Thoughts On Craftsmanship – January 2016

woodshop stove fire


After the pace of summer, deep winter can feel very restful. The shorter and quieter days encourage a thoughtfulness that the long days of summer don’t seem to warrant. Summer is about movement, going, doing, and experiencing as much as the days will allow. The cold of winter, with time each day next to the fires that warms the house and shop, is better for grabbing hold of a thought and following it right to the very end.

And I’ve been doing just that – following the paths of ideas and thoughts where they lead. I’ve been reflecting on nearly 40 years of working as a self-employed craftsman and the changes I’ve seen in that time. I’m thinking about how we, as a society, view craftsman and their place in our world. I see new trends and an appreciation toward handmade items, custom bags and packs, handmade bike frames, local craft beers and functional art abound. Heirloom foods and locally cured meats are all are widely available now and all these small businesses exist and are able to market their services and goods in a large part because of the Internet. That’s a good thing, and the playing field where craftsman and big companies have always vied for customers has been somewhat leveled.

But expectations have also changed. A growing need for instant gratification, an inability to see the true value of the time, skill and creative energy that goes into a project, and often an unreasonable expectation of what something should cost make it challenging for craftsmen. It’s very hard in a postindustrial society for small batch production to match the price of offshore factory-manufactured goods, and even harder for a small maker like myself – a designer and builder of one-off pieces – to make a living.

I accept that markets, needs, and expectations do change and I have shifted my work to deal with these inevitable changes. I now spend more than a third of my year sharing what I’ve learned by teaching and guiding. I can offer my boat plans and kits at competitive prices because I’ve embraced leading edge manufacturing practices and have been thoughtful about how I designed my boats kits.

So much is up to the Makers but I also think that much of the responsibility for helping this growing sub economy of small craftsmanship-based companies thrive lies with us as consumers. We vote with our wallets. We make decisions every day with what we choose to support and the type of world we want to live in. When we buy something are we supporting a company with a thoughtful environmental outlook? Are we helping a local food producer or potter pay their mortgage? Or are we helping a CEO in a mega corporation buy their next vacation home? Not every decision can or should be rooted in such moral thinking but many of the decisions we make each day might well have a positive impact on small cottage industries and directly on the lives of craftspeople.


VW Transporter before renovation

Here’s a somewhat extreme example of this type of thinking in action. My truck, a necessary tool for me, is 11 years old. Still going strong, still doing the job but it can’t last forever. I could replace it with a new or nearly new truck, I could make repairs as needed, or I could go down an entirely different path. A new truck does not do much to support local business and while taking it in to my mechanic on a more frequent bases does support a local shop, that option clearly has some down sides. So, I’ve decided to go down a very unconventional path and refurbish a 30-year-old VW truck. The truck is a single cab synchro (4 wheel drive) transporter. This takes the investment, in this case nearly the price of a new truck and supports small shop owners who are craftsman just like me. I feel very good about that.

When we make choices about how we are going to spend our hard earned money with an eye towards supporting makers, cottage industries, craftspeople, and artisans I believe our world is a better place. Handmade is a growing new trend that we should wholeheartedly support, but it’s also a very old concept. I’ve been plying my craft for nearly 40 years and I’m exceptionally proud of the body of work I’ve designed and produced – and the runs not over yet.

Bill Thomas

Designer - Maker