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A Craftsman’s Legacy
Why Working with Our Hands Gives Us Meaning
By Eric Gorges
By Jon Sternfeld
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- Hardcover $24.95 $30.95 CAD
- ebook $12.99 $16.99 CAD
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around May 7, 2019. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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"Despite our technological advances, we’re busier than ever, our lives more frazzled. That’s why the handmade object, created with care and detail, embodying a history and a tradition, is enormously powerful. It can cut through so much and speak in ways that we don’t often hear, or that we’ve forgotten." —Eric Gorges, from A Craftsman’s Legacy
In this joyful celebration of skilled craftsmen, Eric Gorges, a corporate-refugee-turned-metal-shaper, taps into a growing hunger to get back to what’s real. Through visits with fellow artisans—calligraphers, potters, stone carvers, glassblowers, engravers, woodworkers, and more—many of whom he’s profiled for his popular television program, Gorges identifies values that are useful for all of us: taking time to slow down and enjoy the process, embracing failure, knowing when to stop and when to push through, and accepting that perfection is an illusion. Most of all, A Craftsman’s Legacy shows how all of us can embrace a more creative and authentic life and learn to focus on doing what we love.
INTRODUCTION: FROM OUR HANDS
We find only one tool, neither created nor invented, but perfect: the hand of man. —julio ramón ribeyro
I build custom motorcycles for a living, so as a craftsman, I work with a variety of materials, tools, and machines. But my primary tools will always be my hands. And, to be honest, mine have been through the grinder.
Any dreams of becoming a famous hand model have burned to the ground. My thumb is currently an alarming shade of black—smashed from having two pounds of metal dead dropped on it. My hands bleed all the time, their skin is rough and cracked like a dirt road, and there's a gnarly scar across my right index knuckle. I have scars on my hands that go back years, injuries whose sources have been lost to my memory.
I think of them all as badges of honor. My hands are beat up from use. Hands tell a story, so it seems fitting then that when we greet someone, we shake hands. It's personal and intimate; it allows us to identify ourselves to each other and exchange information. For craftsmen, especially, our hands are often the extension of our desires and our vision. They are how we create, repair, and make an impact on the world.
It's why the idea of something being handmade is special. As mass production makes everything transitional and disposable, the personal object becomes even more valuable. I think about my grandparents going to buy furniture seventy years ago. Back then, it would have been a big decision, an event. They would have likely bought one piece of furniture at a time—a table, a dresser, a sofa—and that piece would be built to last, maybe for fifty years. They assumed their grandchildren would sit on that sofa one day. Nowadays, because of the convenience, we're often buying things from a picture on the Internet. Our connection to the object is virtual, really an illusion. I believe we need to be able to touch something to truly know it. Ordinarily, the first thing I like to do before I buy furniture is the shake test; it's an automatic thing, literally shaking the object. I get a look at the piece, a feel of the joinery, a sense of how it is all assembled. I want to know if it'll last or if I'm going to be back in the store next year.
Some months back I found myself on a Saturday afternoon staring at a few boxes. My girlfriend and I had recently broken up, and I had moved out and needed furniture. I work with my hands for a living, and I produce and host a show about the value of working with your hands, where I meet other people who work with their hands, but time and money were tight. So I did what most people do: I logged on to my computer and picked out a new couch online. Though I'd eventually want furniture that would last, I needed something right away that would fit my current life situation. I had a short timeline and nowhere to sit.
A few days later, three different boxes showed up at my front door. I was looking at them with my daughter, trying to figure out what was in there. Was this my sofa? Split into three boxes? In one box was the couch's bottom. We unzipped it to find all the cushions packed inside, and then the other pieces, which were to be bolted together. That couch served a purpose, but it was never going to last long enough to be passed down to my daughter.
In the twenty-first century, we've become passive figures in the larger churning machine, further removed from how things are made, how they work, the people who made them, and how the dots all connect. As we've become distant from the rest of the world we have become more and more distant from each other. In some ways, we've become distant from ourselves. That's why I'm on a mission to celebrate craftsmanship.
This book features craftsmen, their work, and their way of life. Craftsmen were once the backbone of our country, but they have been pushed to the margins. Just like the things they make, however, they are resilient. On A Craftsman's Legacy, craftsmen invite me into their homes and shops, and I try what they do myself, right there in front of the camera.
