• Exploring the qualities of Craftsmanship •

Acts of Creation—America’s Finest Hand Craftsmen at Work

A book by Walt Harrington

This book is now a part of the library at the Craftsmanship Museum in Carlsbad, CA. In it, Walt Harrington examines what makes a craftsman tick. He acknowledges right up front that words, not tools are his thing. He is a writer, not a builder. Many of his friends and acquaintances, however, went on to become fine craftsmen, and he began to wonder what made them different. It wasn’t that they weren’t smart; most had attended college and many held degrees, but at some point they had come to the conclusion that their place in life was to work with their hands. In this book he examines why.

In the prologue the author examines what traits the fouteen craftsmen featured in his book have in common. Here are a few sample quotes:

“We who believe that we think for a living break the world into thinkers and laborers. We give ourselves top billing. Yet these men I admired just didn’t fit that hierarchy. They were smart. They didn’t work with their hands because they had no choice; they worked with their hands because they loved it.

What makes them craftsmen?

Call it The Craftsman’s Way.

• They don’t work for the money.

He notes that a few had become affluent from their crafts but most had not. “Yet all of them said that if they had launched their careers worrying about making a good living, they never would have invested the time it takes to get good enough to make a good living.

It’s the Catch-22 of craftsmanship.

• If not for money, then what?

Again and again, these craftsmen spoke of a feeling they get when they are working at their best. Like great athletes whose minds and bodies work in sync, fine craftsmen go into a ‘zone.’ Hours seem to pass in minutes. They describe the sensation as ‘addictive.’

• Tools don’t make the craftsman.”

Mr. Harrington notes that there are shops full of beautiful tools that never turn out a single piece of work, while some craftsmen work with fairly humble tools yet turn out magnificent work. “Creativity, they believe, is the only irreplaceable tool.

• Skills don’t make the craftsman, either.”

This may sound odd, but the author explains that as the great jazz sax player Charlie Parker once advised a would-be musician to practice the scales all day, every day for a decade and then to forget them. The mechanical skills must become so second nature that they are unconscious.

“…In other words, anyone can spend a decade learning the mechanics of a craft. But in the end, he will be judged only on the music he makes from the scales he has learned.

• The work is always larger than life.”

The author explains that a common thread is a belief the importance of preserving traditional methods, passing on a respect for excellence, resurrecting a niche in history…all of these combine to “transform mechanic to craftsman to artist.”

• Intelligence matters.

The image of the steady, hard-working but –not-too-bright craftsman was probably always a myth—bad press from thinkers denigrating doers whose hands got dirty.

• They can’t rest on their laurels.

Fine craftsmen are compelled to do their work differently each time they do it. This isn’t only a commitment to constant self-improvement, it’s more like a psychological obsession.

• Perfection is not the goal.”

Though this may sound odd, Mr. Harrington believes that these craftsmen don’t expect to achieve perfection. Yet they “strive to approach perfection, envisioning it, aiming for it, and then mastering the possibilities and limits of tools and materials…”

• The love of raw materials is forever fresh.

Who knows why, but fine craftsmen are always re-remembering the beauty of their raw materials. It’s like seeing the man or woman you love forever young.

• They work for themselves.

Fine craftsmen are among the last of us who work for nobody. They should be as mythic as the American cowboy. They hate bureaucracy, bosses and paperwork. They mostly work alone. They punch their own clocks. If modern man is alienated from his work, craftsmen are not modern. They set their own standards and judge their work harsher than any employer. They don’t crave vacations or leisure time, don’t fret about being a workaholic. Work is their life, their love.

• Finally, they are decent people.

Mr. Harrington notes that as a group the craftsmen he interviewed were “as decent a gang as I’ve ever met. They were proud and humble at once. Nobody was a braggart.” He concludes, “I honor them. Their rites and ways are not only lessons for craft, but for life.

The book then goes on to examine the work and thoughts of fourteen fine craftsmen. These include a ceramicist, a furniture maker, a millwright, a coppersmith, a timber framer, a fireplace mason, a locksmith, a house framer, a floor man, a blacksmith, a chair maker, an ornamental plasterer, a stone carver and a door maker. Each illustrates aspects of craftsmanship from an individual perspective.

Mr. Harrington is a former staff writer for the Washington Post Magazine and is a professor of journalism at the University of Illinois. He is the award-winning author or editor of eight books, one of which became an Emmy Award-winning PBS documentary. You can learn more about him at www.waltharrington.com.  The book Acts of Creation is published by The Sager Group LLC.