different that they can simply love for its own sake. I’m not aware of any of this as representing anything like a groundswell. And I think we’ve all become impoverished in these processes.

As I said, the groundwork for jobs possibilities that may have existed in the past seems absent. Traditional craftsman-type hand skills have their own trajectory of learning and mastery, and these usually involve having loved some form of hand work and training it by having continuing experience of the materials, from early in life on. Today, formal preparation such as woodworkers, metal workers, electricians, pattern makers, dentists, cabinet makers, wood turners, boat makers, decorative wood carvers, construction workers of all types and machinists get almost invariably occurs after the teenage years, when people are going to schools or getting on-the-job training. In lutherie, European instrument makers have centuries-old traditions, some of them ridiculously rigid, of training and education; while these have fallen considerably into disuse since the passing of the Guild system, as far as I know many modern European luthiers have trained with a working luthier and/or in a school with a one or two-year long curriculum, before going off on their own. In Japan, which has been very much in the throes of its own modernization since 1945, traditional apprenticeships are now rare; but when they are offered they are understood to be a ten-year-or-longer commitment. American luthiers have largely read books and taken one or two week-long courses and then built a few guitars. They then can hang out their shingle, and from there on out it’s all hands-on, trial-and-error, and school-of-hard-knocks training, supplemented by DVDs, internet discussion forums, and the occasional luthier’s convention, show, or symposium [ENDNOTE 14]. While all this is par for the course for starting out in the craft, it is not exactly the same as getting a real education before going out on one’s own; that takes years. I’m not saying this to put anyone down, by the way; it’s just a mostly accurate commentary. Whatever we have or have not been in the past, I think we can agree that we are not now a nation of craftspeople; we are too removed from putting our hands on things. Who has the time to, any more? [ENDNOTE 15]

It is true, nevertheless, that creative loners and cottage industries whose work does not rely on automated procedures, and whose products appeal to a more personal level of people’s psyches, keep on cropping up. The individuals in this demographic themselves find appeal in the “artistry” and personal involvement in the work; buyers like the uniqueness of the things being made. This category includes a generation of bakers, wine and cheese makers, custom bicycle and furniture makers, makers of niche items such as fishing lures and knives, jewelers, custom clothes designers, potters, small-scale organic farmers, artists, hobbyists, various kinds of small-scale entrepreneurs (I guess one could include writers too) and, in spite of what I said above, a surprising number of luthiers (small-scale producers of stringed instruments) — all of whom use their hands to get things done. Others are so much all around us that we don’t notice them, both in the underground and the above-ground economy [ENDNOTE 16].

As far as making handcrafted wooden, ceramic, glass, leather, and metal objects and goods of all kinds goes, I heard an NPR program about all this activity that identified it as a three billion dollar a year industry. That was news to me. There’s also been a surge of interest in domestic foodstuff crafting: making cheeses, wines, beers, breads, specialty foods, and baked confectionaries. And in addition there are zillions of restaurants and diners out there and NONE of them are without their able kitchen staff. The upscale parts of these efforts do get some notice. However, while the financial health of the automotive and corporate industries are closely studied, no one to my knowledge has paid much attention to the bulk of “the crafts industry” other than to note that it’s members are mostly women — except in musical instrument making, which is oddly enough almost an exclusively male enclave. Therefore we don’t know much about the true size of it, where it might be headed, or its staying power.

You should be grateful for all the above people, too, regardless of their gender: can you imagine a world without musicians, and only white and wheat bread? This demographic works hard to survive through its own creative energy and efforts, and I can guarantee you that most of these don’t drive a Mercedes or BMW. But they all like what they do in spite of (or because of?) the fact that what they do is labor-intensive. And that undoubtedly has something to do with the fact that this work is, somehow, essential — if not to the society then certainly to the individual.

You may stop reading now if you’ve had enough, or go on to the next essay/installment on this topic. I’ll be done with it soon. There, we will continue to explore the matter of hand skills, only this time more from the perspective of inner motivations.




ENDNOTE 1: Craftsmanship is most often valued monetarily. It is nothing other than the skills that workers have traditionally brought to the workplace — be it the factory, the bakery, the office, the seaport, or the farm — as well as to their home projects after hours. It applies to working with sheetrock or a sewing machine, landscaping, gardening, typing and filing, making furniture, doing home repairs of all types, fixing up one’s car, replacing broken window glass, fly tying, putting up shelving, hanging a door, sharpening tools, food preparation, repairing a broken fence, braiding hair and doing nails, etc. The concept of the craftsman in his studio or workshop producing “well made” stuff is fairly new and limited; as far as I can determine it has its roots in the work of Henry Ford, when his assembly-line methods forced meaningful craftsmanship out of the workplace: work became rote, and independent of operator choice or initiative. There’s a contemporary echoing of the Ford-assembly-line mindset in the [the highly industrialized and successful] Taylor Guitar factory’s owner telling his workers that he “doesn’t want to see anyone doing lutherie [on his premises]”. Unrecognized forms of craftsmanship survive in all kinds of not-well paid occupations: in the kitchen, the office, the beauty salon, the garden, and even the pool hall.

