Document 8: On Skill-Hunger, or "How the Hammer, Saw and Try-Square Can Satisfy ... " 1946

NYT Oct 1931

Click here to go directly to the "skill hunger" document reprinted below.

Answering the Question, "What is Skill Hunger?"

From Popular Science Publishing, How to get the most out of your home workshop; all the home craftsman needs to know about the use of hand and power tools in his own home.

Published in 1946, this book's preface observes, "How the Hammer, Saw and Try-Square Can Satisfy". More significant, though, at least for me, is the introduction of the phrase, "Skill Hunger". After quite a bit of investigating, I conclude that the "coining" of the phase " Skill Hunger" is the responsibility of the English theologian, Lawrence Pearsall Jacks.

Lawrence Pearsall Jacks is what we typically call a "colorful character", because -- in a full lifetime -- he engaged in numerous pursuits, all of which captured public attention. He spent his life in both Britain and America.

Born in 1860 in the famous British city, Nottingham, Jacks endures a childhood of poverty before he begins working as a teacher. Both a storyteller and a religion writer -- who begins writing in his late forties -- Jacks eventually is drawn to Unitarian theology. He studies theology first at Manchester's New College, graduating in 1886, but later receives a scholarship to study at Harvard University. At Harvard he acquires a reputation as a compelling public speaker.

Upon returning to Britian, where he serves as a pastor at Unitarian churches in Liverpool and Birmingham, he founds and edits the Hibbert Journal .

He eventually returns to his alma mater, now named Manchester College, where he teaches philosophy from 1903 to 1915. In 1915, he becomes principal of the school, a post he holds until 1931, when he retires from academia. He continues to edit the Hibbert Journal for another sixteen years.

Throughout an active life he publishes numerous books, on a wide range of topics. Among his many 1930s publications, Jacks continues to rail against what he perceives to be the dehumanizing nature of industrialized life. In the 1933 Hibbert Lecture, published as Revolt against Mechanism, for example, Jacks decries mechanized life as stifling, declaring that humanity should appropriate machinery to promote spirituality and creativity. (The link above is to a limited access to the book's contents through Google Print.)

Jacks writes several articles -- indexed in the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature -- on Unemployment and Leisure: "Today's Unemployment and Tomorrow's Leisure", Recreation 25 (December 1931) pages 478-82+'; "Outwitting the machine", The Survey 67 October 15, 1931), pages 74-75; and "Leisure time, a Modern Challenge", Playground and Recreation 24 December 1930, pages 475-47.

In the box below is one example of Jacks' use of "Skill Hunger"

... Man is a skill-hungry animal, hungry for skill in his body, hungry for skill in his mind, and never satisfied until that skill-hunger is appeased. What a discontented miserable animal man is until he gets satisfaction for this skill-hunger that is in him! Self-activity in skill and creation is the summary function of human nature from childhood on.

This conception of man is not new. It was announced by the philosopher, Aristotle. The revival of it in modern times marks a profoundly significant advance in the right understanding of ourselves, of our children, and of our neighbors. Unless I am mistaken, the civilization of the future will be founded on it. ...

Source: Lawrence Pearsall Jacks, Education Through Recreation. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1932,  pages  41-42.

Another occurrence of the term, Skill Hunger, is a 1932 booklet, with the title, Adolescent Skill Hunger, by T. Wingate Todd, of the Brush Foundation. The booklet discusses what seems to be 1930s theory of adolescent psychological development, including cognitive development. Evidently the author seeks to integrate the term "skill hunger" into his discussion of adolescent cognitive psychology of the era, a meaning definitely not related to amateur woodworking.

