Future of hand craftsmanship?

Does anyone care to speculate about the future of hand craftsmanship
and the perceived value of “hand-made”?

I have been working on chip carving, based on medieval models, as a
way to make molds for casting. In the process some very cool things
about the use of compasses is emerging and I feel like I am
discovering a lost art. I can see where this could also be done with
a cad-cam program, but I have no real interest in going that way.

For a lot of the 20th century, “hand-made” had a value that was very
positive, especially in ornamental crafts. Part of the whole
philosphy of the Arts and Crafts movement was to put the individual
creative craftsman on a pedestal and contrast that approach to
factory produced products that relied on expensive equipment and
processes that required more capital than the little guy had at his

But now there is a lot of very powerful technology that is available
to the individual. At the same time as computer assisted methods of
creating things is more available there does not seem to be much of
an increased value in traditional methods of making things. If
anything, you tend to run into a lot of people asking why you are
doing it the hard way, when computers can make it easier.

Is there any future in hand craftsmanship? It was not that long ago
that doing it by hand added perceived value. People now seem to be
more impressed with the results these days than with the process.
This seems like common sense. But I wonder if we will ever see the
same kind of extra credit awarded for doing it by hand like we did
only a few years ago.

Stephen Walker

In the South of the US, at least, hand made still is perceived as
something special and desirable. That said, all hand made isn’t
equal :wink: We have a lot of craftspeople in the South, and a fairly new
college has started in Charleston to teach and pass on traditional
building crafts - stone carving, blacksmithing, etc. all done by
hand. There are a lot of old buildings in the South being restored,
and having craftspeople who can do this authentically is valuable.

As far as jewelry goes, I tend to think the biggest “problem” is
educating the public as to what is hand made by the
artist/exhibitor, and what was purchased - possibly hand made in
India or somewhere, but not by the artist - and used. Then there is
the whole “art” question - has the artist added themselves to the
contents, in terms of design, etc? or just strung a bunch of beads or
set a stone, with no real artistic merit (whatever you deem that to

Different people have different definitions of hand made. We have a
very small local crafts show in my town (as in face painting,
clowns, colored sand jars…not much genuine hand made “art”). One
year there was a lapidary/jewelry artist, and another jewelry artist
who both had booths. The jewelry artist bought some stones from the
lapidary/jewelry artist, set them, and added them to his booth to
sell. The lapidary/jewelry artist went ballistic and insisted that
the jewelry artist hadn’t actually “made” his work since he used
stones he hadn’t cut himself. He refused to ever come back. Yet, in
the context of the whole show (and of most folks on this list),
setting stones someone else cut isn’t not being hand made. Setting
the stones in purchased mounts wouldn’t count as hand made to most of
us, I wouldn’t think - but it might to the folks attending the show,
who don’t know how to do that. Folks think it is incredibly cool that
I know how to set stones - I don’t think whether I made the setting
or not is of much importance to them, although it is to me .

All of that said, there is always a crowd buying at the craft show -
they like the hand made stuff. Not willing to pay much for it (I
haven’t ever done a booth locally), but they like having something
made by hand.

Just my two cents worth. Interesting topic.

Beth in SC where we finally got some rain last night - and the most
incredible thunder I have ever heard! Now if it would just rain
again - sooner than several weeks this time! Even the old trees are
dying…not a pretty sight.

I was wondering the same thing! Why should I spend months carving
something that can be done on a computer?

I finally came to the conclusion that You simply have to market Your
work as hand made & educate the public to the value of the process
behind Your work. Will the general public care? Maybe not; but there
will always be an audience who does care about the process & the
artistry & craftsmanship that goes into making a beautiful piece.
After all YOU & I care. You just have to Target that audience. Focus
on telling Your story. I personally find it fascinating to learn how
something is made by hand. I love seeing people working in their
workshops. I think everyone has a fascination with anything “behind
the scenes” (Backstage at the MET Opera house; The restoration
department @ the MET Museum of Art; Watching the local boat builder
use hand tools) People collect antiques because they are the real
thing. People are attracted to and buy hand carved / made jewelry
for the same reasons. Don’t underestimate how interesting You are to
people who can’t do this sort of thing! Maximize these qualities to
Your advantage.

