Craft vs. Perfection

When mom was here over the holidays, we got to talking about “The Craft Revolution” and the recent increased popularity or perceived value of hand crafted items. She observed that the New Hand Made crafters aren’t as interested in tradition: they don’t necessarily strive for the appearance of perfection that traditional crafters achieve. As an example, she described sewn objects with large, visible stitches instead of invisible hand stitching.

At the time, I suggested this might just be a rejection of tradition, since the Craft Revolution has largely grown out of counterculture movements such as punk. (Who knew that knitting would become cool?)

Since then, I’ve revised my opinion. I now think Hand Made must distinguish itself, even in ways which might be considered negative, in order to survive and retain its value in our mass produced world.

Mass produced goods are often derided as either cheap knock-offs of finely hand-crafted items, or as ugly, poorly designed, inhuman objects. This is sometimes true, but it’s not the whole story. There are now many products which are well designed solely for the purpose of mass production. And not all mass production is done by machine: sometimes it is achieved through efficient upscaling of “hand made.”

Higher quality mass produced items, and the ability to produce goods with machine-like precision quickly by hand, have changed our perceptions about the quality and value of objects. If something looks perfect and could be mass produced, we now interpret this to mean that it must have been mass produced: otherwise, what would be the point? If a Chinese factory worker can sew 50 blouses perfectly in a 12 hour shift, where’s the value in me sewing one myself?

I’ve seen this in action on several occasions. Whenever Mom sends us hand made baby clothes, we comment that “they look just as good as store bought clothes!” We know they’re better, because we value the fact that they’re hand made by her; but we have the reaction despite our better knowledge. Another time, a patron at a bake sale irritatedly complained, “They can’t sell these, they’re from a bakery!” In fact, Marla baked them. They just looked too good to be home made.

These days, hand made items must distinguish themselves from mass production in order to be valued as being hand crafted. They can’t look like something a machine or fast human could produce. They might be imperfect. They might be perfect, but of a design that does not lend itself to mass production. One-of-a-kind or custom objects might fit the bill, but it has to be obvious that they’re unique.

Perfection becomes dangerous, in a time when well crafted items are misinterpreted as mass produced. But there are still many classes of objects which aren’t produced in large scale. For those who prefer a high degree of precision in their work, it’s probably best to choose a subject or medium which doesn’t lend itself to mass production.

Turning Videos

When I was turning last year, I followed the Peter Galbert’s Chair Notes blog closely, but I have since stopped.

Tonight I started surfing Youtube for some turning videos, and discovered that Peter Galbert has a great set of videos on YouTube. He has a series on constructing a 3-legged perch, which is similar in some ways to the stools I’m constructing. Now that I’ve watched the videos, I’ll have to read the blog.

The turning videos are excellent, and very informative to a primarily self-taught turner like me. He’s completing a leg in under 10 minutes: extremely quickly, from my perspective. Clearly I need to do a lot more spindle turning…

On the other hand, maybe this is like riding a bicycle: do I dislike it so much that I really need to shave a few minutes off my time? If I enjoy it, why bother going quickly?

I guess the real answer for me is: I’m not doing this to pay the bills. Extending the time it takes to complete a chair professionally reduces your hourly pay rate. But for me, extending the time it takes to complete a project decreases the cost per hour of my hobby. That’s not so bad, as long as I have a chair to keep my rear off the floor in the mean time.

So I guess the important part for me is to concentrate on minimizing mistakes, so I don’t waste material or disappoint myself too often.

And, oh yes: Peter’s chairs are beautiful. He’s well versed in the traditional Windsor chair styles, and also builds some very innovative chairs of his own design.

Project Update: Stool(s)


After my chair class in 2007, I decided to build a Windsor-style stool that the teacher, Brian Cunfer, had in his shop. A stool lets me build my tool collection progressively: I wouldn’t need a steam box since the stool has no back. I figured I’d build one as practice and paint it, then build one out of my stash of walnut with a natural finish.

I got as far as turning the legs and stringers, before feeling my lack of a bench. You might notice that the legs and stringers are made of at least 4 different kinds of wood: they were all what I had sitting around in the right size. This hopefully won’t be noticeable under paint.

Now that my bench is usable, I’ve picked up where I left off. Over the past week or so, I pieced up the seat, cut it out, shaped the outside edge, and today I drilled the leg holes. Now, I’m waiting for more tools to carve the seat. The inshave I had was really not the right shape, so another one should be coming in the mail soon.

In the mean time, I’ve started cutting up my walnut for the second stool. It has a lot of knots, and the pith is throught middle of some pieces. But I found enough straight, clear wood for the seat, and I rounded enough sticks for the legs and stringers. Tonight I glued up the seat blank. Next, I’ll probably turn the legs and stringers, while I wait for the seat carving tools to arrive.

Epic Bench


In case you haven’t figured it out yet, “Epic” refers to a project which went on far longer than it should have, and/or is not finished yet.

Around 1998, when we moved into our house, I started building a woodworking bench. I built the base in the tiny workshop in Marla’s mother’s house, using mortise and tenon joints on some dimensional 4×4′ lumber. I was inspired around this time, from attending Michael Dunbar’s Windsor Institute and building a Windsor chair in October 1998.

Some time after that, I bought some hard maple for the bench top; a few years later, I pieced the top together. Unfortunately, due to some miscalulation and/or overzealous jointing, I ended up with the top about an inch too narrow for the base. Around this time, I also received a very nice Record woodworking vise for Christmas, before Record went out of business. (Thanks, Dad!) I cleaned the glue joints and trimmed the ends, but with inspiration from the chair class waning, I didn’t make any further progress.

