Nobody respects craftsmanship anymore

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.

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6 thoughts on “Nobody respects craftsmanship anymore

  • July 24, 2012 at 7:43 am

    Refinishing that old cabinet might not be as hard as you think. I did quite a bit of furniture refinishing with a buddy of mine as a teenager, and I’m sure things are better (and much less toxic) than they were thirty years ago. Just be sure to follow the directions, work in well-ventilated areas (outdoors is best), and dispose of the rags when you’re done. We did a couple of dressers and some overhead cabinets and reinstalled the cabinets for his Grandma.

    Of course, the guy who bought that solid little 900 square foot house and the .25 acre lot tore it down, cut down the trees, and built a McMansion with a fountain and 3 car garage… At the time, the county had no building requirements preventing you from building a house that extends to your setback limit all around EVERY edge of your property…

    • July 24, 2012 at 5:34 pm

      Nice idea. I was actually hoping that maybe, just maybe, when I removed the paint the finish underneath would be serviceable. But if not, I wouldn’t mind trying my hand at refinishing it.

      It’s a shame about that house’s fate. 900 square feet and .25 acre is an ideal rental property. There are young families who need houses like that to rent until they’re ready to buy something bigger. That’s big enough to live in, but not so big that taking care of it consumes your life.

  • July 24, 2012 at 11:42 am

    The war is over. The ants lost. The grasshoppers won.
    Go out and buy something. Spend! Spend! Spend! You can’t take it with you, [rest of comment deleted. Let’s keep this non-political and on-topic, please.]

  • July 24, 2012 at 10:31 pm

    Every time you talk about saving money and investing you are entering the realm of politics. The politicians want you to do it their way. Their way is not to work and save. They want to tax you, both alive and dead, after all it’s not your work that gave you your success, but the government that provides for you.
    I understand that you don’t want to discuss this, because in the future it could cost you a job. I’m surprised at some of the subjects that you broach, because of the possibility that you might offend an employer. Good luck with the next job.

    No need to post this, even though it is on the subject of some of your last few posts.
    “There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”
    Will Rogers

    • July 26, 2012 at 4:44 pm

      Actually, money and investing don’t have to be political at all. Politicians can want whatever they want, but in the end, it’s my decision.

      There are some uncomfortable topics that are OK for me to broach, and some that are not. Politics is not. If you want to discuss politics, you’re going to have to discuss them someplace else. If I ever had to make a choice between a day of unemployment and this blog, it’s an incredibly easy decision to make. The blog would go.

  • July 27, 2012 at 9:52 pm

    That 900 square foot house was one they built when Grandma didn’t want to move to a home. I remember hearing them talk with my parents about it (and this was back in 1978 or 1979) and telling them that it was going to cost them about two years worth of nursing home bills to build the house – and the garage – and the chicken coop – and the shed… Grandma lived with them for another twelve years before passing away, so it was a pretty good investment, I guess.

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