Mary R.

I have recently purchased several CAD CAM systems for my business, I
also have been hand crafting jewelry for 34 years. It is my opinion
that there is a place for both. The fact is that design is the most
important aspect of what we do, and if you give a thousand jewelers a
fancy new cad system you will still get a thousand different results,
it is after all just another tool. A great deal of energy is expended
in learning any new process high or low tech. However the design is
what sells the piece. I personally treat these systems as a new tool
in my shop and appreciate it as much as when I purchased my motorized
rolling mill. Gold can still be hammered from an ingot but the but
there is a better tool. But you know what they say about opinions.

Most sincerely
James Kallas

This is an issue I’ve wrestled with as well - I feel like I’m
straddling both worlds. One side of me retains a perhaps romanticized
view of hand craftsmanship, as was espoused by William Morris and
Gustav Stickley in the original and revived Arts and Crafts
movements. I’ve devoted a lot of time to mastering traditional craft
skills, and value the insights and abilities I’ve gained through
them. The other side of me has an equally starry-eyed awe at the
possibilities offered by the amazing technology of our times. What’s
an artist to do?

Is the touch of a person’s hand a defining seal of authenticity, or
is it some unique quality of mind that gives an artifact truth and
beauty? Morris and Stickley were reacting to the Industrial
Revolution’s replacement of originally hand-crafted items (before
that, everything was made by hand) with mass-produced versions of the
same things. Elaborate ornament, which had added valueto objects (at
least according to Marx’s labor theory of value) became debased, as
an insignificant fraction of the work involved in creating a
mass-produced item. Although it took some labor to cut a mold in
steel, for example, once this stamped out a thousand pieces it had
added little time or expense to each unit, while consumers unfamiliar
with manufacturing technology still accorded it the respect
previously earned by individually-decorated pieces. So the
manufacturers had a free ride, at least for a while, producing
“pinchbeck” versions of classic patterns, until the consumers caught
on, and tastes changed to favor simpler designs. Against a background
of this, after most hand crafters had given up and taken factory
jobs, it was natural for a reaction to occur, and for some people, at
least, to crave the possibly rougher but more soulful work of an
individual’s hand. This was also the time when artistic painting was
going through a similar crisis, as photography grabbed the
once-lucrative portraiture market, and artist’s marketing changed to
stress the value of the master-touch and the drama of the artist’s
life, instead of relying on the verisimilitude of the product.

At this point, though, we (in the “developed” world, anyway) have
had a couple of centuries to accomodate ourselves to the Industrial
Revolution and the flood of mass-produced products that surround us.
While it’s still possible to make things entirely by hand, it is
rarely practical except in the context of a conceptual art
experiment. Even the Luddites among us think nothing of using power
tools, premade components, synthetic compounds, and borrowed imagery.
Anyone having the temerity to produce any sort of product on their
own is forced into competition not only with domestic manufacturers
engaged in mass-producing similar articles, but with a 'third world"
of people living in poverty and the companies which exploit their
labor, who sell their wares at prices that don’t sustain life in our
economies. If consumers really venerate hand craftsmanship, they can
obtain it much more cheaply from foreign sources than we can provide
it at home. So unless we have the means to swim against the economic
current, it seems that our only recourse is to come up with
innovations in design and to take advantage of whatever practical
means exist of implementing them. If the designs that we arrive at
can only be made by hand, then we either have to find customers that
can afford to pay us to make them, or hire others locally or abroad
that can do it for us. For better or worse, though, most customers
these days have little or no idea how anything is made, and could
care less. Calling something “hand-crafted” (a term that is defined
rather bizarrely by the US Federal Trade Commission) garners a few
points with customers, but not nearly enough to make handmade items
competitive with mass-produced ones.

