Thoughts on the Nature of Quality Workmanship
By Michael Mascelli
I have for nearly 40 years practiced the upholstery trade, and for most of it wrestled with the way we Americans use, and often overuse words like tradesman, craftsman, and professional.
As the level of what is considered acceptable craft work diminishes all around us, it seems to me all the more important to think about and discuss how we define and appreciate the value of work done by both hand and machine, and done well. Sadly, it is now common that professionals are well paid for doing sub-standard work, while devoted amateurs are often doing truly excellent work and thereby blurring the lines of what actually defines first rate work. So I would like to encourage a discussion of how standards are applied to both professional and amateur work by asking you to help answer the question my first and most cherished mentor asked me ask a young kid sweeping up in his auto body shop: “How smooth is smooth ?”
To achieve an excellent result with the old lacquer paints we used to sand to 600 grit; the modern woodworker might sand to 220 grit, and in the case of upholstery, smooth is in the eye (and seat) of the beholder. Of course there is no single standard, but there are five considerations that all craft workers face as they use their skills and tools to transform diverse materials into their finished products.
I deliberately reject the definition that one who charges a fee is somehow automatically a “professional”, and I do not believe that good tools make good work. I truly marvel at the precision possible with the vast array of new machines and tools available to virtually every trade, and yet cutting components with a CNC router to tolerances measured in thousandths of an inch does not mean that the resulting work is appropriate for all uses; neither is putting a second rate finish on a perfectly machined part. For me, the defining characteristic of professionalism, that is doing professional level work with both hand and machine tools, is judgement. The judgement to blend the right materials and techniques to best serve the needs of the piece and the client, within a reasonable time frame, and at a fair price. I believe strongly that judgement cannot be inherited or bestowed and must involve dedication and commitment over a long period of time, not to mention some busted knuckles and a dash of humility. I consider it critical for both professionals and amateurs to be able to look at their own sub-standard work, take a deep breath, rip it out and do it over. A joint is tight or it isn’t. A curve is fair or it’s not. A color matches or it doesn’t. Judgement defines smooth.
The execution of quality craft work involves a continuous series of decisions, great and small, that must be informed by a solid understanding of the options available. Knowing how your predecessors in past centuries made those choices is essential to making good ones. With the proliferation of free information, text, photos and videos on the internet, there is just no excuse for not studying your trade. At is very root, the word professional comes from the verb to “profess” which is the public declaration of a strongly held belief, and I feel that is incumbent upon craft workers to apply themselves to serious study of the history of their chosen work, as well as that of others, and to share it. Many furniture makers know and revere James Krenov, but the life’s work of English master upholsterer David James is no less deserving of study and respect. Standing on the shoulders of great workers provides an excellent vantage point for whatever work you are doing. Education informs smooth.
Most craft work does not depend on virtuosity as much as it does on using solid basic skills confidently. I don’t think there is much room for debate in the area of craft skill, in order to do professional level work you need a solid mastery of the tools and techniques. As a longtime tool collector, I have a great appreciation of a well-made tool, well suited to its task, and yet I firmly believe it is possible to do excellent work with average tools. The mark of a professional is to the discipline to stop in the middle of the task and sharpen or adjust the tool that is performing poorly, rather than simply press on and live with a second rate result. Of course, the tool is but an extension of the hand, and similarly, there is no substitute for the repeated practice of the often complex and unique choreography of your work, such that the muscle memory is deeply ingrained and trusted. Practice is necessary to reach a level of perfection, though it alone is not a guarantee. For me, it is really about confidence; the trust that my mind can clearly envision the finished product, and my hands can reliably deliver it, steady and sure. Craft skill enables smooth.
There is certainly such a thing as the right tool for the job, and yet my many years at the bench and at the books have taught me that there are also many ways to achieve a given result. I am fond of saying that some of my best teachers have been old chairs, because they often allow me to see how several workers approached a similar challenge. I make a firm distinction between best practices and common practices, as the ceaseless drive for low cost work has driven down quality, which is all too often justified by saying that everyone else is doing it that way. A discussion of standards is really a discussion of integrity. My approach is simple: when the piece is in my shop, under my care, I treat is as if it were my own. Ultimately, I have to be accountable to the standards I have set based on the best work ever done in my trade, not necessarily the current best. Best practices measure smooth.
I have adopted the procedure of stopping to make a digital picture or two of each step in my process, just for my own records, and in addition, I keep detailed notes and project sheets.
Professionals should be able to recreate or repair a piece without having to reinvent the entire process, and the comfort of having good records later, far outweighs the burden of making them at the time. Here is a place in which modern technology can really be an asset. I argue that knowing you will take pictures even for your own use, keeps you on the straight and narrow path of solid work habits, and simple makes corners not worth cutting. Documentation ensures smooth.
Imaging trying to explain to Thomas Chippendale that we live in world in which talented amateur workers in home shops are doing better work that paid professionals, and there exists a means by which they can share their skills with the world at the click of a button. We really can change the way the busy modern people look at the work of skilled craft workers, and really should. Smooth begins at home.