ENDNOTE 2: Strange though the question about the importance of a tree might be, it is — in metaphorical form — at the center of the subject matter I’m addressing. I’m exploring whether or not hand skills are important in their own right and, if so, how. It’s no different from asking whether a tree is important in itself, or whether it is important only insofar as it is useful for something, and otherwise negligible. It’s a fundamental question. It’s about basic values. And that being the case, debaters who take opposite positions on this matter will often defend theirs — like the battle of The Alamo down in Texas — to the death.

The matter becomes more manageable if one ascribes some importance to hand skills and trees as part of a group. I mean, to talk about the importance of one tree, or one hand skill, is loaded with difficulty — especially if you are a participant in the thing being debate; that is to say, if you happen to be a tree or a person with a hand skill, how can you deny your own importance?

ENDNOTE 3: I’m using this phrase because I’ve liked it ever since the superman movies I saw when I was young impressed the phrase “truth, justice, and the American way” on my young consciousness. It sounds good. And it’s true. For guitar makers, a proof of this can be found in the recently passed Lacey act — which is an attempt to make it illegal to log and trade in endangered woods, and which I’ve written about elsewhere. The Lacey act was conceived and passed with commercial lumber-using interests in mind; it is otherwise heedlessly letting the needs of craftsmen and artisans fall between the cracks. No one in Washington gave the small-scale wood users such as guitar makers a thought. In contrast, Canada recognizes the value of its craftsmen and artists and has an active national grants program for fostering and supporting them.

ENDNOTE 4: One example of a lost skill set is the thoroughly outdated methods by which Walt Disney’s animated movies used to be made and which no one would ever think of resorting to again. When I was young all those movies were produced by studio artists, one hand-drawn and hand-painted frame at a time, then photographed one frame at a time, and then collated to create the illusion of movement and action. It took thousands of color images, each minutely different from the previous one in order to suggest motion, to make each hour-plus long movie. It took thousands of skilled hours of work hours to sketch, calibrate, color, and photograph each one. Then, once they were photographed, these still images lost their cinematic usefulness and became souvenirs at Disneyland.

Today, no one would make a movie in that manner; it would be prohibitively expensive. Instead, images are generated, enhanced, colored, and proportioned by [technicians who operate] computers. The artistry and hand skills that were formerly needed to make the older films are not needed and will probably never be used again. Speaking of film making, for that matter, there’s the related matter of the general disappearance of film in photography, negatives developing and processing, film photography equipment and techniques, and film itself. As far as still photography goes, the original camera-settings and darkroom skills have been made obsolete by point-and-click auto-focus cameras, zippy filters and lighting, and post-production Photoshop techniques.

ENDNOTE 5: It’s a safe bet that current reality will usually be reported in terms of “newsworthy” political, economic, technological, business-related, scientific, entertainment-industry, or military advances or losses. This will include things like jobs, national security, viability of the middle class, international trust and prestige, racism, plummeting educational test scores, teenage pregnancies, the stock market, the value of the dollar, cancer, the conspiracies of the liberal media, the latest TV dramas, votes/influence/corruption, what to do about illegal immigrants and/or the aged, abortion, depletion of natural resources, natural and man-made disasters, control of the White House, market share, family values, taxation, weight loss, sports, the spread of AIDS, world food and water supply, sports, the state of our competitive edge, poverty, Setting The Historical Record straight, statisticized information about this, that, and the other, homosexuality, Democracy, consumer confidence, trade imbalances, murders, thefts and scandals, global warming, justice, unemployment, degradation of the environment, God’s plan, military superiority, wars, arms races . . . and so on. There is also a large dollop of legal and ethnic developments, current social culture and politics, world economic shifts, proofs of erosion of the middle class, and commentaries on social mores interpreted through statistics and Biblical ethics. They are all reported, argued and espoused with the seriousness, focus, and single-mindedness of a water buffalo in rut — but with commercial breaks. Even the weather gets regular air time. Loss of hand skills — and certainly musical instrument making skills — is way, waaay, waaaaay down on the official list. No encouragement that I’m aware of comes from any media (and certainly not from any television, computer, gamester, or movie screen) for today’s youth to get their hands calloused or dirty; that’s blue collar work and everybody wants to be part of the middle class. What’s notable about these is that in all of them, regardless of whatever work, gain, or loss is being paraded about, it’s the meaningful part of any of it — the part that might make one feel that one’s day was personally well spent and that anyone is a little bit better for it — that gets ignored. We are, as a nation, fascinated by ranking, quantity, order of priority, and shock-and-awe.

