Appendix 35: Woodworking's Three-Legged Stool:-- Craftsmanship as Spirituality, Creativity, Culture

craft defined in Webster's 2d 1952

More than a Hobby, Woodworking is a "Craft" "Where, then,  does craft ... begin?" Or, why do I think my Woodworking is "Spiritual?" And is Woodworking a Form of "Creativity"?

(Aside: there is something synergic about a group of "three". Anything less than three looks incomplete. When explaining something, true, one or two points are easier to remember than three. With more than three, the account begins to lose any compelling persuasiveness it might have. Why? One, difficulty of recall looms, and thus if an explanation has any inherent beauty, that beauty fades because of weakened memory. Second, related to One, with groups of four, five, or more points, the basic impact is reduced. For me, linked together, "craftsmanship", "spirituality", and "creativity" have a compelling harmonious unity.

All images with text on this page are adapted from Webster's New International Dictionary 2d 1952.)

Woodworking is Craft, Not "Hobby"

It's inevitable, I think, that I look upon my woodworking activities as more than a "hobby"; instead I  visualize them as a "craft". The results of these activities, the furniture that comprises much of the furnishings of our home testify, for sure, that my woodworking is more than a "hobby", because of the payoff they "bestow" upon me, in the pure sense of bestow, meaning "gift".

Such a statement is, of course, personal, and sets itself up to be challenged. Its "truth" exists, more or less, in the proverbial "eyes of the beholder". However, at least for the time being, I am sticking with it.

Further, the affect that woodworking has upon my life is, I think, "spiritual", quite apart from any religious beliefs.  To prove these thoughts to myself, I looked up "craft", "spiritual" and "creativity" in one of my favorite dictionaries, Webster's 2d Edition, 1952. 

Again, "Where does craft ... begin?"

While the answer may not be as easy as it seems.... my conception of craft  consists of the spirit in which, rather than solely the means by which, a production process is carried out".

Admittedly, the context from which the gist of these quotes spring is mass production, but when I saw these thoughts, I immediately visualized how well they suited an amateur woodworker's setting.

(My wife claims that, likewise, her gardening activities are a craft and affect her spiritually.)

A further admission -- in Appendix 1, my autobiography as an amateur woodworker --where I note the concept, "woodbutcher", and admit that I am guilty as charged, that, OK, I am not a perfectionist. Instead, I am content with good, serviceable results, along the lines made famous by the English designer/woodworker, David Pye. 

What is the Workmanship of Risk and the Workmanship of Certainty?

In his book, The Nature of Art and Workmanship (not online fulltext), David Pye offers two incisive concepts: Workmanship, he says, can be divided into the "workmanship of risk" and the "workmanship of certainty". The former -- risk -- is "workmanship using any kind of technique or apparatus in which the quality of the work is not pre-determined but depends on the judgment, dexterity and care which the maker exercises as he works". In the latter -- certainty -- "the quality of the result is exactly pre-determined before a single saleable thing is made".

Also tied in with Pye's concept, workmanship of risk is the argument that "execution" is more important than "expression", where amateur woodworkers like myself "view the outcome of their labors as subordinate to the immediate pleasures that they gain from creation".

Cutting a molding with a hand chisel is risk because only the workman controls the depth and direction of the cut. Running a molding with a hand molding plane, however, increases certainty because the contoured plane iron pre-determines the shape of the cut, and the plane block prevents the iron from entering the work too deeply. Cutting a molding with a shaper cutter increases the certainty even more. So, while any preference for power tools over hand tools betrays sense of a changing risk to certainty, machinery can increase productivity by reducing the care and dexterity required to form the product. True, but -- experience proves -- even using power tools involves risk.

Lewis Mumford's famous  1951 Bampton Lectures were  published  as Art And Technics in 1952. In a chapter entitled 'From Handicraft to Machine Art," he says this about craftsmanship:

He [the craftsman] took his own time about his work, he obeyed the rhythms of his own body, resting when he was tired, reflecting and planning as he went along, lingering over the parts that interested him most, so that, though his work pro­ceeded slowly, the time that he spent on it was truly life time. The craftsman, like the artist, lived in his work, for his work, by his work; and the effect of art was merely to heighten and intensify these natural organic processes, not to serve as mere compensation or escape.

Sources: Adapted from "Chapter 2: WHAT IS CRAFT?" and "Chapter 13: Crafts Today", Scott Graham Williamson The American Craftsman 1940, pages 8-12, 177-188; Lewis Mumford, Art and Technics New York: Oxford University Press, 1952, page 62; David Pye, The Nature of Art and Workmanship (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1968), p. 7; Richard Lakes, "'Doing' Craft", Journal of Technology Education 2 Fall 1990, page 68.