It's been wonderful to see the recent resurgence of handmade items, and I'm optimistic that will continue to expand the appreciation of and interest in craftsmanship. But we can all learn and be inspired through the spirit of craftsmen and their work, whether or not we make things ourselves. The lessons discussed here are universal. Maybe an understanding of the craftsman's ethic can help someone feel more grounded in their own life or bring the wisdom of the natural and mechanical worlds back into our homes, offices, and day-to-day existences.
In my estimation, craftsmen are heroic to me, and I'm trying to do the little bit I can to shine the light back on them.
1: THE BATTLE FOR PERFECTION
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. —aristotle
The first ten thousand pots are difficult. Then it gets a little bit easier. —warren mackenzie, potter
Every time you get in the saddle, you are up against the impossible. No matter your years of experience or level of expertise, this is an immutable truth. There's probably nothing more necessary in craftsmanship than accepting this fact. In the introduction to every episode of A Craftsman's Legacy I say that the craftsman "battles" for perfection. I use that word consciously because it is a battle; it's a messy and valiant struggle that each one of us is bound to lose.
In accepting imperfection I am in good company, joining a long tradition that is practiced in cultures around the world. A Japanese aesthetic called wabi-sabi embraces the imperfect, and in Zen Buddhist tea ceremonies, the pots and cups have intentional irregularities in them. Orthodox Jews insist on putting a flaw in every house they construct as a reminder of their lost holy temple. The Navajo traditionally insert mistakes in their rugs because that's where "the soul moves in and out of the rug." Islamic culture does the same thing with Persian rugs, as a testament to the fact that only God can make perfection.
Human beings simply cannot create perfection with our hands. We can make things eye-perfect, but measurements will never lie. An object made by hand will have that human stamp on it. That's what gives a piece its soul. Rather than turn away from this reality, various cultures have decided to lean in to this fact.
None of this means I have thrown in the towel. I still chase perfection in my work every day, trying to get as close as I can. But my history is littered with countless items I've destroyed in a vain effort to make them flawless. In my office at Voodoo Choppers, my motorcycle shop, I still have the first ever motorcycle fuel tank I made—or rather, tried to make. I spent so much time finishing the side in an effort to get it exactly right that I chewed right through the metal.
All of that extra effort was ignoring the obvious: It was never good enough to begin with. I thought if I pushed enough through failure I'd come out the other end with a fuel tank. What I ended up with was a hole. So I enlarged the gap and shaped it into an oval, and today it sits in my office holding brochures. It's a good reminder of the impossibility of perfection.
I was younger then and didn't yet know what I know now: To win the war you have to accept loss in the battle. At some point you stop learning from a piece and are just going through the motions. The trick is in knowing when it's time to walk away from it. At first it's hard to get there because you have to overcome your pride. But with age and experience, we start to let go of those unattainable visions for our work—and for ourselves.
It's a tension all craftsmen deal with. Like knife maker Tim Zowada said to me, "I haven't made a perfect one yet." That yet sums up the contradiction. He knows he can't—but he's still holding on to an inkling of hope. It's the chase that motivates us, though I don't think anyone thinks they're going to catch that car.
Craftsmen live and work at the mercy of these contradicting ideas—serving the past and future, possessing confidence and humility, honoring the simple and the complex, having control and submitting to the mystery. It's the raw heaviness of work, like wailing on metal with hammers and stoking coal into the fire. It's churning machines and noise and sparks. But it's also inches and details. It's dexterity and delicacy. It's persistence, working your tail off on something day and night and then just . . . letting it be.
"You've got to start losing interest in a piece as soon as it's done," wood turner Alan Hollar told me. "You've got to have more interest in the one you're going to do than in the one you just did. Or you just stay in the same place all the time." That commitment to forward progression—to the next piece—is the kind of wisdom that comes from years in the saddle. You're fighting against the constraints of time, life, business—and you're never going to win. You're not meant to. That's frustrating, but it's also beautiful. The struggle keeps you growing. It gives us all a little kick, an extra engine. That's something we can all use to become our best selves. That's why I keep up the fight.
It is my charge to always improve upon it into the future. —jake weidmann, master penman
Jake Weidmann is one of only of twelve people in the world—and the youngest in history—with his title: master penman. It's a royal-sounding title, and he's got the proof, which, of course, he designed himself. The final test for his calligraphy training was to make his own certificate, which is a document of incomparable beauty.
As a boy Jake was inspired by his mother's gorgeous script. Once he learned cursive, he began to dazzle his teachers with his artistic and fluid writing. Art seemed to naturally spring from his hands, and people noticed. Professors in school would ask to keep his assignments, even his class notes, because of the care and beauty of his penmanship. It would be like listening to a tape of John Coltrane playing scales or tasting a casual lunch that Julia Child made for herself.