ENDNOTE 6: You may recall the joke about the sign behind the counter of the neighborhood repair/fix-it shop: “FAST, CHEAP, AND QUALITY SERVICE. Pick any two”. One can play with this idea. Imagine a sign in a restaurant that reads: “INEXPENSIVE, QUICKLY SERVED, SATISFYING FOOD. Pick any two”.

ENDNOTE 7: A word about significance, here. Recently, the sports section carried a story of how Adam Scott, a golfer who had a four-shot lead in the final round of the British Open, surprised everyone by having such bad form in the final four holes that he lost to golfer Ernie Els — who was equally surprised — by one stroke. One wonders what, exactly, this says about skill as opposed to luck in golf — and, hence, the significance of winning? I mean, what exactly does Mr. Els’ victory mean, in this instance? It’s not a bad question. I’d say that if you can’t attach significance to the result, then you might think about connecting it to the intent. Doesn’t that sound like a sensible thing to do?

ENDNOTE 8: With the exception of deserts and mountains, some nations and a few castles, pyramids, and coastlines that have lasted for some centuries, everything else man-made — culture, forms of government, architecture, language, even Gods and religions — have changed. The other constants such as life, sex, death, gravity, the appeal of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, and the need to earn one’s bread by the sweat of one’s brow . . . are not man-made, and are likely to be permanent.

The institution of marriage, which we want to think of as timeless, is much younger than any of these. Historically, it arose with the concept of private property — and society’s consequent need to identify a legal heir to it. Engagement periods weren’t exactly romantic idylls: they were put in place to show that the bride wasn’t already carrying someone else’s child. Calculations of many sorts were obviously already in operation.

ENDNOTE 9: These independent forces and principles might be natural laws, but they’re just as likely to be artifacts of accepted and unquestioned social contracts and conventions. In the brilliant book The Production of Desire author Richard Lichtman points out that the social, economic, and psychological paradigms that have informed intellectual life in the 20th century — how we think the human psyche, Capitalism, the world, etc. work — are typically and unquestioningly accepted as being the natural and unavoidable state of things. Very few people concern themselves with understanding how things got to be as they are, in spite of the fact that these are fascinating and momentous narratives. Yet it’s impossible to talk about, let alone change, a thing meaningfully without a knowledge of the history and nature of that which is being looked at. It’s not unlike trying to make a really good guitar without having any idea of how the thing actually works.

ENDNOTE 10: Given the difficulties with producing income, I’d think it would be prudent to land on the satisfaction side of this equation, myself. But regardless of that, I’m unable to imagine that we’ll ever entirely get past the need for surgeons and dentists and at least a minimal number of tailors, builders, jewelers, hair dressers, immigrant farm workers, painters, gardeners, artisans, machinists, blacksmiths, masseurs, sculptors, guitar and violin makers, and even musicians.]

ENDNOTE 11: In what film, book, T.V. show, or stage production (except My Dinner With Andre, of course) have you ever seen anyone cook or eat an entire meal? Or struggle for a whole evening with their income tax? Or fix a screen door? Or read a magazine while sitting for forty minutes in a doctor’s or veterinarian’s waiting room? Or wash, dry, and sort a basket of laundry? Or watch all nine innings of a baseball game? Or sit through a whole game of poker or monopoly? Or . . . well, you get the idea. It’s almost all staged, timed, compressed, made up, rehearsed, choreographed, themed, dramatized, artificial . . . and reassuring that the order of things will prevail.

ENDNOTE 12: The trajectory is this: once everything in the world is gobbled up Capitalism will start eating itself, and then die.

And speaking of Capitalism, a movie critic recently reviewed a crime thriller and quipped that it was a Capitalist movie — in the sense that crime stories are the only genre in which people are motivated exclusively by the pursuit of money. That seemed like a sensible insight to me.

ENDNOTE 13: It occurs to me that a good name for a custom-made bike shop would be The Bespoke Cyclery.