And, let's not overlook the fathers of the modern concept of "craft", Arts and Crafts movement, The Craftsman, and inspired generation of amateur woodworkers, as detailed on the page, "The Morris chair as an Icon of Amateur Woodworkers"

What About the Stool's Second Leg, the "Spiritual"?

spiritual from webster's 2d 1952

Some, perhaps, greet skeptically any claim about woodworking being "spiritual". Why? Because it is a term that immediately generates images about  religion. If my claim does indeed result in a skeptical response, it's an attitude in that person that I can't control.

But like I say above -- in my  acknowledgment that, in the eyes of some, I am a woodbutcher, but continue to be a woodworker --  likewise, regardless of the attitudes of others -- I claim a spiritual outcome from my woodworking activities.

The spiritual comes into the scene quite apart from any religious beliefs.  (If I am anything "religious", the closest is secular humanist.)

On the "spiritual" I'm going to note further that, rather than expensive virgin wood, I prefer as a conservationist to use "used" wood, and to extend valuable wood by resawing it into thin slices with a bandsaw and making my own veneer.

(Or check out the Douglas fir armoire on my homepage; also the picture frames made out of weathered Douglas fir barn boards.)

Spiritual, however, in its true meaning, is more than just these two things, but expressing the true dimensions of "woodworking's spirituality", according to my notions, will take more time.

In another part of this website, I speculate a little on  whether woodworking is either 'Process' or 'Product'? To read more on the matter, click on "Skill Hunger" vs "The Joy of Accomplishment" and/or the ruminations of woodworker, Mark Duginske :

" ... [E]ach step of the building process ... is a jungle of options. ... There are few ... right answers".

Before my encounter of the Skill Hunger motive as a driver for people like myself to be driven to woodworking, I had idly speculated on this matter, "Is woodworking Process or Product?". That is, given that the motive to engage in woodworking is a combination of, on the one hand, economic need -- "you need furniture in your home, and making it yourself is the least expensive way to acquire furniture" -- and, on the other hand, creative drive -- " ?". I have a draft of these speculations but have not uploaded it yet. It needs much more thought and work.


 Source: Richard D Lakes, "Spirituality, Work and Education: The Holistic Approach", Journal of Vocational Education [dates needed]

Further, I harbor no doubts about a knowledge among others who have similar convictions  about their woodworking. For example, the image of text, below, on the left, comes from Sam Maloof's autobiography, and by reading only the yellow highlighted portions, you get a quick, but sincere claim about the "rewards" of woodworking from an American master of creating studio furniture today.

fragment on spiritual nature of woodworking from sma maloof's autobiography  

Sam Maloof: Woodworker  by Sam Maloof (Kodansha, $39.95 paperback) is well- designed, serious and sincere, much like Maloof's art. Maloof's designs, -- the look of classic Scandinavian modern -- are shaped with the human body in mind and derive their beauty from the well-polished beauty of the wood itself.


The text and images in the box below was first published in the Newsletter of the Northwest Coast Woodworkers Association, January, 2007:  

"This Tree Was Special"

The morning of Thursday, Oct 19, was a bit cloudy and wet, but that weather did not detract from the excitement of watching Stephen Intveldt saw into pieces a huge big-leaf maple log with "burl"ish features.


Steve invited four friends out to witness this event: Gene Benson, Dave Blair, Lyle Hand and myself.


steve intveldt's maple burl The log was about nine feet long, and although the log's girth was uneven, at it largest dimension, its diameter measured 36". Quite a hunk, its heft required a front-end-loader on Steve's tractor to lift and move it.


The tree itself -- its age is not known -- grew up just off Cedarville Road, near the Deming Log Show grounds. For harvesting it, Steve had a friend, help. They cut the tree up into piece ranging between six and nine feet lengths.


The log seasoned outside for about 18 months. Steve painted the butt with latex paint. While the log's moisture was not measured, Steve estimates that it was about 30%.


(Steve intends to store the boards for about 12 more months, at which time he thinks the moisture will read about 16%.)

steve intveldt burl 2

Steve's sawmill set-up -- called "Mobile Dimension" -- is powered by an industrial Volkswagen engine. The unit has three circular blades, a main vertical 30" one and two smaller, circular blades, set square to the vertical blade, to cut the edges of boards square with the larger flat sides of boards.


The large, vertical blade has only six steel teeth, but manages a uniformly, flat surface on each cut. Steve cuts boards up to 12' wide, and up to 4' thick. The sawmill's carriage is 26 feet.


steve intveldt burl 3





The log yielded about thirty boards, each dimensioned by Steve into the most advantageous size.




 steve intveldt nakashimi 4

Left to be sawn later was the log's middle, from which Steve will, Nakashimi-like, bandsaw 3 slabs, for coffee tables, etc., each 4 inches thick by  approximately thirty-six inches wide  by nine feet lengths.


steve intveldt burl 5 The most fun! Waiting as each board come off the carriage, to see what surprise there would be in grain configuration. 