[see also 1931 editorial in NYT, still on opd - 3-4-07]

Early in the 1940s, and completely unrelated, Scott Graham Williamson asks, rhetorically,


WHERE does craft production stop and industrial production begin? The answer is not so easy as it seems. In the spirit of this book we are not going to look upon craft in any narrow sense limiting it rigidly to hand production, or even to production of an entire object, or even production wholly controlled by the workman. Such terms characterized the worthwhile, yet relatively futile, "arts and crafts" movement launched by William Morris in England during the 19th century. We shall take the bull by the horns and run the full risks of controversy in our conception of craft as consisting of the spirit in which, rather than solely the means by which, a production process is carried out. This would appear to be the only conception of craft and craftsmanship which can hope to take root in this technologically advanced age. Certainly we cannot promulgate theories concerning the social and individual desirabilities of craftsmanship if such theories, fully realized, would imply the rejection, to a large degree, of the advantages and progressive aspects of industrialism. A return to the horse-and-buggy would be no more desirable in production than in politics.

Complex an adjustment as it may seem to be, people today are nonetheless eager for an understanding of the possible role of craft in modern life. We, in America, have suddenly waked up to the richness of our background. We have become "craft conscious." Interest has revived in the whole conception of "craftsmanship". A score of advertising media are instinctively, yet blindly, trying to persuade us that craft flourishes now, in the midst of industrial life.

Large automobile companies, in elaborate advertisements, present their skilled mechanics as "craftsmen," making a title of the term. A certain absurdity, yet almost a pathetic intensity, of this tendency is revealed in the yearning for the myth of individual handicraft betrayed by such phrases as "Tomato Soup .. . . by Campbell." General Motors still clings to the lost carriage maker in the insignia and motto, "Body by Fisher." Personal names for mass products are at a premium. There is commercial value in "Fanny Farmer" candies, or "Mrs. Wagner's Pies." A sense of the public psychology is revealed in these oblique apologies by manufacturers for the industrial standardization of their products. This is not to imply that there are not many commodities which industry produces with better results than could the individual. But it's worth noting that when the sewing machine was first invented especially high prices were charged for clothing made on it. "Untouched by human hands" was once the miraculous advertising appeal for other milled or machined commodities. Yet today, the label "hand made" is worth an illogical amount in the retail value of many products.

Source: Adapted from "Chapter 2: WHAT IS CRAFT?" and "Chapter 13: Crafts Today", Scott Graham Williamson The American Craftsman 1940, pages 8-12, 177-188.

(Again, while no direct relation exists between the Williamson quote above and the theme here, "Skill Hunger", there is -- definitely an implicit one -- because of the linkage between "craft", "creativity", and "spirituality", points that I explore here.)


Later in the 1940s, Stanley tools came out with a similar sounding book, The Joy of Accomplishment.

In 1951, the noted technical writer, Henry Lionel Williams, published How to Make Your Own Furniture. In the front matter of his book, among other things, Williams declares,

There are few occupations for pleasure or profit, as satisfying as working in wood. And this satisfaction is nowhere more fully realized than in shaping wood into things of beauty and utility that add charm and comfort to the home.

The material itself is pleasant to handle and easy to work; it is clean and tractable, and almost anyone with the slightest mechanical aptitude can acquire, without too much difficulty, the necessary skill. Such is the appeal of cabinet making, and the reason why so many take to furniture construction as a hobby or even turn it into a business.

It is unfortunate that many amateur cabinetmakers, in their haste to finish jobs they have started, lose sight of the basic essentials of good workmanship—patience and care. They need to learn that the fullest satisfaction comes only to the conscientious craftsman to whom good workmanship is a prime essential. To the amateur who make that his ideal the rest will be easy. The beginner does not need skill so much as a capacity for taking pains. If he learns to exercise care, skill will come soon enough.

Equally important is a capacity to appreciate good design. After he has examined and studied and made himself familiar with really good furni-ture, the serious craftsman is seldom interested in the simple knick-knacks or the ugly and rubbishy gewgaws that tempt so many enthusiastic but mis-guided and impatient beginners. The serious worker knows that these elementary exercises are a waste of time that could better be devoted to producing furniture pieces that are not only useful but well-designed and in good taste.

The beginner needs to realize that the difference between an amateur-looking and a professional job, though important, is very small. Often it is merely a matter of a piece of moulding or a corner brace, or a little extra sanding of the end grain.