ENDNOTE 14: I’m not putting anyone down by saying any of this; none of these are bad people. And I’m not saying that learning to build a guitar isn’t a respectable hand skill: it is exactly that. I’m just calling it as I’ve seen it; opportunities of any in-depth training are few and far between. As a matter of fact, I should add that there are some glowingly positive things about allowing people to learn from their own mistakes rather than their losing their most valuable and spellbinding learning experiences through having been too rigidly educated. And there are some very highly skilled luthiers practicing this art and craft today who have learned by sticking with it, doing increasingly better work, and by toughing it out. It’s just that most of them don’t teach anyone else — so the continuity and handing on factors are missing. There are exceptions to this, of course; but I’m talking about the situation in general. The basic cultural principle that seems to be operating here is: there’s money in doing; not so much in teaching. Go out and do. And later, if you have time, write a book about it. But if we’re focusing on continuity, then removing the mechanisms and traditions for the passing on of one’s skills, experience, and perspectives to one’s followers becomes a kind of . . . well . . . perversion, doesn’t it?

I’d think that being part of a tradition is entirely compatible with being a rugged individualist, which value our culture seems to hold onto with single-minded focus well into the 21st century. At the same time though, we are all urged, with even more force, to be staunch team players. Doesn’t anyone see a contradiction here? I mean, look at how we’ve treated our various societal, governmental, and industrial whistle blowers. Interestingly, this is very much the theme of Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, which was made into a film that you may have seen. The story’s central drama is that the Caine’s captain has a personality meltdown in the middle of an oceanic storm that is threatening to capsize his ship; his second-in-command takes control of the ship and saves it. He is subsequently court-martialed for mutiny. He is at the end saved by his very smart lawyer — in spite of the fact that the lawyer felt that his client (as well as the other officers) should have had greater loyalty to the captain in the middle of the typhoon because the captain had, after all, been a loyal and dutiful Navy team player for so many years. The kid who pointed out that the Emperor was naked could now be in danger of being put in jail for agitation and disseminating propaganda.

ENDNOTE 15: Not to continue to beat a dead horse but the time factor, while real enough, is somewhat of a red herring. The real culprit is the shift in people’s self-sufficiency and self-reliance — which represents a profound change in culture. I’ve already commented on the split between the cultural imperatives to be self-reliant and at the same time a good team player. And as far as my experiences in the world of woodworking go, let me share something else with you.

I am friends with some of the folks who work in the local lumberyards and wood outlets. They of course deal with woodworkers of all kinds: sculptors, contractors, cabinetmakers, weekend hobbyists, ebanistes, and amateurs. And they report on two categories of exchanges that pop up frequently enough that they become points of conversation. One is the example of a customer who walks in and wants to buy some wood for, say, making a bookcase. This customer walks in with no opinions, sense, idea, sense of color, or plan of his/her own, and expects to be told what kind of wood to buy that will be good for making a bookcase. And, incidentally, the customer is not interesting in purchasing or reading a woodworking book. I suspect that this kind of thing happens more frequently in modern urban centers than in the more traditional and people-sized communities, but here is a mindset of being prepared to be given all the information (and materials) necessary in order for a project to be carried through to a successful conclusion — with minimal involvement on the customer’s part. Does this not ring a bell with at least some of you who are reading this? (“Bookcasewood? You’re lucky: we just got a shipment of it in!”)

The second category of customer is one that is also being more frequently seen by wood purveyors: that of the modern, with-it, and technically savvy person who has researched the newest techniques for making something and is buying the raw materials in preparation for having the various components laser-cut so that they can be assembled with least waste of time and effort — and probably materials as well. Yet, it does not seem to occur to these sophomores that their projects will contain no craftsmanship of the traditional kind, at all: the skill and craftsmanship will have all gone into the planning and calculating. They are bypassing actual craftsmanship with all the élan of speeding along the interstate highway, right past all the towns that lie between the start of the journey and its final destination, and that might otherwise enrich the trip with points of interest. And does this not ring a bell with at least some of you who are reading this? (“Three hours? Man, you really assembled that fast!”)

ENDNOTE 16: This includes – certainly in the U.S. — craftspeople, artisans, and small-scale businesspeople who practice manual arts of various kinds for which, while schooling and informal classes exist for them, have to meet no (or nominal) formal certification or membership requirements. This group includes violin makers, artists, jewelers, sculptors, typists and computer programmers, musicians, tennis and ping-pong players, welders, wood turners, fighters, horticulturists, potters and ceramicists, tailors, furniture makers, organic farmers, jugglers, cooks, construction people, quilters, knitters, glass blowers, masseurs, beauticians/manicurists, decorative wood carvers, mosaicists, bow and knife makers, Rolfers, carpenters, etc. Those who do require more formal education and licensing to exercise their manual skills would be people like surgeons, dentists and dental technicians, mechanics, draftsmen, optical technicians, electricians, plumbers, demolition experts, chefs, etc.