Leaving economics aside, though, is there any reason an article made
“by hand” (whatever that really means) will be better in an aesthetic
sense than one that is produced with the aid of machinery? Certainly
these items will exhibit more individual variation than mass-produced
products, and that can be part of their charm. Although some of this
may be due to incompetence or carelessness on the part of the maker,
it is also true that a design can be refined as it is worked on, and
small flaws that are replicated by mechanical processes may not
appear, or can be dealt with. Inspiration often visits in the course
of making something, and will inform subsequent work. Some designs
and processes are simply not suitable for mechanical reproduction,
and either must be eliminated in the name of manufacturability or
done the old-fashioned way.

On the other hand, though, art does best if it is unfettered by
artificial restrictions on what artists can or cannot do.
Historically, big advances have been made when artists took advantage
of new scientific insights and technologies, such as the development
of perspective and oil-based paint. Much technological and scientific
progress has been driven by artists and craftspeople seeking better
or different solutions to issues that interested them, from the
investigation of human anatomy to the invention of film animation. In
our age, when the phenomenal growth of electronic technology has
provided so many new tools and techniques, bringing the world’s
store of into everybody’s homes and putting unimagined
power into the hands of artists, it would seem short-sighted to
dismiss all this as inauthentic, and to retreat into a restricted
world of traditional techniques. When every surface of a piece of
sculpture can be manipulated precisely in a virtual environment and a
one-off version produced as a physical model using Rapid Prototyping
machines, why is this less a work of art than one that is manipulated
with hand-held tools and produced by casting? If someone comes up
with an original jewelry design using computer programs and RP that
cannot be produced in any other way, should that be considered
inferior to something made by hammering and soldering? It seems that
any tool an artist chooses to use should be considered valid; it’s
the specific use of it that we can evaluate, using our own aesthetic
criteria, to say whether it was the right tool to use for that
purpose or whether other means would have worked better, and whether
the end justifies the means.

So taking all that into consideration, what’s the future for
hand-made arts and crafts? Is painting “dead”, sculpture moribund,
and craft obsolete? As long as these things provide pleasure for the
doer of them, they will survive in some form, although perhaps only
as a form of recreation or therapy. Some that were never much fun to
do or that compete with much more convenient modern methods and
materials have already disappeared; very few people bother building
birchbark canoes, making rope, or dressing timber by hand, unless
they are participating in a historical reenactment of some kind.
Others have achieved a sort of cult status, like patchwork quilting
or decoy carving, and will continue to be popular as long as the
demand continues strong. Art processes like oil painting or marble
carving will continue to be practiced, although practitioners of them
might use technical means that weren’t available to their
predecessors. But artists will have to become used to sharing the
galleries and museums with others, like photographers, film-makers,
and digital modelers, who may not have been considered fine artists
in the past. Jewelry is in an anomalous category of its own,
somewhere between art, craft, and industrial product, and it seems
that while those who stick entirely to traditional hand techniques
won’t vanish immediately, they will be squeezed from all sides;
between artistic innovators who feel free to employ modern
technology, large manufacturers who eventually follow the trends that
the avant-garde have set, and other hand-workers both domestic and
foreign who will end up scrambling for the scraps of the market that
are left. Like any vanishing species, they should be encouraged and
protected so that their skills don’t die out, but I doubt that more
than a few “national treasures” of this sort will find sufficient
support, in the face of economic realities.

Andrew Werby

Hello Stephen;

Some time back, I delved into some of the early anthropological
theories to find the elusive essence of the “process aesthetic”.
Here’s a brief overview of what I came up with, which became the
underlying intellectual component of my graduate thesis. My thesis,
which was partly theoretical and mostly visual, was called, “Ritual,
Process, Integration”.