Part of my quest for background material on this online history of the amateur woodworking movement is a page-by-page survey of all (I hope, at least) periodicals that dedicated substantial portions of their pages to woodworking. My first example of a foray into woodworking periodicals is the Home Craftsman. Published between 1931 and 1965, with the accomplished editor and author of woodworking, Harry Hobbs,  at the helm, HC was in its own right periodical of considerable impact. 

Starting out as periodical to promote Walker-Turner power woodworking tools marketed to the homeshop, HC's ownership was later evidently acquired by Hobbs and others, and quickly turned into a six-times a year magazine with quite a following -- in the 1950s it boasted over 200,000 subscribers -- and which featured articles by such lights as Lester Margon, the distinguished illustrator of museum pieces of classic American, Canadian, and British antiques for amateur woodworkers to reproduce and -- for its survival -- an increasing number of manufacturers advertising a wide variety woodworking tools. 

In the letters from readers -- very often proudly noting their capability of reproducing Margon projects -- one definitely gets the feeling that "skill hunger" ranges widely through the male population. [Later I hope to upload examples of these letters from HC readers.]&

"Skill Hunger" vs "The Joy of Accomplishment" Or, Is Woodworking: 'Process' or 'Product'?

Going Beyond the Information Given

In my almost four decades of professional life, as academic reference librarian and history professor, I had many occasions a need to refer to the work of psychologists, especially the cognitive psychologist, Jerome Bruner and the Cambridge University psychologist, Sir Frederic Bartlett. Two chapters by Bruner, in particular, have touched me: "The Conditons of Creativity" and "Going Beyond the Information Given", both appear in Beyond the Information Given: Studies in the Psychology of Knowing, and the paper, "Frames of Thinking: Ways of Making Meaning", published in David R Olson and Nancy Torrance, eds, Modes of Thought: Explorations in Culture and Cognition, 1996

Bartlett's books, Remembering, 1932, and Thinking, 1951, are seminal works in psychology, but like many other great works, other writers, using a different lens, have enlarged the scope of the coverage Bartlett originally intended.

(Woodworkers reading this material -- but not familiar with the underlying psychology -- will undoubtedly claim that making these connections is a "stretch", and perhaps even question the appropriateness of the discussion. For the time being, I ask only for patience. I will, nonetheless, I am convinced, be able to make the point, i.e., that woodworking is a creative act.)

Perhaps skeptics will find solace to my peregrinations -- definitely in the figurative sense -- by following this link to the piece I posted, by Mark Dugisnke, ruminating about 'working system" in woodworking. in particular where Duginske touches on "ideas and concepts are seeds".)

Below, reprinted in Verdana italic font is an example. The source of this evidence is Nancy Nelson's Chapter 16: "Discourse Synthesis: The Process and the Product," pp. 383-384, of Discourse Synthesis: Studies in Historical and Contemporary Social Epistemology, edited by Raymond G. McInnis. Below, as you read Nancy's discussion, please substitute "woodworking" for "discourse synthesis".

Does my analogy work? Only time will tell. It works fine for me, but I intuitively know that woodworking is filled with "realists", Further, inspite of my knowledge that this analogy will be confronted by skepticism, from more than just woodworkers, for my own reasons, I'm leaving this material as it is, in flux, because I need to think about it more myself.


... Another distinction that discourse synthesis challenges is that between originating and deriving. To originate is to create, to bring into existence, to be the first to do or say something, whereas to derive is to draw or receive material from a source (one of the definitions that my dictionary provides for derivative is “not original”). With respect to this binary pair, discourse synthesis is both–and, instead of either/or. It can be simultaneously derivative and original. Often the originality, or creativity, of scholars comes through their ability to see and to point out relations between two or more sources or bodies of “received” work. Their originality comes, not through coming up with something “new” (as if that were really possible), isolated from prior work, but through originating links and communicating the synthesis persuasively to their readers. It seems that the perception of originality can often depend on how claims are presented rhetorically—the extent to which a person claims authority himself or herself rather than deferring to others.