Jake practices calligraphy, the decorative handwriting style with a long tradition, but he also draws, paints, and carves wood, including making his own tools. The designing came out of necessity. He couldn't find a pen that worked the way he needed it to—the way he envisioned it should—so he created his own. This led to a series of exquisite pens that Jake designed, out of wood, animal bone, and stone. The calligraphy pen has to capture the complicated inner mind of the artist, so according to Jake, "it should be a tool worthy of the task."
I had been hearing about Jake's work for a while and knew I wanted to book him on A Craftsman's Legacy. He's a spiritual guy, a romantic at heart, who lives near the Colorado Rocky Mountains, which no photograph has ever done justice.
Jake has a singular way of carrying himself, and he speaks in this careful way that echoes his writing. It's a hyperarticulate and elevated manner of talking that reminded me of a poet or a knight, like a man from another time.
I don't know if he's like this because of his lettering work or if he was attracted to lettering because of this aspect of his personality, but it doesn't really matter. Who he is and what he does are inseparable. He's wholly committed to his craft and, by extension, his vision of the world. Every craftsman has one—whether consciously or not—which they express through their work.
I asked Jake my standard question, something I ask every guest on the show: Do you consider yourself an artist or a craftsman? The idea of it interests me, where the lines are, how blurred they are, how self-perception and self-identity play a role in their work. The answers are so revealing.
Sometimes the guest has clearly thought about these two terms and feels they are a craftsman. Others negotiate an answer that's somewhere in the middle. Other times, the question seems irrelevant to them and they tell me they haven't thought much about it, like the name is beside the point. The more I ask that question the more I realize the label has more to do with how the person feels about his work than anything technical or inherent in the work itself.
Jake's answer was as thoughtful and distinct as any I had heard. "He who works with his hands is a laborer," he quoted. "He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist." He didn't say it outright, but I think it's clear he views himself an artist.
Handwriting is a representation of our selves that is fading from society. Script has vanished from the classroom and penmanship is no longer emphasized. The assumption is that kids can pick it up on their own time or they don't really need to master it because they communicate through computers. But something is getting lost: What's more personal than your handwriting? It practically carries your DNA. Forensic experts can evaluate signatures and read your fears and desires from the way you curl your g. The reason it's so valuable is because our true nature—the selves we can hide in other ways—comes through in our handwriting. It tells the world something about us that we might not want to share. Maybe something we don't even know.
Back when all writing was done by hand, texts were works of art, venerated like sculpture or painting. Think about the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution and the beautiful flowing script we associate with those documents. When we look at them today we can still picture Thomas Jefferson and James Madison sitting down, dipping a pen into an inkwell, and bringing their words to life. Everything from the paper those documents are written on to the curl and swirl of the letters to the words themselves communicates their higher purpose. They are pieces of paper worthy of building a country from or swearing an oath to.
If you ever get a chance to look at letters from Revolutionary or Civil War soldiers writing home, stop and look closely. They are incredible. Likely they were exhausted, wet, injured, terrified, and dirty, and yet so many of their letters are written in this flowing, beautiful script. It shows so clearly how valued writing used to be. They were communicating to their loved ones, and their writing—not just the words, but the actual writing—expressed how they felt.
My cousin once gave me a letter that my grandfather wrote while he was fighting in World War II. It was on U.S. Army stationery and preserved in a plastic sheath. I was mesmerized when I first took hold of it, and that feeling hasn't worn off. Something about that letter felt so alive; it is an authentic record of my history, my family's history, and the country's history. It connects me to my grandfather and his life, his era and place, his loves and fears and desires and struggles. Through his letter—through his handwriting—I can enter his world. In that way, the physical act of writing is like a portal through time and space.
Two thousand years ago the Romans invented the reed pen, which was made from either reed or bamboo. It remained the most popular writing device in the Western world for over five hundred years, until the quill, made from bird feathers, was invented in Spain sometime in the sixth century. Handwritten text was the only option for nearly a thousand years—and the low literacy rate meant it was practiced by a select few. That was the status quo until Germany's Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press with movable type around 1440, which prompted the spread of books and reading. With the increasing mechanization of writing, along with the rise of the fountain pen in the eighteenth century, which didn't require dipping, the craft of lettering and calligraphy fell into decline.
