WoodCentral's Book Reviews
The Nature And Art of Workmanship

The Nature And Art of Workmanship
by David Pye

Cambium Press: 1968
Paperback, 143 pp., $22.95
ISBN 0-9643999-0-3

     David Pye was a British master craftsman, a highly educated industrial designer and Professor of Furniture Design at the Royal College of Art, London. He died in 1993, but his thoughtful writings and teachings have long been a major influence in the woodworking world.
     Defining anything in terms of art usually leads a conversation straight into a quagmire, yet most people are certain they know what art is not. Pye has, in this volume, defined what is valuable in terms of workmanship on two levels: the workmanship of risk, meaning a quality of work dependent on the judgment, dexterity and care with which one works, and the workmanship of certainty, which involves predetermined results before a thing is made, such as in automated production.
     Questions of good or bad workmanship do not turn on 'truth to material' or on honesty or deception," Pye says. "Bad workmanship is a matter of making mistakes through hurry, carelessness or ineptitude, which thwart the designů
     By example and theory, Pye shows the reader how to judge value in both one's own work and the work of others. "In free workmanship, the flat surface is not quite flat, but shows a faint pattern of tool marks. The effect of such approximations is to contribute very much to the aesthetic quality in workmanship which I shall call diversity."
     Pye's book gives definition to the qualities by which superior craftsmanship outshines the ordinary. By the end of his lifetime (this volume was first published in 1968), the wide ranging popularity of fine woodworking was well under way. When he had apparently despaired of a true 'workmanship of risk' even surviving, it seems from editor John Kelsey's introduction that the broad swing of a revival of interest in new design and craftmanship, gave the author hope that even worldwide recession would not extinguish the originality and accomplishment of the 'designer maker.'
     This book reads like a long essay on why it is vitally important to care about one's own craftmanship. The author weaves a thread of reality in the interdependence of design, drawings of an ideal form, and the execution of a design's intention. "There is far more in the appearance of the object than in its engraved design, and all of that has been added by workmanship, not by design."
     Black and white photos illustrate Pye's many definitions and concepts. For all its theory and high idealism, his writing is very down to earth and understandable. Accompanying a photo of a shamelessly sloppy, two-hundred year old drawer back, Pye says, "It is very bad workmanship indeed, but that has not prevented it from serving its purpose all those years. The nail with its point in the air has undeniably kept the bottom on the drawer. Workmanship is not to be judged on a merely utilitarian footing."
     And as for being down to earth, Pye's opinion in 1968 still holds as true as it ever was: "People are beginning to believe you cannot make even toothpicks without ten thousand pounds of capital. We forget the prodigies one man and a kit of tools can do if he likes the work enough." For everyone from beginning woodworker to advanced master craftsman, this is highly recommended reading.

. . . Barb Siddiqui