The originality–derivity issue has been discussed by Frederic Bartlett, whom I would describe as original (and derivative) with his book Remembering published in 1932. Through that work he brought cultural issues, particularly conventionalization, to the level of the individual and to the concerns of psychology. His studies and theoretical explanations dealt with the problem of how individuals remember cultural artifacts, including texts, that come from a culture other than their own. In writing that book, he used, along with other sources, some writings of his Cambridge University colleagues in anthropology and borrowed a theoretical explanation from a colleague in physiology.

Later in 1958 in another book, Thinking, Bartlett he provided an account of some aspects of his own synthesis process in writing Remembering. After describing his reading and writing, he suggested that what is considered originality is many times a kind of synthesis: “Perhaps all original ideas come from contact of subject matter with different subject matter, of people with different people” (Bartlett 1958, 147). With respect to originality in psychology, his own discipline, he speculated: “The most important of all conditions of originality in experimental thinking is a capacity to detect overlap and agreement between groups of facts and fields of study which have not been effectively combined, and to bring these groups into experimental contact” (p. 161). In my opinion, Bartlett himself had created that kind of synthesis with his book Remembering, bringing into experimental psychology some material and concepts from diverse perspectives and disciplines....


Likewise, because they tangentially touch on woodworking, the philosophical speculations of the Hungarian-born physicist, Michael Polanyi, especially as articulated in his 1958, Personal Knowledge, have long been of interest to me.

Among other topics, these and other writings focus on the psychological drive that urges us, as humans, to create. "Skill Hunger", as articulated in the piece below, is in my view a crude attempt to address the creative passions that woodworking excites. Notice that Chapter 15 is entitled "Creativity and Woodworking: Is Woodworking 'Process' or 'Product'?" If everything works out, I will be discussing these matters more fully in Chapter 15.

In considering issues about creativity, passions, and woodworking mentioned above, for me many questions remain unanswered, perhaps even "unasked". Regardless, just considering them, deliberating about them, is one of my "passions", so I intend to address these matters more fully later.

Significance of Nonverbal Thought

Today our scientific age too readily dismisses any thinking other than scientific. We assume that whatever knowledge and skills that we incorporate into the artifacts of technology we must derive from science, especially mathematics. For some -- like the historian of technology, Eugene S Ferguson, page 827 -- such assumptions are "a bit of modern folklore that ignores the many nonscientific decisions, both large and small, made by technologists as they design the world we inhabit". Many objects of daily use, Ferguson continues,

have clearly been influenced by science, but their form and function, their dimensions and appearance, were determined by technologists — craftsmen, designers, inventors, and engineers — using nonscientific modes of thought. Carving knives, comfortable chairs, lighting fixtures, and motorcycles are as they are because over the years their designers and makers have established shape, style, and texture.

For evidence Ferguson points to Pierre Duhem (1861-1916), the French physicist and historian of science. When writing a chapter on "Abstract Theories and Mechanical Models" in his famous 1906 book, The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory. (This book's first edition is dated 1906, and its chapters print articles published in 1904 and 1905 in the French Revue de Philosophie.) For Duhem, at the time, there is a sharp difference in thinking style between French and English scientists. Duhem's claims go like this: The French are at home with abstract concepts, while the British seem unable "to cut through a welter of concrete facts and state general principles". Instead, to aid their reasoning, British minds require mechanical models. Lord Kelvin, for example, thinks that the test of understanding of a particular subject in physics is "Can we make a mechanical model of it?" In his explantion of electromagnetic theory, says Duhm, Oliver Lodge has so many strings, pulleys, gears, and pipes in his explanatory models that instead of a tranquil and neatly ordered abode of reason, we "find ourselves in a factory"

Source: Pierre Duhem, The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory New York: Atheneum, 1962, pages 64, 70, and 71.