English translator William Morris resurrected the calligraphy arts during the Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century, which itself was a reaction to the industrialization of modern life. Morris obsessively studied medieval and Renaissance texts to learn various writing styles. The modern calligraphy tradition, which Jake Weidmann proudly helps to carry on, extends down from there.
Calligraphy—a combining of two Greek words, one for "beautiful" and one for "writing"—both preserves an individual's personal writing style and elevates it to an art form. Ironically, or maybe fittingly, it was a calligraphy class that Steve Jobs took in college that gave him the idea of giving Apple computers "beautiful typography." He wanted to bring that real-world aesthetic to the zeros and ones of the computer.
Even executing a simple letter in calligraphy takes great patience and skill. Jake uses a dip (or nib) pen with an exquisite wood or bone holder that he has to continually dip into an ink reservoir on his desk. The nib at the end of the pen is split into two tines, like a fork, which collect the ink. When you are writing, you are applying pressure, which causes the tines to spread, and it is this spreading that creates different line styles and thickness. Learning to master how much pressure to apply, the direction of the pen and nib, and how much ink gets used are just a few of the factors that make calligraphy challenging.
Calligraphy is closer to painting than common writing in that subtle movements heavily impact the final product. Unlike regular writing, the amount of pressure applied from pen to paper varies: for instance, downward strokes require a harder press than upward ones. One of the strokes Jake taught me was like a wave or a snake. It is known as the "universal line of beauty," a term coined by painter and critic William Hogarth in the eighteenth century. It appears in nature and art with high frequency, and the name itself strikes me as so grand—it captures the artist's higher purpose and the interconnectedness of living things, how there's a shared ethos across all of them.
Spending time with someone like Jake is enough to make you believe that society's current emphasis on being well-rounded is misguided. He is committed to doing the single task well, and he's a great advertisement for it. He is centered and passionate and extraordinarily talented. Getting something right—not perfect, but right—takes time and patience and an almost obsessive attention to detail. Because Jake's efforts are directed to a single point, he has reached a rare level of his craft.
Jake is not just keeping the craft and tradition alive, as though it were an inert thing reluctantly being dragged forward; he's breathing new life into it so it can stand on its own, move ahead on its own strength. On his website, he writes: "You cannot honor the past by repeating it. You honor the past by giving it new life and relevance in our modern age." He has such a deep, almost mystical understanding of his purpose that I was inspired being around him.
"We live in a world of quick and easy, and so things fade away just as quickly," Jake told me. "To have something that has permanence on that page is so beautiful." He and his wife—who is also an artist—have kept all their letters to each other. One day, they would like to pass them down to their children and grandchildren, so the story of them falling in love will live on—through their written words.
When I came back home to Michigan after spending time with Jake, I had a whole new appreciation of and outlook on my handwriting. I practiced calligraphy strokes and even started writing all my communications by hand, which I still try to do. The effect it had on me was profound. I now take the time to slow down and think about how I am corresponding. Friends of mine who receive my letters say they appreciate them, how it feels so much better than a text or email. I think maybe it's because the letter wasn't only a vehicle for what I wanted to convey—the physical paper and writing itself communicated the time and care I felt my friends deserved.
My handwriting actually has been horrible for as long as I remember, but it's only because I hadn't taken the time to learn this skill. Now, I make it a habit to practice. Lately I've been using cursive even for day-to-day things like checks, envelopes, and notes. It takes a little more time, but it should. And maybe if we took more time when sharing our thoughts, we'd avoid the problems that no doubt arise from quick and distracted communication. I'm not sure, but it seems possible.
As I rediscovered the written word I started realizing how strange it is that emojis are so popular now. It's funny—in a sense we're working our way back to communicating with pictures again, which is where we started, with cave paintings and hieroglyphics. Only this time the pictures don't even have the personal stamp; they're standardized for convenience and time. As I try to be more conscious about what I'm writing, my hope is that it will spill over into other parts of my life.
Jake has reached the apex of his profession, and despite his talent, the journey along the way has not been a straight line. In order to take your skills to the next level, in anything, you have to push. As you keep climbing rungs, learning a harder set of skills, the amount of time you put in increases as well. They're proportional. That's why there are so few who are really great at what they do; people drop out along the way. To become great at anything, you have to persist past the point where you even know what you're doing. It's stepping onto a bridge that you haven't built yet. As a professional I never lose that desire to learn and the sense that I need to. I try to go into every project with that level of perspective: What can I learn from this?
