What is Craftsmanship?

The truth is it's multilayered and even a little bit different for each of us

Yesterday, my friend Alex sent an email discussing craft and asking what craftsmanship meant to his subscribers. As I began putting together a reply I realized this is a topic worthy of a larger discussion. Instead of locking it away in my email, I decided to expand on my response and publish it for everyone to read, think about, and post their own thoughts if they wish.

Craftsmanship is a topic that’s been covered often, but it’s also a topic that’s very personal to me. When I first started in the carpentry trade, I thought craftsmanship was solely decided by the quality of the work. While that’s certainly a large part of it, only after years of surrounding myself with trades people of various skill levels was I able to discover that there’s more to it than just the final work. I also believe it’s naive to think that craftsmanship is just one single quality or that everyone shares the same definition. For myself, a craftsman is defined by they’re ability to show up, pay attention, and place their work ahead of themselves.

The largest part of craftsmanship is simply doing the work, regardless of whether you want to be there. I discussed this last month, but I still think it deserves to be included here because so many people skip this step. They think that by going through the motions they can say they know their craft, but it doesn’t work that way. You might write a plan, research your subject to death, and produce a few final products, but unless you both start and continue working on the difficult tasks, nothing’s going to get done and you’re just wasting everyones time, including your own.

Second is paying attention. Attention to the details, attention to the reactions your work elicits, and attention to how you produce your work. Instead of cutting corners, or skipping ahead to get the easy win, craftsman settle down and do what’s necessary to improve the quality of their work. When showing off their work, they don’t get defensive of critics but they also search for more when receiving shallow praise. “It’s great” is far worse than “it sucks”. Ironically it’s far easier to suss out why someone dislikes your work than why they like it. Lastly, by paying attention to how they work, craftsmen are able to make improvements to their workflow, rather than mindlessly repeating the same steps. Being a craftsman means constantly asking “why?” and only by paying close attention to the answers can you know your path is true.

Lastly, and this is one I rarely see discussed, craftsman don’t seek out personal glory. They’re not in the game for their own ego, they’re in it for the work. When they reveal their work to the world, they dread someone saying “great job” or “you’re so skilled”. That’s not to say they aren’t looking for praise, but that the praise should be directed at the final product and not themselves. It should be able to stand on it’s own, without their name attached to it. Only then can they be sure the praise is honest.

Many claim to be craftsmen, but I’ve found in reality most of them are just acting the part. Without the body of work, detailed point of view, or allowing their work to come first, they’re missing what it means to truly know their craft. I often have to remind myself that life isn’t a theater, and I’m a terrible actor.