These are my hands assembling some small furniture components made of cherry wood in my backwoods workshop. Besides being useful, making things is a solid anchor for many of us.Craftsmanship is the extent to which a person aims towards excellence, especially in any venture involving hands-on workmanship. It’s a product of skill, knowledge, experience and effort. And while craftsmanship pays off for the people in your life who enjoy your furniture, renovations and vehicles that run reliably, it also seems to me that craftsmanship pays off most of all for the craftsman. At least that’s what I’ve noticed.

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Why else would the happiest, most stable and satisfied people I know all pursue some kind of craftsmanship seriously? Why is it that the failing, frazzled and frustrated people I see seem to have no place in their lives for making or fixing things well?

Craftsmanship In All Things

The craftsmanship I’m talking about here – the kind that sustains the craftsman on the inside – is possible given any budget and any time constraints. It’s not about having the best materials to work with, an open-ended schedule nor an amazing project idea. These things are often out of our control and hardly ever happen in the real world anyway. You can’t count on them. No, in my experience, the craftsmanship that sustains comes from a belief that human beings were made for a better world than we find ourselves in.  We’re not just an accidental collection of molecules on a ball of rock hurtling through space, eventually dying a meaningless death after a meaningless existence. There’s such a thing as absolute right and wrong, there is such a thing as good work and bad work, and there’s such a thing as absolute beauty. When I build things with craftsmanship in mind, I’m aiming to bring one tiny part of my world into better alignment with the perfect world of beauty, peace and permanence that I feel drawn towards. In 30+ years of working seriously with my hands, I’ve found nothing more inwardly sustaining than this one goal – to work towards the kind of ideal world of beauty and quality I wish I lived in all the time.

carving benchtop
This is one of my favourite incised carving patterns. I apply this design to many things I build, including doors and furniture.

Why Craftsmanship Matters

If all this sounds wispy and sensitive, I agree. But isn’t it also true that many times in life it’s the little things that matter most – especially the little things in your mind and heart? These are the places where the battle for joy and sanity are won or lost. Sure, if you’re a working person, you’ve got tasks to complete and deadlines to meet. If you’re retired, you’ll be a rare person if you don’t have health concerns, concerns about your kids, the state of the world or what happens when this short life of ours is over. We all have to struggle with challenging realities and insufficient time and resources. Life is difficult. All the more reason to aim for excellence to the extent that our circumstances allow it. Don’t do it primarily for others (as much as they’ll appreciate it), do it for something larger. When you walk away from the tools at the end of a Saturday in the shop, you can take pride and satisfaction knowing that the work you did that day is as good as you could make it. You tried to align yourself with the ultimate good. Perhaps you got close to it.

In one way every craftsmanship decision is unique because no two craftsmanship situations are exactly alike. But in another way, every craftsmanship decision is the same because they all come down to the same choice: “Will I do what’s easier here and now, or what moves this project a little closer to the ideal of beauty, durability and efficiency?”  The reason your answer to this question matters is because sustained success and inner satisfaction takes something beyond just the practical. At least for me, it takes a craftsman’s heart.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about here, please excuse me. Not everyone has the drive of craftsmanship inside. That’s okay. We’re wired differently. All I know for sure is that when I look around and see people who are reliably happy, stable and accomplished, more often than not I see people who make it a point to pursue some version of the craftsmanship that sustains. Some of us were made to make things. If this is you, then regular craftsmanship should be something you pursue.

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– Steve Maxwell