The New York Times laments the decline of craftsmanship and its side effects in the United States.
A generation ago, it wasn’t terribly uncommon for men to make their own kitchen cabinets. And those cabinets, if built correctly, would last several lifetimes. The cabinets my great-great grandfather built before the turn of the previous century survived just fine into my lifetime. A year ago, a prospective tenant took me to task for having such handbuilt cabinets in a rental house, and pointed to a couple of other rental houses–with particle-board Home Depot junk in them–as having “better updates.”
In May, a professional painter told me about a rehab job he’d worked on. Someone tore out all of the handmade woodwork–all of it–and replaced it all with off-the-shelf stuff from a home-improvement store. “I don’t understand you, liking old things,” he said shortly. “I like new.”
This guy who likes new tore all the character out of that midcentury house. Those were the painter’s words, not mine. Now it looks like a Home Depot or Lowe’s sales flier. And in 10 years, it’ll be in shambles, and he’ll have to do it all again, while the original woodwork sits in a landfill somewhere. There’s a good chance that some Murphy’s Oil Soap would have made that old woodwork sparkle, and if that wasn’t quite enough, a little bit of touch-up stain would have made it look as good as it ever did, and ready to serve another century.
Here’s a true story. Back in April or May, I was at a birthday party at my rental house. A relative of the tenant came up to me. “You fixed up this house?” he asked. “You did an amazing job.”
I thanked him, but I didn’t do an amazing job. I did what the county required me to do, and I fixed anything else that bothered me. And if I got in over my head with anything that could have side effects, I called in a professional. But mostly what I did was look for holes, patch the holes, sand if necessary, re-patch when necessary, and then paint.
Apparently, being able to mix up some Durham’s Water Putty and apply it and knowing to paint walls a warm, dark beige makes me what passes for an average or slightly above-average craftsman today.
Now, in my defense, while my peers were learning to use power tools and work with wood, I was learning to build computers. I’m a little out of practice, but I’ve built armies of computers from off-the-shelf parts, and as far as the New York Times is concerned, that’s 21st-century craftsmanship–and rare, as well.
I’m not proud of my woodworking ability. The stuff I build holds together perfectly well–I can and have walked across my train tables and they don’t even sag–but it isn’t much to look at. My dad was a much better woodworker than I am, and his dad was better still. Neither of them were carpenters. They were doctors. But during their lifetimes, professional men were expected to be able to build things out of wood. My grandfather built some of the furniture he used in his medical practice. Dad built handsome toyboxes for my sister and me. That toybox is in my oldest son’s room today. Building a duplicate of it for my younger son is beyond my ability. The toybox Dad made for my sister is a different design, so I need to study that one and see if I can copy it for my younger son.
I think a self-respecting dad ought to be able to build toyboxes for his children. I seem to be in the minority on that view.
I bought another house earlier this year. Much of its original woodwork is there. I preserved what I could. The bathroom was renovated in the 1970s using stuff from Sears. I know this because the Sears tags survive inside some of the cabinetry, and it all matches. I cleaned it up as best I could, put a fresh coat of paint on it, and replaced the hardware to make it look less dated.
Out in the shed, I found the original medicine cabinet. It was painted at some point in its life, but beneath the peeling paint, you can see a rich, beautiful stained finish. Replacing the Sears cabinet isn’t practical, because it has the bathroom’s only electrical fixtures in it as well. But I sure would like to try my hand at removing that old paint, fixing whatever’s wrong with the finish beneath it, and installing it in the bathroom I use.
Even after spending four decades in a shed, exposed to temperature extremes and humidity, it looks pretty good. It held up better than the mass-produced Sears cabinet in the bathroom, in fact.