Chan Lowe: The skills of yore are scarce this Yule
PITTSFIELD — Since this is the season of buying and giving, it's appropriate to opine on what has happened over the years to our expectations and the quality of the stuff we purchase.
My hobby is woodworking, and as my wife will tell you, "woodworking" is really an excuse to collect lots of dedicated tools you rarely use, but love to just have around. When they are not in service, they reside in the workshop in mute testament to the owner's manliness. When employed, they act as a complement to his ability. Sometimes just getting a tool to work as designed is an accomplishment in itself.
My favorite tool is a jointer I acquired from an old-timer who could no longer trust himself not to do personal injury with it. A jointer, for those who don't know, is a stationary power tool that enables one to mill perfect right-angle faces on long pieces of wood by sliding the work along a "fence," or guide, and over a rotating drum containing razor-sharp knives that, when properly tuned, pare off almost microscopic layers of wood at a time. My jointer weighs about 200 lbs. and was probably built in the 1940s. It resembles a small aircraft carrier, and the machined surfaces were ground dead flat while the rest of it was left in its original rough cast steel form. The words "Rockwell" and "Toledo, Ohio" are molded right into the metal in raised relief, and inside the base is a signature scratched into the metal — the mark of the machinist who made the tool. It was rusty when it came into my possession, and I restored it.
Most interesting is the fact that the power source, an electric motor, sits on the open base below the tool, connected by a pulley belt to the cutting drum. The assumption here is that motors could continue to be replaced over the years as they burned out, while the tool itself would last pretty much forever.
WHEN US MADE STUFF
I could buy a new jointer, but there's no need. This one still works fine, and will certainly outlast its current owner. Moreover, most of the great, historic American brands have moved their manufacturing to China, which means wherever metal isn't absolutely necessary (and sometimes, even where it is), you will find plastic. If you nose around a junk store, you will find old power tools that were made in America when America still made stuff, and they display evidence of skilled hands that shaped things with milling tools rather than assembled molded plastic parts. They have mass and heft, and when found in a disused state they cry out for attention.
As a people, we have gotten used to the degradation of quality, because low cost has superseded durability on our list of priorities. My jointer may have set someone back a goodly sum when it was brand new, but the owner knew it would never fail him and that he would be able to hand it down to his grandchildren someday. That made it worth the outlay. Today's products are designed to be thrown out when they wear out.
We lament that the skilled jobs required to manufacture things have gone overseas, but that isn't really true. They've flat-out disappeared thanks to lack of demand. In fact, the artisanship contained in everyday objects that our grandparents counted on as a matter of course has become restricted to the elite. This time of year, glossy magazines burst with ads for one-of-a-kind Swiss watches, filigreed fountain pens and other unique luxury items that perform as symbols of the class separation between their buyer and common folk; a lifetime of learned skills went into their fabrication, and the embedded cost of employing such skills has become prohibitive to all but a few.
One might well ask: If there used to be a commercial environment wherein an artisan or skilled worker could make a decent living by putting so many man-hours into crafting a product, how could anyone afford to buy it? The answer is that we used to own fewer things, and we cherished what little we did own. A hand-sewn wedding gown was meant to be worn someday by the wearer's daughter and granddaughter. That set of frilly lace curtains in the Sears Roebuck catalog that a farm wife saved up egg money to buy would finally arrive at the railroad depot after what seemed like months of waiting. Socks with holes in them were darned, not discarded.
THE SOUL OF AN OBJECT
Should any of this matter? Maybe there's nothing to be said except that as a society, we've become happy consumers of ephemeral junk, the more the better. It's an evolutionary process upon which we should render no value judgment. On the other hand, why is there a steady market for "handcrafted this" and "artisanal that?" To me, something must be missing — and at the risk of sounding sappy and even a little weird, that missing component is an object's soul. Those old, crafted objects were the product of a person's mind and hands, not a robot. They were built not only to be utilized but to be marveled at, enjoyed and cherished. There was a mission embedded in each object that could not be declared accomplished until the user had — possibly through the acquisition of skills of his own — fulfilled its purpose. Repairing and maintaining it was not a chore, but an act of respect for the thing and the whole process that brought it into being — including the sacrifice that went into its acquisition.
Whenever I use my jointer, I feel a great sense of satisfaction when I run my finger along the silky-smooth surface that it — along with some assistance from me — creates on a piece of hardwood. And I imagine that somewhere beyond my ability to envision, a machinist from Toledo is nodding in approval.
Chan Lowe is the deputy editorial page editor of The Eagle and a syndicated editorial cartoonist.
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