For Ferguson, to understand the development of Western technology, we must appreciate an important, if unnoticed, mode of thought: nonverbal thinking. By and large, he argues, nonverbal thinking has fixed the outlines and filled in the details of our material surroundings. What causes him to make this claim? "In their innumerable choices and decisions, technologists have determined the kind of world we live in, in a physical sense".It is not because of geometry, theory of structures, or thermodynamics, that structures as pyramids, cathedrals, handplanes and fretsaws, tablesaws and planers, exist but because, first, they are an image — literally a vision — in the mind of the person who visualized and built them. In his 1964 book, The Nature of Design (Reinhold, New York, 1964), page 72, David Pye notes the dependence of theory on empirical design. "If there had been no inventions", he states, "there would be no theory of mechanics. Invention comes first."

Influential, Widely-Cited Article

Ferguson's influential, widely-cited 1977 article in Science article and the later 1992 book -- Engineering and the Mind's Eye -- is his attempt toward clarifying both the nature and the significance of nonverbal thought. Of most interest for those of use fascinated in the history of woodworking in its broadest dimension, Ferguson is one of several scholars who trace the development of nonverbal thought as practiced by designers, builders and other technologists from before the Renaissance. Others we can name with similar or closely related concerns are the physicist Michael Polanyi, cabinetmakers George Sturt, Walter Rose, David Pye, and motorcycle mechanic Matthew Crawford, who speak of about such things as "thinking with your hands”, in truth, merely variations of nonverbal thinking or tacit knowledge. In cabinet-making, internally-held competence is required if the worker is expected to have the ability to visualize the relation between “parts” and “whole” in both time and space. It is through such visualization that the ordered spatial relationship between parts and whole inherent in an item of furniture is visualized. Today, we know these truths from the results of thinking by theorists like Polanyi, Ferguson, and studies by cognitive scientists who have operationalized these ideas.

To illustrate these claims, we can point to the many drawings and images that either simply record or -- better -- stimulate further technological developments. By reviewing the graphic inventions of woodworking, and when possible, including numerous images, show compelling evidence for any claims about the credibility of nonverbal thinking is a powerful driver for inspiration.

Popular Science Publishing:"How the Hammer, Saw and Try-Square Can Satisfy: The Urge to Make Things" 1946


EVERY one of us is descended from a line of ancestors who, for thousands of centuries, used brain and muscle to work out new ideas and to turn them into actualities by the labor of the hands.

We have, in short, an inborn skill hunger, a deep-rooted desire to work out new ideas, as our ancestors did, and to convert these ideas into physical being with our own hands.

Modern civilization has made it difficult for many of us to satisfy our inherited skill hunger to a normal extent. Mass production, de¬sirable because it makes it possible for each of us to live better than the kings of old, unfortunately does not satisfy our skill hunger.

Compare, for example, the process of getting meat for dinner as practiced by our ancestors and as we practice it. Our ancestor pitted his skill in woodcraft against the keen protective senses of wild ani¬mals, and he got a real thrill out of the triumph that brought the animals to pot. We, on the other hand, get our dinners because we stand in front of machines and go through the same motions all day long or sit at desks and add up endless columns of figures.

These jobs have to be done right, of course, but relatively few of them require maximum mental exertion or any considerable amount of initiative. To be sure, some of our skill hunger may be employed in fitting ourselves for better jobs, but even that cannot completely satisfy the urge.

How, then, is it to be done? Considering the limitations imposed by modern civilization, how are we going to satisfy our inborn desire to develop ideas and turn them into something useful?

This growing desire to satisfy skill hunger undoubtedly is the basic reason for the perfectly astounding increase in interest people are taking in all forms of hobbies that revolve around the use of various kinds of tools in the home workshop. If you build a model coach, for instance, you satisfy your skill hunger just as thoroughly as did the old-time coach maker who built the coach you are modeling. If you make a fine piece of furniture or a simple workbench, you can revel in the perfection of detail after detail, in a completely satisfying way.

Do you, at the end of the day, feel a sort of vague, unsatisfied feeling lurking around in the shadows of your brain? It may be skill hunger and if it is, see what happens to it after a session with the hammer, saw and try-square!


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