Experience, Steve notes, shows that a log's best wood comes from the middle. In cutting this log up, the more figured grain was nearer the surface. Boards from the log's interior were pretty straight grained. 


As someone has claimed, "Trees are nature's cathedrals, places for worship of natural beauty!. In their natural state, however, while definitely "cathedral-like," trees are open to life, and death, and in "death" reemerge in some other form, perhaps equally beautiful.


In another sense, though, that same tree, discreetly drawn and quartered, can perpetuate forever its original beauty, i.e., its interior grain figuration on display as a dovetailed box, a turned bowl, or perhaps a coffee table, with an exquisitely formed top of book-matched veneers. This way, the tree doesn't "die"; instead it spirit lives on in perpetuity.


It is the latter that we witnessed on that damp, October morning. For all of us, it was one of life's special days.

Is Woodworking Compatible With the Notion of "Creativity"? Or, Will Creativity Stand Up as My Stool's "Third Leg"?

creativity from webster's 2d 1952

Just as I asked -- rhetorically -- above, "Where does craft ... begin?", I ask  here, "Is woodworking a creative activity?" The answer is obvious, of course, even though some of us must wrestle with the knowledge that -- in the eyes of some, like editors of woodworking periodicals -- the results of our woodworking efforts are in the area of "wood butchery".

While the answer may not be as easy as it seems.... my conception of craft  consists of the spirit in which, rather than solely the means by which, a production process is carried out".

Creativity is what happens when people are liberated from the constraints of conventionality.

Source: Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soul Craft New York: Penguin, 2009, page 51

Creativity, anywhere, is often merely a matter of  mixing two unrelated things into something entirely new . And, in most cases, the combination, the "whole", is greater than the sum of the parts.

Creative Innovation in Woodworking is "Bottom-Up"

One of the things about the history of the amateur woodworking movement that I can "make a big deal about" is that, for the most part, innovation in woodworking is a "bottom-up" -- rather than top down -- enterprise.

Here, for the most part, I have in mind the truth that most of the multitude of "jigs" that lard up today's  woodworker's tool catalogs are the commodification of labor-saving devices devised on shop floors by woodworkers to save time, make operations safer, and so forth. For perhaps the best  example of my claim, click on the link and look at the history of the Biesemeyer fence. (For those not part of woodworking's cognoscenti, the Biesemeyer fence is the main stay of high end table saws, such as the Delta Unisaw, Powermatic 66, much treasured by amateur woodworkers able to afford the $2000 plus price tag.)

Recreation and Aesthetic Values: Aesthetics is concerned with the nature and quality of beauty in man's life.

According to the text in the box directly below,

"Only in modern times has there been the thought that in the pursuit of happiness all men equally might share in the deep pleasures and satisfactions of aesthetic experiences."

In Bygone Eras, Was "Aesthetics" Only for the Select Few?

By select "select few", few we mean those who "understood" the arts -- perhaps because of an education that refined their "taste", or, who could afford to be the patrons of the talented few artists -- including fine cabinetmakers and other similar accomplished craftsmen?

Of course, a concept which equated aesthetics with the so-called "fine arts" is too narrow. Why? In the creativity of the craftsman or the folk group, even if it is considered simple, rustic, or crude, if it can be visualized as "authentic", one can find simple "beauty". Aesthetics, then, according to "taste", concerns matters associated with the nature and quality of "beauty" in anyone's life.

"Much of Recreation is a Search for Beauty, the Creative Use of Oneself and Working Materials, or the Pleasure of Contemplating the Results of Creative Activities by Others"


Norman P. Miller    Duane M. Robinson
University of California
Los Angeles    George Williams College
Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company, Inc., 1963

From pages 13-14:


Only in modern times has there been the thought that in the pursuit of happiness all men equally might share in the deep pleasures and satisfactions of aesthetic experiences. Aesthetics in earlier days was for the select few who perhaps "understood" the arts, and who could afford to be their patrons. Of course, a concept of aesthetics which equated it with the fine arts would be too narrow, for in much of nature, in the simple creativity of the craftsman or the folk group, or in many forms of human relations at their finest, one finds beauty. Aesthetics is concerned with the nature and quality of beauty in man's life.

Much of recreation is a search for beauty, the creative use of oneself and working materials, or the pleasure of contemplating the results of creative activities by others. Joseph Lee is credited with stating, among the Nineteen Recreation Principles, the following:

"Every man should be helped to learn how to make something of beauty in line, form, color, sound, or graceful use of his own body. At least he should find pleasure in what others do in painting, woodworking , sculpture, photography, if he cannot himself use these forms of expression." *

These forms of creative artistic expression, along with reading, music, social relationships, and many others, constitute a source of profound satisfaction for almost all persons, although within a wide range of variability. They meet what apparently are deeply seated needs of the human being. The pursuit of happiness must be understood as the pursuit of beauty in as many aspects of life as possible, in elegant mathematical solutions as well as in the arts, in contemplation, in play, and so on. Thus aesthetics is concerned with the nature of all human existence, with the infusion of beauty into every phase of life.