In the process of working with tools and materials, there is a
learning process that involves not only the musculature and the
nervous system, but probably the limbic system and whatever other
parts of the brain are involved in symbol formation, etc. The
craftsman develops a complex proto language of forms, personalized to
a degree. This artist also adapts the formation of objects, their
design, to what is the most elegant relationship between tools and
techniques on the one hand, and chosen (available?) materials, on the

That’s a simply as I can put it in a paragraph. Now to address your

Naturally, any other method of creating symbols, things that is,
would not produce the same, not photography, not computer aided
design/manufacture, not “virtual” forms. Most of those approaches
merely create derivatives of the hand made product, and they are
usually ersatz in nature. Some minority of individuals create with
these other methods in the same manner as the hand craftsman does
with his traditional tools and materials, and that produces something

So no, there will never be anything to replace hand made, at least
until we create artificial intelligence that can work and think as a
hand-craftsman. And I believe that will happen, but I don’t know what
the point will be except that these creatures will live greatly
extended “lives” at full health and potential, so we might be
interested in what they come up with.

David L. Huffman

When I first started using computers, I thought they were the
solution to everything! So I tried to do everthing on them. Pretty
soon I noticed that if I wanted to add 5+8, it was not time-effective
to set up a spreadsheet to do so. Consider that in the early computer
years, a Chinese accountant could do complex arithmetic (not
mathematics!) on an abacus, and beat the computer. Even though
today’s computers, and hand-held calculators can do more than the
Chinese accountant, for every-day work, the abacus is the
cost-effective solution.

Consider what you WANT to do with your creative life, and what you
CAN do with your creative life…If you are the person who can spend
hours, days, weeks+ learning a computer program so you can set that
1-in-a-million diamond, go for it! But if you are the person who
wants to create a beautiful ring that happens to fit a woman with
delicate hands and arthritic knuckles, you don’t need a computer.

Some people think that they are successful if they create a style
that will sell 100,000 copies to Walmart (at a discount, of
course…who do you think you are dealing with!). Others think they
are successful if they sell an outrageous ring to the one person in
the world who will buy it.

Does it pay the bills? Do you look in the mirror and like what you
see? Can you keep on doing what you want to do? Answer these
questions honestly and you will be on the path to what makes you
happy. What does the Public want?..Some of them want what you have
to offer. (Cheap/mass-produced or one-of-a-kind/handmade.)

Me personally - if I can do what I like, and have more income than
outgo without being a miser, then I’m successful, and dealing with
the right Public.


I would like to add my two cents in on this on a slightly different

I am a dentist and in the past when we needed to restore a tooth for
the best esthetic result we would specify some sort of porcelain
restoration. These would be made in the laboratory by a technician
working from models and photographs and detailed instructions. If the
tech was a good artist, and was supplied with the needed
and the dentist did her job correctly, we got a great result. Then
the off shore people started competing with the US labs and you could
get labwork from India or China at a bargain basement price. The
quality of the work was in question, but for a lot of dentists, the
price was right.

So now we enter the world of CAD/CAM and the dentist can take a
digital image of the tooth (not a physical impression) and email the
file to the lab. Now US labs have entered the field and are
advertising that for less than the price of off shore work, you can
get a CAD/CAM restoration made in the USA for less money.

I have yet to see these, but you can bet that the machines must run
continuously to earn their keep. There are severe limitations on
what they can do, and there is little creativity in mass production.
Until the price comes down for the hardware and software, and it
becomes intuitive to use it, we will wait for something interesting
to happen.

As a note: the good thing to come from this so far is the
introduction of materials to be milled that cannot be cast. A lot of
dental labs have noticed a shift towards high tech materials and
techniques that by pass the small lab, and end up at the bigger labs
or ‘milling centers’.

Charles Friedman DDS
Ventura by the Sea


You have said much. I was taught drafting in college many years ago.
It is all done with computers today. I used to design symbols for
special things that I engineered in to projects. Today that is
unheard of.