Since it was a vaguely horizontal surface, it was fine for most of my general handyman tasks, even though it was inadequate for woodworking. It served this purpose well for many years, while I worked on a variety of non-woodworking projects.

Then, in 2007, I attended another Windsor chair making class, this time taught by Brian Cunfer near Lancaster, PA. I built a side chair, including turning the legs (which we didn’t do at Dunbar’s class).

With my newfound inspiration, I decided to continue work on my bench so I could build a windsor style stool. I flattened the top, fit it to the base, and bought a lathe to turn some legs and stretchers. After turning the spindles, I started turning wooden boxes. But woodturning doesn’t require much of a bench, and certainly doesn’t require a vise. And the top was still too narrow for the base…

Soon the newly flattened bench top was covered with spindles, broken boxes, box blanks, and other various bits of turned wood. After giving away a few dozen wooden boxes for Christmas, woodworking and turning once again ceased to be my primary hobby.

When my parents decided to visit after Christmas in 2008, Dad asked “What projects do you have?” I added “finish the bench” to the top of the list.

When he was here, we made some great progress. He brought some hard maple to widen the top enough to fit the base. We widened the top, trimmed the ends, re-flattened the top, and added a spacer block to mount the vise. Finally, after a few bolts to hold the top down, and wooden vise jaws, it’s starting to really look like a bench.

It’s now finished enough to use for woodworking, so I can build the stool seat and assemble it. Thanks!

The remaining tasks include smoothing the top and ends a bit more, and applying a finish. I’ll wait for the warmer months before finishing it, so I can ventilate the basement while the finish dries.

Anyone who has seen many woodworking benches will probably notice that this bench is fairly sparse, and that the base and top are attached in a somewhat odd position. I’ll provide an explanation, but no excuses. There’s no way I could’ve made a substantially better bench, without any bench to work with. The odd proportions are purely due to a series of changed plans combined with no desire to redo any work already done.

On the bench, you can see I’ve started the stool seat. I’ll post more about that as it progresses.

Beer Batch #19: Epic Gruit

I’ve decided to write blog entries for particularly interesting batches of beer I’ve brewed, including recipes and notes. This entry documents my 19th batch of homebrew since 1995 when I first started brewing.

After a long “off” period, I started brewing again in early 2008. I quickly learned that I was in the midst of a global hops shortage. To compensate for the high price and low availability of hops, I became interested in gruit, a traditional style of beer which uses various dried herbs for bittering and preservation, instead of hops.

Gruit is essentially obsolete, and not a lot of useful information is available regarding specific recipes for use by homebrewers. The typical recommendation is to just experiment, and see what happens. That’s all well and good, but what do you do with 5 gallons of failed experiment?

I gave it a try anyway. This is what I came up with.

Epic Gruit

Brew date: April 13, 2008

Ingredients for a 5 gallon batch:

  • 1/2 lb Crystal malt, 120L
  • 1/2 lb Chocolate malt, 338L
  • 8.5 lb M+F Light dry malt extract
  • 1 oz dried Yarrow
  • 1 oz dried Mugwort
  • 1/2 oz dried Licorice root
  • 2g dried Sweet Gale
  • 1 tsp Irish Moss (for clarity)
  • Wyeast 3787 Trappist Ale Yeast

Process:

  1. Steep grains in 2.5-3 gallons of water, 155F for 30 min.
  2. Add malt extract
  3. Boil for 60 minutes total
    • add herbs at 30 minutes
    • add irish moss at 45 minutes
    • add wort chiller at 45 minutes
  4. Chill wort, targetting 78-80F for the wort
  5. Add to water in fermentation bucket, to reach 5 gallons
  6. Pitch yeast starter

Original Gravity: 1.063

Notes:

  • I started the Wyeast several days earlier, and it started just fine.
  • After 24 hours, there was no activity in the fermenter, so I dumped in a vial of 2nd generation White Labs European Ale Yeast (without a starter)
  • Very active after 48 hours
  • April 25: Gravity = 1.021, racked to secondary. Tastes herbal, somewhat sour, with an odd bitter aftertaste. If it wasn’t supposed to be weird, I’d call it bad.
  • May 10: Gravity = 1.021, tastes bad still.
  • May 24: Gravity = 1.020/21. Sour, odd bitterness, but somewhat less foul tasting. Racked off.
  • June 29: Gravity = 1.020. Sour, but not as much odd herbal bitterness. Not entirely drinkable.
  • August 4: Gravity = 1.019. Better yet, less sour. Still oddly herbal, this isn’t likely to change.
  • September 13: Gravity = 1.012
  • November 22: Bottled.
  • Jan 13, 2009: This is starting to taste good. Maybe I finally tasted it enough times, but it’s drinkable and interesting. I had no hope for a drinkable batch of beer until recently. It might be an experiment worth repeating, but I might want to try something slightly different.

Taste Summary

This beer has some of the interesting flavor that I’d expect from a sour Belgian beer, but also an odd herbal flavor. No one other than me likes it very much, but I’d be satisfied drinking the whole batch. One commentor compared it to the soda Moxie, which is also known for a serious herbal aftertaste.

I usually keg my beer, but I was confident I wouldn’t drink this batch fast enough to bother kegging it. I lost all hope for quite a while, and wondered why I was even bothering to spend the effort putting it into bottles. But now, I enjoy it and I’m glad I saved it.

They generally say that cellaring beer for more than a few months is not useful unless you have a cold cellar or it’s high gravity. But this beer definitely improved with age. I would not be surprised if some of the character of the beer came from some bugs other than the yeast getting into it, but it seems they weren’t bad bugs in the long run.