February 28, 2015

Making good things demand good craft

Joseph Thompson (above), a traditional woodworker, posted these photos and remarks, regarding a chair-restoration project for a client, to his Instagram community:

“Here’s a textbook example of how not to repair a chair. The slats don’t allow for seasonal movement, and screws jammed into tenons don’t quite cut it. I just can’t leave it like this in good conscience.”

“I’m beginning to think the person who first repaired this chair ran out of glue and used bubble gum to glue these slats in.”

Joseph’s comments are spot-on. He showed bad restoration—not just half-assed work, but a total hack job. When you closely examine something like a chair, it is easy to make this determination. With other products, not so much. Joseph’s findings reinforce the opacity of products. They also magnify the methods and parts used to make them.

Sadly, the electric can opener I’ve used, possibly made during the 1970s, recently broke. Though abrupt, it was a product that satisfied a great many openings of everything, from soups to tuna. It was a well-made product that accomplished consistently its purpose, like a chair built for sitting. I give credit to the methods and parts that made the electric can opener last for as long as it did.

Today’s products, particularly software, share moving parts, both apparent and hidden, similar to a wooden chair: the seasonal movements, the adhesive. Such factors are not only beholden to a chair, which is easy to grasp than software. Genuine craftspeople (opposed to genuine hacks) recognize them and embrace their character as welcomed constraints.

To help ensure the endurance of a product, honest craftspeople duly try to practice good methods and select good parts. They recognize, acknowledge, and know the distinct movements of the raw medium and the distinct adhesive—intellectually, emotionally, culturally—to bind it all.

The badly restored chair that Thompson is working to rectify provokes long-fundamental questions in making something:

Am I working in a manner that respects
the nature of the materials?

Am I working in a manner that serves
the quality of the product?

Am I working in a manner that benefits
the client?

Am I working in a manner that helps satisfy
the client’s customers?

In the badly fixed chair’s case, Thompson was assigned to restore—properly, this time—an 80-year old object, whose owner desires to keep using it, and likely pass it on to the next generation. At the start—generations ago, the chair was made with good methods and good parts. Thompson respects the object’s legacy by returning to its integrity and restoring it, through allowing seasonal movement of the wood, and through never practicing a blind eye to randomly choosing methods for inappropriate contexts, such as the (insulting) shortcut of applying screws to a tenon.

Thompson’s work on a wooden chair extends a challenge spanning, even haunting, human creativity: Make good things by being good, in methods, in parts, in craft—in conscience.

• • •

All photographs courtesy of Joseph Thompson Woodworks.

• • •

Related: Recklessness of Taking Shortcuts in Making ThingsHuman and Machine: Joseph Thompson Woodworks’ Marvel of a Jointer

Please consider supporting Design Feast
If you liked this lovingly-made reflection, show your appreciation by helping to support my labor of love—Design Feast, which proudly includes this blog. Learn more.