There is no place for CNC machines in Craft.
What did I mean when I made this statement recently on Instagram?
To begin I would like to clarify, I am not a Luddite opposed to digital technologies, yearning for the past, the old ways, we use and rely on these technologies ourselves in various ways.
I think the first thing is to define Craft, craft exists alongside, or stuck between, two other activities; art and manufacture/making.
It seems to me that the purpose of art is ultimately the self expression of the artist. The purpose of manufacture/making is simply to make, nothing more. The difference between art and craft is that craft is about making something of use, self expression is secondary. Clearly there is, and should be craft in art, also making in art. Likewise there can be craft in making, but not art in making.
Craft could be generally defined as the applied skill of the artist or craftsperson. The craft of singing, dancing, ceramics, painting, woodwork, the list goes on. David Pye referred to this as the Workmanship of Risk (WoR) In our work we mitigate this risk firstly by skill and knowledge, also by introducing elements of the Workmanship of Certainty (WoC) jigs, templates etc. Even the most basic shooting board eliminates a lot of WoR but still falls within WoR as it does rely on the hand skill of the maker. Also making of the jig in the first place, ensuring the shooting plane is sharp and set up properly, and last but not least, the knowledge of how to use it correctly.
As a person practising the old tradition of furniture making I am the recipient of the centuries of accumulated knowledge of the craft, most of which has been learned by other people’s mistakes. It is my duty in exchange for this knowledge to preserve it, add my little bit and then pass it on. So this is one general/overall definition of craft, the skilled and knowledgeable activity of whatever it is we are doing.
However I think it was George Nakashima who lamented the passing of Craft in favour of skilled technicians. There is an element of craft that goes beyond the application of the physical skill and knowledge of the craftsperson and it is this area where I think that cnc technology has no place. This very personal, direct and intimate relationship with the material and the working of it can have no intermediary. A cnc machine cannot feel or smell the material, anticipate what the material will do. Make subconscious corrections in the working. It’s just a machine, usually very expensive but just a machine, a tool and not always the best tool for the task in hand at that. Because of the expense cnc machines frequently are used when really they shouldn’t, or designs are changed to suit the machine…
CNC machines function in what David Pye defined as the Workmanship of Certainty (WoC) Although the programming, CAD drafting and general setting up of the machine do come under his heading of WoR. As he notes in regard to making of jigs etc.
It is this aspect of craft, the one on one relationship where a cnc machine has no place. A good design can be made with a cnc machine. Their speed, power and accuracy is amazing, having once owned one I can attest to this. However their use falls in the realm of making and manufacture. Whether it’s useful objects or art, it doesn’t matter, they make stuff and that is all. But this activity all falls in the realm of making, not Craft with a capital C.
Progress brings new methods and technologies, frequently surpassing and superceding those that went before. Digital technologies do this at a pace never seen before. Whilst operating and programming a CNC machine are new skills, frequently highly skilled for the operators. Likewise CAD and particularly 3D CAD. But this comes at a price, mostly laziness. Getting the machines to do things simply because it’s easier. I’m as guilty of this as anyone else. My work frequently involves compound angles. Do I calculate these the old way? No, I make a 3d model and measure the angles. I get my patterns and jigs etc laser cut. I could do them by hand but I post rationalise to myself my laziness by sayings it’s quicker and more cost effective this way (which it is!)
I mitigate the WoR in the shaping of the components of my furniture by using templates etc made by WoC. Assuming that the setting up and drafting (WoR )are done correctly. But it’s still up to me to machine these parts successfully (WoR)
Can a craftsperson subcontract some of the making/manufacture side of their activity to another maker? Yes of course. Does it make a difference if this subcontractor is a machine? No. The great sculptors and painters in the past certainly had assistants who did the bulk of the tedious roughing out work. The great master only monitoring progress then adding the final refinement and touch of genius.
If I claim to be craftsperson and it transpires that I give very detailed instructions to someone else who actually does the work, am I still a craftsperson? Does it make any difference that other maker is a machine?
Clearly there is an aspect of craft generally that is highly concerned with manufacture/making and to a certain extent efficient working is part of this aspect of the craft. There are many aspects of furniture making that couldn’t really be described as pure craft. Thicknessing timber for example. We listen to the sound of the cutter block to monitor what’s going on but providing the machine has been set up properly (WoR) we really are almost totally in the realm of Workmanship of Certainty
WoC is about the removal as much as possible of human error and variation in what is going on and this, to me at least, removes whatever vital spark the WoR adds or leaves in the work. There is no freedom or diversification.
Craft with a capital C to me is all about the intimate relationship between the craftsperson and their medium. It is about the process and interaction more than the product, David Pye’s words are still very relevant and prescient but he was still primarily concerned with the product and not the process. You cannot get someone else to kiss your lover then claim to have kissed them yourself. Even though your lover has certainly been kissed.
This is why I think that there is no place for cnc machine in Craft, within the very specific definition of Craft, above.