Recreation, more than most of man's daily activities, is immediately directed toward pleasurable feeling, happiness, joy of living. One may view leisure time as the major opportunity and recreation as the major means that most men possess to express themselves creatively, to exercise artistic skills and pursue cultural interests as they please. Such a view assumes that aesthetic values are the prime objectives of life itself. Mechanical and automated aspects of life frustrate many men's sharing of these values and deny to many persons the opportunity to develop the skills to implement adequately their creative interests. One may judge the level of civilization by the criterion, among others, of the opportunity afforded all groups and individuals in the population to enjoy aesthetic pleasures -- and by the use these individuals make of this opportunity. In our own country we must view very critically our resources for creative recreation when we contrast them with the influences that debase or vulgarize the tastes of the people. Recreational and cultural workers, on aesthetic grounds, must strive to increase the opportunity for all members of our society to enjoy a rich cultural life.

* Joseph Lee, Nineteen Recreation Principles, The National Recreation Association, New York (published in several different forms during recent years.

OK! I plead guilty. The sentiment expressed in the text in the boxed area above  is "over the top"! Especially the highlighted text, but it helps make the point that, inherently, we all have impulses toward creativity, and -- when we are fortunate enough --  we can perhaps use the outlet of woodworking to express these drives. 

The Cultural Value of Woodworking

(The discussion below succinctly captures some of my personal opinions about an alleged cultural value woodworking. Much of the gist below is influenced by her discussion in Chapter 3 Mary Ann Stankiwicz's The Roots of Art Education Practice; however, I discuss these matters more fully in the chapters 1 through 5 on education, still in progress.)

In the 1880s, educators who supported manual training had the conviction that it was neither "trade training" nor preparation for particular forms of work. Instead, they argued, students would develop hand and eye coordination by learning to use tools for working with wood and metal. Theses skills gained through manual training, moreover, would be beneficial for all students, regardles of their vocational interests .

As America progressed into the 20th century, especially into the 1920s and early 1930s, many of these same educators -- under the influence of theorists such as John Dewey -- came to see manual training, and for that matter, all public schooling, as preparation for work.

And of course while the views about the purpose of education were changing, this change was driven by how the evolving nature of work in America's industries. With the emergence of the new technology, especially the assembly line methods of production, workers no longer needed the of knowledge and skills that might be developed through either an apprenticeship system or any manual training programs.

Instead of hand and eye coordination and qualities such as self-direction -- claims made by advocates of manual training from Calvin Woodward and John Runkle in the 1880s through Charles Richards and Charles Alpheus Bennett in the 1900s to R W Selvidge and Emanuel Ericson the 1920s -- the kinds of "skills" industrial workers needed were an ability to follow orders and to perform simple, repetitive tasks. Thus educators, as well as businessmen, criticized manual training, not because it was vocational preparation, but because it was an anachronistic, outmoded form of vocational training in an industrial age

With such sentiments in the air, we can understand more easily the intentions expressed below about the true meaning of woodworking by two industrial arts educators, Joseph A. Shelley and Richard M Van Gaasbeek.

Woodworking in all its branches is essentially creative. It teaches art through design, and permits the individual to display his information and abilities in a concrete manner.

Source: Joseph A. Shelley, "Some Observations on  the Cultural Value of Woodworking", Industrial Arts Magazine 13 October 1924, page 374

Woodworking is an art. The woodworker who has learned his trade well, is familiar with the underlying fundamental principles and has the skill to apply them to a practical and useful purpose, is an artist.

Source: Richard M Van Gaasbeek, "The Cultural Value of Woodworking", Industrial Arts Magazine 15 1926, page 3.


Harvey Green's Wood: Craft, Culture, History is the first book in my experience that looks at the "culture of wood", or maybe it's "the woodworking culture". Whatever, upon spying it, I realized a heretofore unrecognized truth about amateur woodworking: amateur woodworking is a "culture", similar to a "participatory" sport, like golf or tennis or racquetball, but -- at least in my experience -- has not gotten such recognition. Why? This neglect of observation is obvious, in my view, though, for the following reason: Woodworking is an activity engaged in by "insiders", who are not taken to introspection about their activities, while "outsiders" who may be looking in -- and possess the analytical skills needed to expose woodworking as a culture -- fail to understand the chemistry involved.

Sources: Harvey Green,Wood: Craft, Culture, History. New York: Penguin, 2006. Green is a professor of history at Northeastern University. An academic book that includes sections on woodworking, and written by someone who betrays himself as an outsider is Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.