Pondering the Concept of Handmade, Part 1

What does handmade mean? At first sight it seems simple enough, Someone made it with their hands. Their hands and what else? The material, of course. Clay, for example, can be molded with just your hands, but in addition to the material itself you often have to include tools. Wood, the material I work most with, is pretty stubborn stuff to try and wrestle into submission with just your bare hands, though some builders of willow chairs and such come pretty close, so like most of my fellow travelers I have a variety of tools that I use to reshape wood and join it together in different ways.

Okay, I think most people will grant that “handmade” doesn’t require the complete absence of tools. In fact, many would contend it is, at least in part, our admiration of the skillful use of tools that many of us admire in handmade items. I can’t tell you how many times anyone who does any sort of craft demonstration will be told “I could never do that” by someone watching. I’ve said it myself while admiring someone’s deft handling of clay, or cloth, or glass. One of the things I enjoy about watching other folks who make things is seeing the specialized equipment they use and their mastery of it. I think we can agree the use of tools per se does not disqualify something from being handmade, but the type of tool matters very much to some.

In the woodworking world there are some who have sworn off the use of power tools. They plane the rough sawn wood flat with hand planes, they cut all the joinery with handsaws and chisels, use a brace and bit to drill, and turn parts on treadle-powered lathes. All surfaces are hand sanded or scraped, and the finish is applied by rag or brush.

There is some logic to this argument in that it is at least consistent and easy to follow. If you, the maker, provide all the power to the tool then it qualifies as handmade, simple, easy, straight forward. It’s also pretty exclusionary and more arbitrary then it might first appear. How far back in the process do you need to go? If it’s impermissible for someone to buy already milled stock and avoid the hand planing, then why not insist that every step along the way be done without power, all the way back to felling the tree with an axe and milling it on site with a broad axe and handsaw? If, on the other hand, buying milled wood is okay, then what’s the big deal with me buying rough sawn wood and using power tools to mill it myself ?

Another approach to the question is to break the process down to an individual. With very few exceptions, the things I sell on my site are made, beginning to end, by me and me alone. Patti does chip in with some occasional finishing chores and cutting leather and some other things, but basically it’s I who takes it from rough sawn wood at the lumberyard to whatever the final product is. That is unless I count the thousands of folks who work at the factory that makes the clock movements or the finish I use. But the most glaring issue is that it also disqualifies any collaboration from creating something “handmade.” I doubt many of us think that makes any sense.

Still, I think most of us see some sort of fundamental difference between a small group of artisans working in a “shop” making handmade items, and a factory churning out massive quantities, but again the line is harder to draw then it first seems. Is it the number of people? Does 10 make a shop and 100 make a factory? Is it the production methods? If it’s okay to use individual power tools, then are 500 people using identical tools to make thousands of identical parts that are assembled by still hundreds of others, still producing handmade goods? Why not? I don’t think factory and handmade are mutually exclusive by definition, but perhaps by method? We may be getting closer here. There does seem to be a difference between an assembly line operation, and having an equal number of workers who each take a product from beginning to end.

I think the answer may also have something to do with the level of sophistication of the tools you use. In this day and age most people have no problem with a woodworker representing his/her work as handmade despite using power tools such as a table saw, bandsaw, jointer, etc., all of which started out as industrial tools. On the other hand, I think very few people would agree with calling something handmade if all the parts were cut on a computer controlled milling machine. Does that then suggest that handmade implies the possibility of imperfection and error? Well, there may be something to that, but again the paradox of experience.

We have all seen handmade items that are poorly made sell because their obvious imperfections prove they were made by hand as well as knowing people who pay thousands of dollars extra for special handmade items because they claim the quality is much higher. In either case what I think is implied by “handmade” is some sort of personal connection between the maker and the piece. When power tools first hit the market big after WW2, a lot of serious woodworkers looked upon them all with some disdain, but they have become widely accepted with time, because the perception for many is that a person can use such tools and still preserve that connection. Will that happen to more sophisticated tools as well in time?

With the cost of computer controlled machines coming down every day, smaller versions of machines once seen only in large factories are now available for not much more than the cost of many other large shop machines, well within the reach of even some small one-person shops. Computer controlled carving machines are showing up in stores at prices serious hobbyists can afford, so we’re no longer talking industrial in the sense that it requires the financial resources of a major industry to buy the machine, and small businesses can now do work that was never within their reach before.

Are the items made by these folks handmade? Is it really clear? What if they use the machine to carve a panel, which they then build into a jewelry box that is otherwise made with traditional methods? Would you consider that box handmade if they had bought the carved panel from a factory but done the rest of it themselves? Do you think the idea of what is handmade will be the same in 50 years?

The line is harder to define the longer I look at it.  I plan to explore this topic again in future posts. I welcome your ideas on this or any other subject, and hope the holiday season was good to you.

Take care.

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