Full Chisel Blog

August 18, 2008

Understanding Traditional Craftsmen

Filed under: Historical Material,Of Interest,The Trade,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 9:54 am


It may not be possible to fully understand the Craftsmen of the past but I think we can get some insight into their lives and works by looking at them in the context of their relationship to the social and economic conditions at the time.  From our prospective of today’s work ethic, lifestyles and modern thinking, we have certain connotations we put upon the past.  We may think that it was a hard and primitive time, with few resources and constant depredations.  We wonder how they could saw a board without a power saw (well I don’t think that, but it is a common view) or get along without refrigeration, but somehow they managed and here we are today. 


We have known an 8 hour work day for a long time now, but in the past, the work day was daylight hours and 12 hour work days were not uncommon.  Nor was a 6 day work week, almost everyone took Sunday off.  When today we look at the historic record and see the production that these people produced, we are amazed at how fast or how much they accomplished.  But remember this is all they did!  This was their job and their livelihood, if they didn’t produce they didn’t eat.  And when you do this stuff day in and day out for years, you get good at it, and if you are good at it, they you are fast at it as well. 


They didn’t have the diversions we have today, although they did have lives, families, religious, social and community responsibilities.  They worked at their occupations, many supplemented their income with farming and other activities, and provided for families.  Up early, chores around the farmstead, then off to the shop just as day breaks.  Then a full day at the shop, utilizing the daylight to avoid burning expensive candles, lamp oil or the more inexpensive and common grease lamps.  Coffin orders were attended to immediately and the craftsman would burn oil to get that job done, especially in the summer months. 


Lets take a Chair Maker for instance.  Now a ladder back chair can have 12 rungs, 4 legs and two or three slats.  Now that is 24 socket holes for the rungs (if my math is correct) and several mortises for the slats, that is a lot of drilling.  A chair maker could make a lot of chairs in a year and that is a lot of drilling, so I imagine they got real good and real fast at it, doing it all the time. 


Take a Cabinet-maker building a bureau (chest of drawers) with say 4 drawers.  Now if the carcase is dovetailed completely across the bottom with cleats dovetailed on the top and 4 drawers half blind dovetails on the fronts and through on the back can have over 100 dovetails.  After a couple dozen bureaus, I would imagine the work went quickly, especially if you gang saw, which is what they did.  I have examined old pieces and drawer dovetails almost always match, indicating gang sawing the sides. 


I am sure this applies to other woodworking trades as well as any other trade during the nineteenth century and earlier.  By making these pieces over and over again, they got good and they got fast.  I am not on the same level as these early craftsman, but I have been doing this for 36 years, so I am much faster than I was when I started.  With age there is some slowing down but with experience, work is accomplished more efficiently and effectively than when I was younger with less experience.  Increase in experience also reduces fears that generally accompany processes like dovetails or chair making. 


The dovetail was the penultimate joint, I thought as an apprentice and was intimidated by the process.  I layed everything out, carefully marked the waste sides and with great in trepidation started.  Now I mark the thickness, put the boards in a vise and start sawing.  Making a chair is also an intimidating challenge to woodworkers and my first chair took a week to make, the last ladder-back took a day and a half. 


Craftsmen of the past didn’t have the distractions that we have today, they could concentrate on what they were doing, making and selling their wares.  They did tend to their social and community duties and generally went to church on Sundays.  Craftsmen in many trades such as a Cabinet Maker or Blacksmith were often leaders in their communities, as they were more affluent, probably a little better educated and were well respected, what happened?  


I think people in the past had different values and prized their possessions more than we do today.  This is generated, I believe, by our disposable mentality, which is a modern thing.  We buy crap, use it up, throw it away and buy more crap.  Today people are astounded by how much I ask for a fancy side chair as they could buy 4 chairs and a table for less, they don’t appear to see the difference between something that is handmade and something that isn’t.  They don’t expect to buy anything that will last as everything else they buy doesn’t.  I am not sure how craftsmen of the past felt about their work, but judging from the quality of what has survived they did take pride and produced some fine stuff that if properly cared for will last hundreds of years.







  1. Hi Stephen.
    We “modern” are living in a commercial world. World is moving fast so are we. We want to change often of styles (cell phones, computers, cars and of course home decoration). Somehow the advertising and the run to profits have raised these to be needs. So people don’t want to put monney in things and of course really don’t care if they last or not. More as the value of things decreases so fast, economically it’s not a big deal.
    In the ‘old times’ people where thinking differently (I think this true, at least until our grand parents). Things had value, material and all (you give the sample of candle, but it’s the same for tools, clocks …), as in comparison for today material has low value (except for commodities as they’re part of financial speculation) but workmanship is very expensive.
    It’s a total change.
    Things were built to last, to be given to following generation. Only needed things where bought. No vacations as well.
    Minds are differents.

    But I think we’ll observe some changes soon.

    Best Regards.

    Comment by Graween — August 18, 2008 @ 10:57 am

  2. Hi Stephen,
    I can add something from personal experience, many years ago, I did piece work making hardwood pallets and doing the same thing over and over again you develop skills and techniques. (and appreciation for tools that last) I could drive nails into hardwood with 2 blows, I don’t think I could now. But starting out, a beginner would bend over every other nail. Just repetition builds skills.

    In the 1950’s nobody worked on a Sunday, even cutting your lawn or doing the garden was something frowned upon. Those attitudes eroded through the late 50’s and 60’s. Interestingly a friend who was recently working in Fiji tells me it’s forbidden there to work on sunday. (I don’t think they charge you with anything) but he washed his car on a sunday, and was told quite forcefully that it was not the “done” thing.

    Thanks again for another thought provoking blog.

    Comment by Ray Gardiner — August 18, 2008 @ 4:45 pm

  3. Graween,

    What I see in people today is a lack of respect for what it takes to do this work. It is especially noticeable in children as they don’t seen to respect anything. But people have been saying this for centuries. I do hope things will change and invest in stuff that will last. I of course am typing this on my new laptop, my other one has a problem connecting to the Internet, so I am treating it like it is disposable.


    It is the repetition of the work that provides the necessary experience. A good craftsman does not take any wasted steps. They had all the tools they needed for their trades, they also had all the training and knew the techniques and they knew what sold and what didn’t, so they made the stuff that sold. They copied the best sellers, so they didn’t even need to design anything, just make their ‘own version’.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — August 18, 2008 @ 9:28 pm

  4. […] discusses the apprentice, journeyman, and master titles of the 17th century and a glimpse into the day to day life of a 17th century joiner or cabinetmaker. His series on saws was extremely illuminating and has given me a better […]

    Pingback by The Full Chisel Blog and Stephen Shepherd… — August 26, 2008 @ 6:46 pm

  5. I think it’s our obligation to re-educate the public in why our furniture is more expensive than the norm. I feel that people are so hung up on the cost diiference now, rather than the cost difference in the future when they have to continually have to fork out for new furniture when it breaks.
    It’s frustrating isn’t it.

    Comment by Woodiespassion — September 1, 2008 @ 7:13 pm

  6. Woodiespassion,

    Thanks for your comments and yes it is frustrating. I am attempting to gather a list together to give better definition to the terms in an effort to re-educate those who are going to buy our stuff.

    Thanks again.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — September 2, 2008 @ 5:34 am

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