Now I do hand crafted metal and it’s hard to sell to people who have
the Walmart mentality. One person looked an orginal piece of work
that I had done and said she could get it for a lot less. I asked to
buy a couple for me.


Naturally, any other method of creating symbols, things that is,
would not produce the same, not photography, not computer aided.... 

I would suggest that one may create signs, but not symbols. IMHO
symbols are discovered, not created.

CAD seems to be the focus of attention these days in jewelry;
machines do not have soul; but people may. I think that’s the
difference between hand made and machine made.

From the feedback I get at shows: the more that technology effects
our life, the more attractive hand made becomes.


I haven’t really had time to mull over the posts from David and
Andrew–both excellent–but I’m thinking about this stuff, having
just come back from the California Wool and Fiber Festival, where I
bought an nicer (hand crafted!) drop spindle and received much free
instruction. Why on earth do I spin–especially with a drop spindle,
rather than a wheel? Why do people buy handspun yarn? I actually met
several people who make their livings selling handspun to knitters
and prepared fleece to people like me.

I became interested in spinning because I have been studying
prehistoric textiles and discovered that, for many thousands of
years, people (primarily women) spent more time spinning than they
did on any other single activity. I wanted to feel a connection to
that history. But then I also discovered that, unlike making jewelry
(and working on a computer), spinning is a true social activity.
Until I began to spin with other women, I had no idea that my soul
craved this kind of environment and activity.

So, since David had the nerve to talk about symbols, I will have the
nerve to mention soul. I think that’s one of the variables. And since
Andrew had the nerve to talk about Marx, I will say that, in his
earlier writings, he claimed that the worst thing about capitalism
was that it robbed human beings of a kind of engagement with the
material world–“sensuous activity” or “productive activity”–which
he believed was the essence of what it meant to be human. I think
those of us who aren’t what Marx might have called completely
alienated, or what Jung might have called completely unconscious,
crave both soul and productive activity. And I think we may
sometimes even sense how much soul is in an object.

This doesn’t mean that mass produced objects can’t have some
soul–maybe it’s the soul of the designer, or maybe, by loving them,
we invest them with soul. I suspect that some "hand crafted"
work–that made, for example, in sweatshops–might have a kind of
soul we don’t really want in our lives. But I’m sure that some of us
love buying things from the maker because we make a kind of soul
connection that is rare in this society and then we get to "keep"
that connection via the object. And that some of us like to make
things “by hand” because we sense, however inchoately, that we are
doing something essential to being human.

So, I believe that the future of handcrafting is inextricably linked
to the future of both soul and resistance to alienation. I can only
pray that both survive.

Lisa Orlando
Albion, CA, US

I think it is sort of sad to see how so many people seem to be
abandoning the old ways of doing things, tearing down beautiful old
buildings & the surrounding trees to whip up some cheap mini
mansions, wanting to get everything cheap & fast, etc. That being
said, as I do shows (just got home from one yesterday), I’m pleased
by the attendees’ reactions to hearing about things being made from
scratch, wanting to know how it’s actually done, being impressed with
the fact that some things are still done by hand. I think there are
still lots of people who like things done that way, perhaps more than
the bean counters of the world give us credit for. Maybe I’m just
being overly optimistic, but I like to think there are still plenty
of us out there that still appreciate hand craftsmanship.

Designs by Lisa Gallagher

So, I believe that the future of handcrafting is inextricably
linked to the future of both soul and resistance to alienation. 

