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The Craftsman: It takes one to know one

Nick walks through the job site on his morning rounds.

I have been a carpenter for 35+ years. I did not go to trade school. I was fortunate to have worked with (but not apprenticed to) great craftsmen who were generous with their knowledge. I see their faces and recite their names: Tony, Dom, Bernie, and Jack.

I attended American University in Washington, D.C., where I enjoyed a range of subjects including philosophy, literature, science, and math. I received a BA in Sociology in 1974.

Washington, D.C. was a great place to live in those years. I drove a cab for pocket-money and I could actually park the car by the Jefferson monument and walk inside for a moment of inspiration (those days are over!). I was deeply influenced by literature, such as “Be Here Now” and “Small is Beautiful.”

In the post Vietnam War years, the need to make a living led me into “the trades.” I did a good deal of painting and small repair projects, started collecting tools as I needed them, and began the steep climb toward craftsmanship.

The soul of a craftsman

At first it was all about attitude – because you don’t just “become” a carpenter.

It takes at least 10 years of study and hard work, never being satisfied short of perfection. Inside the soul of the craftsman is the desire to master the tools and techniques of the trade. Seeing great craftsmanship everywhere I looked, I was a copycat with an artist’s eye. While my early work fell short of perfection, it looked good enough to the untrained eye.

In my building/general-contracting world I am surrounded by capable souls. You don’t last long in this business if you don’t supply a good product. What separates the craftsmen/masters from the competent technicians is that “attitude” I spoke about earlier. They are calmly quiet, thinking about the overall impact of the task at hand, particularly the structural aspects that are hidden from view behind the superficial. The tools of the craftsman are clean, orderly, and sharp. We have a saying: “Nothing is more dangerous than a dull tool.” At the highest level, that of the cabinet maker and the wood carver, the passion for precision can be borderline obsessive. I know, because I have worked with many of them. Perfection is a harsh mistress.

Quality, integrity, and honest work are seen everywhere in life. It is ultimately about taking responsibility for your actions. We pass the products, these artisanal results of the craftsman’s care, on to the next generation, often lasting decades.

Years ago on a large renovation project, Tony and I opened up the wall in the old bathroom. I didn’t know then what he meant when he said, “This guy was thinking of me.”  The clean lines of the inner stud framing made his task that day so much easier. Now I know.