A Sunday Chat with Myself—Craftsmanship

“Craftsmanship names an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake.”   — Richard Sennet

There is an ancient story about a craftsman who was assigned a job to finishing some detail carpentry work located behind and out of sight place of a very ornate alter in a medieval Christian chapel.  At best, it would be seen only in dim light. A “quickie job” by normal standards. But the craftsman  laboured painstakingly for several days, concentrating on even the closest measurement and finest detail until it met his high standard of perfection.

A passerby, watching the craftsman and the attention he was paying to his work was puzzled, and finally commented, “Kind sir, why do you take such pains with something that will be hidden and won’t even be seen by the public?

The craftsman paused from his work and looked up at the passerby. “You are correct, sir. No public person may see my work that I do here—but God will see it—and I will know that I have done the very best job that I am capable of doing.”

I’m sure that this craftsman’s standards, and hundreds like him, is the reason why so many ancient medieval architectural marvels still stand today, even after hundreds of years of natural weathering, plus the abuse they must have suffered during the first and second World Wars.

Part of my time in the military was spent overseas in Germany just after the second World War. We were stationed near a small, very medieval town called Soest. During my free time I loved walking along its cobblestoned, narrow, winding streets and marvel at its antiquity. No one knew exactly how old the town was. Some of its chapels even predated Christianity, and I was told that Julius Caesar once stood with his mighty army at its stone-fortressed wall, parts of which are still standing to this day.

Here, in Canada, we consider a residential home over 50 years of age to be old with many owners considering tearing it down and building a new one. Yet in Europe where many of these magnificent shops and homes have stood as comfortable, useful dwellings and businesses, they still stand as solid as the day they were built.

What is the difference between these majestic old structures that seem eternal, and our modern buildings that hardly last a person’s lifetime?

“Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of intelligent effort.”  — John Ruskin

I recently did a small screen printing job for a firm in town. I’m a screen printer and sign painter—retired—by trade. Because of its complexity, it took more than the usual allotted time to complete, and only charged a few dollars for my efforts. I was asked, “Shouldn’t I be charging according to time spent, rather than the value of the piece?” The concern was, how did I expect to make a decent wage if I didn’t charge according to time spent on a job?

The job wasn’t for a new client who might not have reordered again. This was a long-time customer who had been using my services for over 30 years, and I gambled that he’d be back another day with an order that would be profitable for me; or maybe just present him with a small thank you invoice for the many years of service I had received from this client. Loyalty and an assurance of reliable, quality of service was at play here. It was something like me going to Home Hardware to buy a screw. The shop owner has to take the time to find the screw, place it in a bag, then print out a receipt of purchase. His time and material value for this transaction would hardly compensate for the fifty cents that I ended up paying for the screw.

“Real craftsmanship, regardless of the skill involved, reflects real caring, and real caring reflects our attitude about ourselves, about our fellowmen, and about life.”                            — Spencer W. Kimball

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