Lisa’s post puts things pretty well, I think. I’ve been resisting
this thread because my inclination is simply to say, “nonsense!” “I
can assure you that reports of my death are premature.” And Andrew
also puts it well - just because a computer is involved doesn’t mean
it’s “made by a computer.” It’s just another tool. There are many,
many tasks that CAD simply cannot do, or a least it would be 3x the
work. There are many, many tasks that computers can do, but the
results are inferior. And there are many, many people who know the
difference. The computer graphics field (CGI) is grappling with this
issue in a much larger way - many talented artists are doing
spectacular work on the computer, but they can’t make a living
because it’s not accepted by the traditional art world at all. It’s
an image, but it’s not “a painting”, and there’s much truth to that.
Personally, I don’t lay awake nights worrying about my own job
security. Almost all of my work is impossible to do with CAD - that
is without robotics and everything which is ridiculous for a single
job. Much of the rest of it I can finish in 1/2 the time it would
take to do on a computer with all the setup time, too. But I have
also been looking to put in CAD for myself, too…

Hi Kevin;

I would suggest that one may create signs, but not symbols. IMHO
symbols are discovered, not created. 

I might agree with you there, signs could be a better designation.
There are places where I think it is difficult to discern whether the
designation of sign of symbol is appropriate. But there are some
theorists who present the idea that the signs are always the same,
being echoed down through time, recreated in changing forms. This
seems to imply some preternatural origin. It reminds me of Jung’s
archetypes. But I tend to think that these forms originated some time
after phonetic elements and are part of the history of written
language (so I use the term “symbol”). They could be visual
abreviations for common objects. They are possibly the simplest
abstract visual representations possible, and their original
associations are largely forgotten, like a pictorial alphabet that
has fallen out of use but still haunts our collective memory. But I’m
usually looking at the older anthropological ideas, before the
semiots bunch took over. And I still confuse the “function” of the
anthropologist with that of the art historian.

David L. Huffman


I had Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious in mind.

Perhaps symbol is the visual expression of what in literary terms
might be thought of as metaphor. My thought on metaphor is that it
expresses something one can’t really express in ‘so many words’.
Sometimes one can surround verbally a concept but can’t really ‘nail
it’; it has numinosity. But then we’re into poetry. My notion of sign
is that it can be an exact representation unlike symbol.


Hello Charles (& Jennifer too) Friedman,

You mentioned the advancements/changes in producing tooth
restorations. My nephew (DDS) is in a dental office that used the
CAD/CAM technology to cut crowns on site. After the tooth is prepared
and the digital images are made, the patient waits in the lobby for a
couple hours, then is immediately fitted with the permanent crown.

My question is how durable are these crowns? You probably know.

Judy in Kansas

A highly relevant article by Charles Lewton-Brain.

Also, he’s opened a lulu shop where you can buy downloads of some of
his books.


Hard to Find Tools for Metal Clay

http://www.ganoksin.com/borisat/nenam/goldsmithing-future.htm A
highly relevant article by Charles Lewton-Brain. 

I’ve always enjoyed Charles’ writings; that article has a lot of
great ideas. I can’t wait for those polishing nanobots! But another
thing he brought up doesn’t require any great leap forward in
technology - where can we get investment powder that doesn’t contain
free silica? There are other materials that are equally (or more)
inert at the required temperatures; the only thing silica has going
for it is cheapness, and it’s an exercise in false economy if it
ultimately makes you sick. Does anybody know of any sources, or
should I start experimenting?

Andrew Werby

Hi Kevin;

Sounds like you might enjoy some of Mark Johnson’s work, such as
Metaphors We Live By. I think Mark is a prof at U. of Oregon these
days. This stuff was all the rage in academic metalsmithing programs
back in the late 80’s-early 90’s. The “fine” arts people, especially
the sculptors, were still stuck on Suzie Gablic and were dithering
around with the deconstructionists, like Derrida and especially
Beaudrillard (failed Marxists IMHO), but I doubt they really
understood the stuff. Dropping a name or phrase was enough. There’s
an anthropologist, maybe a linguist (at least I think that’s what he
is) by the name of George Kubler you might look at too. Check out his
The Shape of Time. His stuff is a little dry but he may be the first
I’d heard of that worked with the idea of a sign being something
repeated through history by artists (or whoever, actually).

David L. Huffman

where can we get investment powder that doesn't contain free

Small amounts are sold at http://www.cooltools.us

Hard to Find Tools for Metal Clay