Craftsmanship

This corner of the website is devoted to craftsmanship.  I’ve made the better part of my living as a craftsman for over two decades.  I started making graphite fly and spin rods, then was sidetracked into restoring a few bamboo rods, which eventually led to an apprenticeship in the art of making bamboo rods from scratch.  After a few years trying to scratch out a living as a rodmaker, I realized I could do more for the craft and more for my family by shifting into an educational role, at which point I taught classes and produced a few videos on the subject, while also expanding our company into tools and components.  I kept my hands dirty, and occasionally bloody, with craft work, and still do.  The bulk of the non-vintage stripping guides we sell, and a portion of the hook tenders and other components, are crafted at my bench.  It’s a messy bench.  Some of the best ones are.

 

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Within the context of my shop, I work as a craftsman, which typically fills about half my work days, seven days a week when we’re not closed for travel.  Working on the business – emails, ordering, packing, shipping – consumes the other half of my work day.  Beyond managing a craft business and being employed as a craftsman, I read about craftsmanship.  I’m curious about how craftsmen (and craftswomen – I have a daughter who is very much a craftsperson-in-training) become, and how they maintain.  Though outside the formal tradition of an eighteenth century apprentice – journeyman – master succession, I was engaged in something akin to an apprenticeship and my daughter is going through a related process in the Sugar Arts.  I studied under, and she is studying under, a master of the discipline, and we are each indebted and effected by our respective master.  Where we know and follow tradition, we follow tradition as they understood it; where we break from tradition, we break from our master and their lineage, often breaking no further than they themselves broke from their teachers.  We move just far enough to continue the very thing we’ve become part of, even as we struggle to mark our efforts as unique.  We suffer from what Harold Bloom diagnosed as The Anxiety of Influence – the creative tension which is bound up, like the Gordian Knot, between the individual desire to achieve and the social & cultural milieu which boxes the individual, left and right, fore and aft, marking them out as a student of so-and-so, or a member of this school of thought or process, or a participant to that reaction against such-and-such an ossified structure.  There are other structural limits, too, both physical and intellectual.  Stray too far from the sweet and the edible and you’re probably not a Sugar Artist, though the best exemplars of this skill set craft such magnificent sculptures from sugar that it would be almost criminal to consume them.  The writer desires to write the next great novel – the novel, the newness – yet to do something novel he must write in a language that is laced with history and meaning, tradition, nuance, denotation and connotation…too many neologisms, or a new language entire, will consign him to indifference from the audience he seeks to attract.  Too many re-definitions or expansions of more commonplace words and structures will leave the author at risk of being perpetually misunderstood (here I’m thinking of the other Whitehead, Alfred North, more famous, generally, though outside my primary craft tradition; yes, philosophy is a craft tradition in its own right).  And so too for the musician…stray too far from Western musical structure and the western ear might hear the intrigue of Eastern music, Asian or Arabic, but stray much further and most ears hear junk.  Re-organize the aural junk, though, pace it, pause it, make it orderly and increasingly complex, and we’re back to music, viz., Stomp.  We respond to order, particularly order which we have been raised to recognize.

How far can we stray and still remain valid?  What defines validity?  This moves into the antitheses of commercial success and artistic success.  But how far can the one go without the other?  We can all starve ourselves into submission, but submission to what?  Literal death.  Or the little death of commercial viability.  Is it unfortunate to make things which are desired?  Is it fair to charge for bespoke objects, bespoke ideas?  Few master craftsmen or artists achieve mastery without appealing to buyers, or at least one buyer, a patron.

Related: only a portion of skilled individuals become successful within their craft or art because too many do starve themselves back into ‘real’ jobs by their inattention to business matters.  Part of my homeschool program for my daughter revolves around near daily discussions with her about running a small business, managing clients & suppliers, shifting gears between working in, and working on, the business.  I’d be much more content if I could spend every day with the vinyl spinning while I made whatever came to mind for the day, week, or month, be that a bamboo fishing rod, a metal sculpture of an insect *(see the et cetera below), a work bench, a strip canoe, a book case, a ring or a pendant for my wife or daughters, stands for my turntable & speakers, etc.  My muse is highly variable.  My paycheck isn’t.  It derives, in large measure, from making agate & nickel silver stripping guides for traditional fly rods, and from boxing up bamboo for other rodmakers.  Teaching paid better on an hourly basis, back when I did that, but running in-depth classes for students who traveled great distances to spend a week in my shop meant being “on” from sunrise until well past supper.  That sort of schedule didn’t work once the kids were old enough to be active…teaching them became my foremost concern, and I can make parts, almost automatically, with skilled fingers while responding to inquisitive kids.  I can talk while bundling bamboo.

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My jobs, within the realm of bamboo rodmaking, have evolved repeatedly over the past two decades.  From student to instructor, from custom-product craftsman to designer and back to craftsman.  Now there’s a sea change coming, and the first swells are already tilting the hull, beginning to rock the boat.  In only about three and a half years my youngest daughter will be a young adult, out of the house, studying pastries at some culinary institute, or interning at the elbow of a master chocolatier in Europe.  My job will shift again once the last of my kids no longer needs me on a daily basis.  This blog, Goat Waters, prefigures the inevitable, and highly anticipated, shift as I move from a job where I’m fixed to a bench, to one where I can travel so long as there is a camera and a journal, or maybe even a keyboard, close at hand.

-Russ

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This page has subpages:

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And the Et Cetera portion of this page:

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Where do ideas come from?  From all your sources, the life you’ve lived so far – actively and passively, if the act of reading or watching is passive, which I doubt.  Here’s one example.  SOAP.  It is a small collection of insects, scroll-sawn, hammered, and then decorated with gun blue and soldered scraps: Sprawling on a Pin.  This is what happens when you combine a youth spent collecting skewered critters, leftover sheet and wire, and a recent reading of Lovesong… by T.S. Eliot.  These bugs aren’t masterful, but they sure were fun to make.

“And I have known the eyes already, known them all-

The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,

When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,

Then how should I begin…”

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Photo Credit….I shot all the images on this page except that backlit wire-bezelled guide on the wooden bench.  I made this guide for a client, AB, in Europe who needed a large stripping guide for a salmon rod; he photographed the guide and shared the picture.  Not many of my clients opt for custom guides, especially one-off guides where I don’t produce a small batch after the prototype is approved.  With no batching to spread design costs and no minor assembly-line process to quicken the time/guide in production, a one-off guide is a stand alone piece that partakes of both the jeweler’s arts and the angling arts.  Functional beauty – if you appreciate hand-made components on a handmade rod, each perfect as the maker can manage, and yet subtlely imperfect as is the nature of human-made artifacts, with their imperfections as discreet as little typos only a copy editor would notice.  A stripper formed of agate and heavy nickel silver wire, even using tools like a twenty-ton electric forming press and a TIG micro-welder as mechanical aids, is a labor-intensive process with much hand shaping and polishing after the initial design & build phase.  Custom guides like this are expensive even at a shop rate of only $80.00/hour plus parts.  And that’s why they’re rare.