The battle for perfection always entails a healthy dose of failure. And it's not just failure but an acceptance, even an embrace, of that failure. I fail all the time, and I try to use it as a tool: for growth, for learning, for excellence. If I think back on my life and my work, I've never really gotten anywhere by staying in my comfort zone. The failure is the thing that has continually pushed me forward and outward.
By stepping into that battle, by embracing the purpose of the battle itself, I try to keep the independent spirit alive. I think anyone who makes something for a living, whatever it is, is putting part of themselves into their work, making a commitment to doing something right, and celebrating the work's humanness instead of hiding its flaws. They're not flaws at all. The flaw is in thinking we can make something without any.
2: TEARING UP FLOORS
I'm twelve years old and it's Friday night. My younger brother, Scott, and I are watching CHiPs, waiting for The Dukes of Hazzard to come on. At the end of the couch, my dad is lost in his own world, stewing as he stares at the living room carpeting—almost into the living room carpeting. This is normal: Dad is almost always stewing about something. My brother and I know better than to set him off.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see my dad lean forward, his hands reaching outward. Then he gets up and eagerly grabs an end of the carpet and starts lifting, and it tears, the rita-tick-tick of the seams separating. I briefly catch the look on his face and can see his tired eyes opening wide, the wheels spinning in his head. "Jesus," he says, to no one in particular, "there's parquet under here."
Scottie and I don't move. We don't look over.
"Hey! Guys, get over here," my dad says. There's a pause—Maybe it'll pass, I think. The Dukes of Hazzard is just about to start. "Eric! Scott! Get over here!"
I silently groan as Scottie and I walk away from the TV. I look up but can only see the side of the television from here. My dad is kneeling on the floor, messing with his new discovery. I know where this is headed. I've seen this show before.
That's usually how it started at my house. Once Dad got going there was nothing to stop him. A question, an observation, maybe a strange noise and then we were knee-deep into it—spending the rest of the night on one project or another. That particular night was spent stripping up the living room carpet, cutting it, rolling it, then tying it, and carrying it out to the trash. Afterward we had to pull up all the pieces of the broken wood underneath.
At some point in the middle of all this my mom walked in and saw us covered in dust, the room in absolute shambles. "What the hell is going on?" she asked. "What are you guys doing?" The project lasted about month or two—we reset all the wood squares by hand and replaced the unsalvageable ones. By the time it was all done the parquet floor was beautiful. I couldn't deny it: My dad was right.
Growing up, my house was a boot camp for learning how to build and fix things. I never heard, "You're too young, don't touch that." If it needed to be done, I was asked to do it. Early on, I got used to the idea that there were no barriers to what people can do. As a kid I didn't appreciate it—I just thought my dad was a pain in the ass—but I'm not sure I'd be where I am without that experience and confidence.
My dad was an all-around, hands-on guy. I can't ever remember seeing a tradesman at our house, even though there were major projects going on all the time—laying down floors, masonry work, putting in windows, cement work, building this, demoing that, repairing something else. When something broke, we fixed it. When something was needed, we built it. It allowed me to learn a lot at a very young age; more importantly, it made me fearless about making mistakes. And that spirit has stuck with me.
I can remember being about six years old and going downstairs with my dad to the basement. While he worked on remodeling down there, installing a wet bar and built-in cabinets, he'd give me a hammer, some nails, and pieces of wood and just let me be. So I'd sit on the floor and run nails into two-by-fours and make funny shapes, create something out of whatever he let me use. Later on I got a tool belt and excitedly filled it up with nails, tape, pliers, and a hammer. It was all play—playing at doing work.
“This is a book full of cool stuff and the people who do it . . . Like the kindred-spirit book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Gorges' narrative serves up the lessons that one learns from hard, deliberate, artful work . . . a fine read for DIYers looking to up their game—or get their hands callused in the first place.”
“Invigorating . . . Digressions on the very real dangers of many of these jobs, the challenge of determining price, and the often circuitous path many artisans take before finding their place (as well as the role of failure in that path), satisfyingly round out the book. This is an impressive and emotionally rich appreciation of the work often taken for granted.”
“It’s a serious tome that deals with the significance of work and with principles like honesty, integrity, and purpose, which oddly mirror the world of business. There is indeed much to ponder.”—Booklist
“A congenial and thoughtful host, Eric Gorges takes us on a guided tour of a rare species—resourceful individuals who buck the herd to build purposeful lives through self-employment at skilled crafts and trades.”
—Peter Korn, author of Why We Make Things and Why It Matters
- On Sale
- May 7, 2019
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Algonquin Books