People talk of craft these days, if they talk about it at all, to bemoan its absence.  We complain about the lack of craftsmanship in what we buy, and we complain about how the modern world of mass production has replaced a world of artisans and craftsmen.

But, as is the case of so many of our complaints, we rarely look in the mirror.

How many of us, really, have spent our lives in the pursuit of a craft?  Be honest.

Most of us haven’t.  We’ve been too busy focusing on our jobs and being producers and consumers.  We haven’t had time to be interested in the pursuit of a “craft.”

Aside:  I’ve used italics here because I’m not just talking about “traditional” crafts  like cabinetmaking or basket-making or blacksmithing.  I’m not talking out of some nostalgic pastoralism.  I’d much rather live in today’s world than some pre-industrial world, because in today’s world I”m much more likely to be able to enjoy the fruits of other’s craftsmanship.

No, I’m speaking of the attitude of the craftsman toward his craft.

The true craftsman cares about craft for its own sake, not because its a job or production requirement.    The true craftsman goes beyond what others ask for.  He explores deeper.  He develops skills and ways of seeing that ordinary producers or consumers employers or employees never even contemplate a need for.  He does so, not because someone has asked these things of him, but because the craft, and his personal character, demand attention to them.

When I think of craft, I always think of my late father.  I did not appreciate it while he was alive, but as I’ve aged I’ve increasingly realized just how unusual he was. (I was, alas, only 18 when he died, firmly in the grip of the sophomoric adolescence that would still control me for a couple more decades.)

Dad was a master plumber, but he never made a lot of money.  He could have — even in those days, master plumbers could make a pretty penny if they desired.  I had more than my older sister and brother did, but even I wore hand-me down clothes until I was nearly in high school.

My dad moved to a different beat.

I never realized just how good Dad was as a plumber until I owned my own house and started hiring plumbers for repairs and re-modelling projects.  Until I realized that even most people who the state certifies as “masters” weren’t in his league.

I’m not complaining of the work these other plumbers did for me — it has generally been just fine at getting the hot water to my shower and the feces safely to the sewer.

But Dad, his understanding of plumbing took him beyond the mundane  into the realm of art.  He could solder a fitting without just a fine uniform line of solder showing:  no globs, no drips, no errors.  (This was back when all plumbers used copper for hot/cold water service.)  And he’d do so whether he was soldering uphill or cramped like a pretzel in a crawl space.

Nothing was wasted.

Take a look at the pipe in your basement sometime.  If it’s like most houses, new or old, done by professionals or DYI, you’ll find a a number of excess fittings used as the plumber dealt with joists, walls, wiring, or the efforts of previous plumbers.   Try tracing the lines to and from each fixture:  it can be like trying to untangle a bowl of spaghetti.

Look at how many 90-degree ells are used.  Ask yourself whether any of the lines might have been better suited to the use of 45-degree fittings.  Traveling the hypotenuse of a triangle by definition uses less pipe than traveling through the other two sides.  However, as anyone who has struggled to remember and apply the Pythagorean theorem knows, its also harder to measure the distance.

I’m not a plumber.  I can fix a toilet or replace a faucet.  But running pipe — frankly I think something as important to your health as plumbing (and it’s far more important than most of the stuff the health care “debate” focuses on) should be left to the professionals.  When I think of the complexity of what they do, frankly I’m amazed.  I wouldn’t have a clue.

But when I think of Dad’s plumbing, I’m not just amazed.  I’m awed.

I guarantee that if you asked him and just about any other plumber of his time to plumb identical new houses in a subdivision, he’d do it with less materials than the other plumber.  And if you looked carefully at the result, his arrangement of pipes would make more sense to you and the system would perform better.

(Not only can you save some pipe by using 45′s instead of 90′s, it can greatly improve the water flow and mean less clogging, freezing, etc.)

But the real craftsmanship of what he did would come down the line, when the owner of the house wants to remodel or build on or replace the bathtub with a jacuzzi.  When you realize that he didn’t just build “to last”, he built “to modify easily” at the same time.

But really, that’s just his output as a craftsman.  What really matters is how he got there.

He got there because he was driven by plumbing, how and why it works.  He was like Scotty on the original Star Trek — he read tech manuals in his spare time.  He didn’t just go to hardware/plumbing supply shows (he also ran a hardware business) to find new products to sell, he went to listen to what the other tech types were saying about new materials, techniques, and tools.  He listened not just to what a new tool would do, but the reasoning behind the development of the tool.  He had a curiosity about everything that might remotely affect plumbing.   Less than a year before his death at the age of 57, he completed a design course that required him to travel 35 miles each way to attend class.  And, were he still alive, I expect he would still be extending his craft.

Not because he needed to keep up with his discipline.  He was far enough beyond the usual plumber that the only “continuing education” he would have needed was to keep track of the idiocies non-plumbing bureaucrats keep thinking up.

No, that’s not why he did it.  He did it because, for him, plumbing was important in its own right.

Why did he value plumbing so much?   I don’t know.  That’s one of the things I never thought to ask him until long after he was gone.  And, to be honest, when I was a kid, I would much rather he would have spent less time on it.  But whatever the reason, whether it was what he should have valued or not, that was what he was.

And that attitude is what made him not just a plumber, but a craftsman.

Personally, I think the world would be better off if more people took my dad’s approach to life.  But if they don’t, the problem isn’t in “the system” or “the economy.”

The problem is in the mirror.



One Response to “Craft”

  1. Paul says:

    I think there are deeper reasons for this. I can’t speak for other people, just myself.

    Your father found what he was made to do. I found what I was made to do at 17 and what it was didn’t make me enough money to make a career out of it. So now I’m doing something I somewhat like so I somewhat care about it instead of putting 100% into it like your father did with his craft.

    Had I been able to make a career out of what I was made to do, I probably would be as detailed as your father.

    Very well written piece.

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