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Thursday, September 19, 2013

If You Make Things, You Are My Brother. Or Sister. My Chinese Brother Or Sister, Apparently



I scour the Intertunnel looking for videos of craftsmen of any sort that I can feature on this blog. I make furniture. But you should understand: I don't LOVINGLY CRAFT anything.

That term is a running, inside joke between my wife and me. It's shorthand for someone doing handwork as slow as possible, in order that the (sometimes imaginary) customer can tell all their friends they bought something that's LOVINGLY CRAFTED. Most American craftsman featured on the Intertunnel are running little personality cults. They don't make enough stuff to reach a threshold I keep in my head to be called a true maker of things. They are  performance artists; or wish they were, anyway. They LOVINGLY CRAFT.

As I said, I don't LOVINGLY CRAFT anything. I make things with all the intelligence and effort I can bring to bear, as fast as I can, and sell it for as little as I think is necessary and as much as I can get at the same time. Finding that financial fulcrum is deuced difficult. If you charge too little you starve. Conversely, if you charge too much, you starve.

Why do I have to travel the Intertunnel to China to find people like me? These people are exactly like me. They are clean. They are "well-turned-out." They are not slovenly in their appearance or demeanor. They are all sober. Believe me, I've managed hundreds of people at a time. I can tell at a hundred yards if you're lit. They smile at work. They work really, really hard, and someone else ends up with almost all the money, but they make enough to keep body and soul together. I noticed, in the background, a young woman returning to work from outside, and she appears to be holding a better phone than I possess. There is a child hanging around the workshop. My workshop often has one of those.

That workshop has nothing that I don't understand going on it it. It's a very safe place to work, although the State of California would tell you that every single thing in it is known to give you cancer. But they say that about a glass of tapwater. The finish that the woman's applying is shellac, which you can eat after is dries, and the glue pot is filled with hide glue, which is just horses that came in last, and most of the tools make wood shavings, not sawdust, and the sanding is done by hand, so the sawdust isn't copious or particularly dangerous. No one in the video is missing a digit, or has any visible scars from working with their hands all day. They all have fans pointed at them, but that's no doubt because it's too warm for comfort wherever they are. That place is not full of toxic fumes. You'd pay money to smell the smells in there. Shellac and hide glue and wood shavings smell wonderful. I hear laughter in there, and people smile when a camera is pointed at them. It's a sheepish smile I understand. They are not used to people being interested in their mundane life. No one is wearing safety glasses or ear protection, and no one needs them, either.

No one is LOVINGLY CRAFTING anything in the video, although the violins they make will be sold for huge money in Europe, and the customers will be told that their violins were... LOVINGLY CRAFTED. But then again, no one I've seen in five thousand LOVINGLY CRAFTED videos have one-tenth the hand skills I see demonstrated by everyone in the video. It's important work to them, so they do it to the best of their ability. People that do things over and over get really good at them. I wish them all well -- and hope on my best day, I'm as good as they are on their worst.

9 comments:

Johnny Glendale said...

A couple of things...the guy's name was Antonio Stradivari, and he didn't invent violins, or any other bowed, stringed instruments. He probably didn't "lovingly craft" them either. Violas-by-the-pound, as in this video, I'd wager. Also, there's either a joke or a social commentary banging around my head that includes Steve Jobs and "iViolin," but I'm not going to pursue it. Great video, although I couldn't stop thinking of the guitar Santa brought The Lad last Christmas. I couldn't get it tuned until I realized the frets were in the wrong positions. Santa's outsourcing and going way down-market, and The Lad's $30 ax is now an open-tuned slide guitar.

Rob De Witt said...

I'm pretty sure this whole world came into being in the middle '70s when Richard Keldsen of Saga Instruments took his Gibson RB-75 Mastertone banjo to Japan, along with a set of blueprints and specs, and found somebody to exactly re-produce an American classic from the '30s. Nobody'd taken that approach before, and the whole world's been taking it since. Japanese craftsmanship, which meant "cheap in the worst possible sense of the word" to Americans like me in the '50s, is now recognized so highly that it costs too much to use - hence the instrument-making industry in China and now Korea.

What you're seeing here, for what it's worth, is an absolute revolution in the world of acoustic (or as I refer to them, "real") instruments. Not only are the Asians producing massive quantities of inexpensive violins, celli, bass viols, guitars, mandolins etcetcetc, what they're putting out is causing long-time players and collectors to gape in astonishment. The quality, playability and TONE is not to be believed.

I've been playing pretty seriously for almost 50 years, and worked as a finisher for a couple of world-class guitar makers - as well as searched for the perfect bluegrass guitar anytime I had a little extra money. Even after all that time, the right stuff is mysterious an elusive to me, and the guitars that emerge are worth a LOT of money.

Two days ago I got a backup for my 45-year-old Martin D-18, which is growing increasingly fragile due a long life of hard use. What I got is a dead copy of a mid-30s D-18 which rivals my old sidearm in every way, after the strings have been tuned up only 48 hours. Astonishing.

It was made in China, and retails for a little more than a grand - wholesale that translates to five hundred bucks. And I'm here to tell you, it's a monster.

Thud said...

I had much the same experience as the above with my reissue Gretsch,there are some clever,fast and skilful folk out there.

Gary said...

The second greatest pleasure in life (after building a good marriage) is building something useful and attractive out of wood.
I woodwork as much for the pleasure of the process of building furniture as for the furniture. When it's finished, I get to enjoy looking at the piece and remembering the joy of creation for the rest of my life.
Fortunately, we have moved a lot so there is always another piece of furniture needed somewhere.
I have given some stuff away to close family but never sold anything (I'd be lucky to get a dollar an hour as slow as I am).
I don't have the skills of these folks (or our host) but I feel sorry for most of the folks I know that can't really make anything.

Anonymous said...


OPEN TOED SHOES! Holy bat guano!

This country was made by people like that. No American could possibly run such a business as that.

You have to want to work. Have Americans lost that? I was in a trade store (nuts & bolts) and was talking to a guy that did lawn service. The local establishmentarians had just been by his place and told him he couldn't keep his mowers in his own garage nor park his truck in front of his own house.

We pay our taxes to furnish our own jailers on the pretense of protecting us from ourselves. The only thing we are really doing is creating our own masters and selling ourselves to them as slaves.

Brad Ervin

dadofhomeschoolers said...

I was going to say something about the mother of all coping saws, but I think I'll keep it to myself.
I don't do much woodwork, but I can weld, and machine, and work on machines. Does that count?

Rob De Witt said...

We pay our taxes to furnish our own jailers on the pretense of protecting us from ourselves. The only thing we are really doing is creating our own masters and selling ourselves to them as slaves.

Brad Ervin


Boy howdy. That says it all, and well.

Russell said...

"We pay our taxes to furnish our own jailers on the pretense of protecting us from ourselves. The only thing we are really doing is creating our own masters and selling ourselves to them as slaves."

Amen.

honk said...

Excellent post