Chris Black: Perfect in 1000 words or less

(Editor’s note: The internet is a funny thing. Sometimes you are introduced to people halfway around the world and sometimes they are practically at your back door. A year and a half ago I was searching craigslist for hand tools and stumbled upon the work of local cabinet maker Chris Black. Not only is Chris a first class craftsman in his own right, he also has a love for restoring old hand tools and putting them back into service. The first time I met Chris I was looking to to buy some tools and decided to try out a tenon saw. He immediately saw that I was holding the thing like a botcher and instructed me on a three finger grip.  I bought that saw on the spot. I have since purchased several of his resurrected hand saws and a few other tools here and there, but what impressed me the most about Chris was his reflective devotion to the craft. He wasn’t simply happy to sell me a tool, he wanted to show me how to use it properly.

When this series began I immediately contacted him about contributing and he has graciously agreed. Below you will find his own evolving thoughts on the idea of perfection as they have been informed by his work and the work of others. -JM)



Thoughts On Perfection in Craftsmanship

By Chris Black
Years ago when I worked as a carpenter in the historic districts of Washington D.C., foreman Ralph reminded us daily to take pride in our work. Later, when I opened my own cabinet shop, I noticed that the form contracts always listed the phrase, “all work to be performed in a workmanlike manner”. We probably all understand what these concepts generally mean: code compliance, tight molding joints, uniform door reveals and plumb, level and square everything. On the surface we somehow know what’s good, acceptable work and what won’t pass. But, if you dig a little deeper and ask yourself what or who decided on these somewhat subjective standards, then you’ll begin to see how various influences affect our concept of quality and ultimately the notion of perfection in craftsmanship.

Imagine we could create a machine, say an advanced type of 3D printer that could produce an object in form, function and material that matched our every intent perfectly. We might even program into the process a seemingly random action that could mimic the traits of human handwork. Our theoretical machine could model hand planed surfaces or the texture of a spoon gouge. The question quickly arises is this craftwork and what is the nature of craft that it can be completely replaced by automation and still be called craftwork?

David Pye in his book, Nature and the Art of Workmanship, asks is anything really hand-made and why does it matter? He argues that classifying something as handmade or machine-made is meaningless, and that what we really want to know is whether or not there was a degree of human risk involved in the result. Sure the machine could carve an exact Platonic form of a nativity scene in gopher wood, but what we desire is something that was, at least partially, done by a craftsperson with the potential of ruining the object somewhere along the way. Pye calls this the craftsmanship of risk. The automated machine gives us the craftsmanship of certainty with no risk of not achieving our intent. So why do we desire one method over another assuming we do? What factors influence this choice? Are the factors cultural? Yes, and perhaps it’s something even deeper in our human nature that crosses cultural differences and affects our concept of perfection in craftsmanship.

Carved bowl, from wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis) by David Pye. Photo from ‘The Nature and Art of Workmanship’

Soetsu Yanagi in his book, The Unknown Craftsman, a Japanese Insight into Beauty, confronts my somewhat dualistic western mind by challenging my ideas about art, beauty and my notion of what constitutes perfection in craft. He sets forth the idea that perfection is the combination of the arts, craft and patterns that occur in nature including the human mind, which he does not separate from nature. These constituents should not be considered different elements but one culmination resulting in a whole. To Soetsu Yanagi perfection lies in beauty. Beauty is born of use not necessarily out of pure function. People use these art/crafts in daily life whether it be looking at a painting or serving a salad in a turned wooden bowl. So is perfection in craft somehow tied in with human activity not just in the intent of the maker? Also, according to Yanagi, a craft/art artifact may function for its intended use, but unless it emotionally pleases the user, it is somehow less beautiful or perfect. On some level human emotion comes into play just as much as form, function and material.

What is it about craft made objects that bring us so much joy? Why do we seek out worn antiques, save our grandparents kitchen utensils and desire something more than the latest, sleek, homogenized, mass-produced gadget? There seems to be something in our collective, human psyche that craves objects that have a certain degree of surface diversity.

As we approach any craft made object, we start to discern certain surface qualities by sight and touch. Because of our limited senses, we can only perceive to a finite depth and texture. Is the thing uniformly smooth like plate-glass or is the surface more diverse like a glazed clay amphora? Something in the texture tells us a story about the maker and appeals to us. In his book The Cabinetmaker’s Notebook, James Krenov calls this phenomenon the fingerprints of the craftsman. It’s a similar idea that musicians employ to make a familiar piece of music uniquely their own. We recognize the tune, but different players leave their own fingerprints on the performance by the way they interpret it. We may prefer one version to the other usually in an emotional way.

Environment can also play a part in surface diversity. Aside from the monetary and historic value, why is a new, exact reproduction of a Queen Anne highboy less attractive than the surviving original? It could have something to do with the process known as the ecophenotypic effect. Christopher Williams defines ecophenotypic effect in his book, Origins of Form, as the effect of time and environment on an object. Is it possible that perfection can only be achieved or understood over time with human use? Is the diverse surface quality of an old object what makes it so desirable? Is the same way a craftsperson uses skill to interpret a made object and lend their fingerprints to the surface of that object linked to this?

Perfection in craft is often attached to the notion of skill. David Pye defines skill as care, judgment and dexterity using any technique or tools as the craftsperson executes the process of creating an object. Now care is somewhat given. We want to do a good job whatever that means to us. We also want the end user or recipient to be pleased and even delighted with the end product. As for judgment, we make informed decisions about tools, techniques and procedures along the way. We base these decisions on our experience, something we’ve read or a method learned in a class. Dexterity, on the other hand, only comes by doing. The more we practice a task, the more likely we are to become proficient at it. Maybe it’s something like the proverbial 10,000-hour rule. Here’s the question; what part does skill play in perfection?

In my own work I’ve tried to balance what the client wants and needs with my unique designs while remaining aware that partially what they want is my unique fingerprints on the finished piece. Sure the cabinet must fit in a given space with the TV on top while matching the existing décor. Yes, a mass-produced item might potentially serve. So why pay a craftsperson substantially more for a one-off piece that has what some would call human imperfections?

The answer may be in the following. I recently gave a how-to lecture at a local woodworking club where several members at the beginning meeting got up to show discuss and their current projects. My favorite show and tell was a wooden dumptruck made by a gentleman for his grandson’s birthday. Some might have noticed the less than well-executed details, but the response from his grandson said it all: “Grandpa, it’s PERFECT!”

dump truck
Perfectly loved.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Inspiring. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, Chris.


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