Generally speaking, I’m in favor of celebrating the spirit of amateurism; that we should make and do things for ourselves rather than always relying professionals and retailers. Even if our results aren’t perfect, the skills we develop in doing for ourselves are important in making us well-rounded humans. I’m no fan of Robert Heinlein’s politics, but this aphorism from the Notebooks of Lazarus Long has always resonated with me:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

The scripting posts I publish here are a reflection of that spirit. I’m not a professional programmer, and I’m sure that shows, but I enjoy programming and try to demonstrate competence in my scripts. I hope that shows, too.

So I’m bothered by my reaction to the “maker” culture that’s extolled on Boing Boing and in the Make and Craft magazines and websites. I should be nodding my head in agreement, but I grind my teeth.

Part of my reaction comes from the hipster gloss that’s put on what is nothing more than a set of old-fashioned do-it-yourself articles. Building a bookshelf isn’t edgy or subversive, no matter how many tattoos and piercings the builder has. At heart, it’s the same project I used to read about in my Dad’s Popular Mechanics.

Actually, too often it’s not the same project, and that’s my other complaint. The old DIY articles didn’t equate amateur with incompetent. The project might be easy or it might be hard, but the goal was to produce something decent and useful and to gain some skill along the way. Many “maker” projects display no interest in skills or quality.

The project that set me off is this one, currently featured on the Craft website and linked to a couple of days ago on Boing Boing. It’s a display case for Lego minifigs, a simple project that could be a fun addition to a kid’s room if it were executed well. It’s not.

(Before I get into the criticism, let me start by saying that I really don’t want to be mean to the people who made this case. My beef isn’t with them; it’s with the Craft/Make/Boing Boingers who’ve decided to hold this project up as an exemplar.)

The case is made from a 1×2 pine frame with luan shelves and dividers. The pieces are put together with slotted joints cut on a table saw. From the very first photo in the article, which shows the finished case, we can see there are problems.

Final display case

The luan splintered a bit as it was cut. Not unusual, and not a big problem if you clean the damned splinters off the piece before you paint it. Honestly, who paints a piece of wood without picking the splinters off first?

The same sort of person, apparently, who thinks its OK to paint a rough, stud grade 1×2 with deep mill marks still on the surface. This isn’t the kind of wood typically used out in the open—there are better grades of pine for finish work—but if you want to use it you should at least sand it down before painting. Some of the pieces look like they’re growing hair. The paint ends up enhancing the mill marks, making the piece look worse, not better.

What I found most curious, though, was the uneven fit to the joints between the shelves and the dividers. Given that the slots were cut on a table saw, they should be uniform in depth, and the fit—good or bad—should be the same across all the joints. Maybe he let the pieces ride up as he pushed them over the blade, maybe he didn’t cut them to the same width in the first place, maybe he didn’t slide them together fully—whatever the reason, it’s sloppy work.

And speaking of sloppy, look at the end of this pine piece:

Pine frame piece

The scalloped surface comes from not taking the time to ensure your cuts overlap as you run the piece back and forth over the table saw blade. This is going to make the joints look like hell.

Painting the case

Told you.

By the way, this photo really shows how the paint brings out the mill marks in the pine.

I have other criticisms. I don’t like his choice to use a 1×1 instead of a 1×2 as the center upright in the frame. I think he should have put the joints between the shelves and the frame on the back side of the case instead of the front. But those kinds of mistakes are easy to make the first time you do a project. It’s the poor workmanship on the joints and the inexplicable failure to sand and clean up the surfaces before painting that really bother me. There is no craftsmanship to this craft.

So why is it featured, without apologies, on the website of a magazine named Craft? There is, of course, the need to feed the beast. New articles drive page views and page views are paramount. But I think the deeper problem is that the editorial oversight is done by people who don’t appreciate the time and effort it takes to develop actual skills. For them, this “maker” thing is just another topic to write and speak about for a few years, while they wait to move on to the next meme. They promote mediocrity instead of craftsmanship because they don’t know the difference.

6 Responses to “Craft”

  1. Daniel says:

    I think there’s a lot of value in Make and Craft in that they do have lower expectations for what counts as achievement. Rather than showing some ideal outcome, they often document the reality of making and experimenting as an amateur, especially at an introductory level: things aren’t going to be perfect. A lot of how-to and DIY writing hides that reality by only showing the pretty and polished outcomes (or even the process itself, hiding the mess). I’ve never worked with wood before, but I have picked up a woodworking magazine before and it’s utterly intimidating. They (hopefully inadvertently) say, since you haven’t been exposed to this since birth, it’s clear you shouldn’t bother. Make and Craft and the various blogs in that community, on the other hand, really seem to emphasize approachability.

    And taking the article in that sense of documentation and approachability, I think this is a needlessly harsh review of the project. Did you read the About the Author bit at the end? The author is quilter and, so, the project lacks things for want of a woodworking expert. Sure, this project has flaws, but good enough to work is often better than never attempted.

  2. james says:

    I beginning to dislike you Dr Drang, your blog posts seem to be increasingly critical of others.

  3. Dr. Drang says:

    I appreciate your position, Daniel, and I hope you believe it when I say I spent quite a bit of time thinking about whether I should write this post. I knew it would be harsh, and—lower-case james to the contrary—that’s generally not what I do here. But I don’t think it was needlessly harsh, and I’d like to tell you why.

    The author of the Craft piece, the young quilter in the photo at the bottom of the article, did not make the display case; her boyfriend, described in the lead paragraph as a “master craft-table builder” did. Those are presumably his hairy arms in the photographs, not hers.

    Is he really a master craft-table builder? I don’t know, but I do know from the article and the photos that he works in shop (his garage, it looks like) equipped with a table saw. Now, a table saw is not a neophyte’s tool. It requires a serious investment of both money and space, and considering that this guy’s workshop is in his garage, I doubt he has a lot of either. If he has a table saw tucked in his garage, he’s not a rank beginner. He knows better than to make the mistakes I pointed out.

    Does his skill level matter? Of course it does. If this were a kid’s project, I’d think it was wonderful. I’d still think some editorial oversight— a short section on how the reader could improve on the author’s work, for example—would be warranted, but it wouldn’t trigger me to write a post about it.

    I agree with you on the need for articles at all skill levels. Make and Craft do that, but so do most traditional DIY magazines I’ve seen. (Even something at the level of Fine Woodworking has beginner’s material, but what they consider a beginner is pretty advanced.) It’s true that the traditional DIY publications try to show you well-done examples of the projects, regardless of the skill level, but I don’t consider that a negative. At every level of skill, an effort should be made to do a good job.

    That’s what bothered me about the display case project, and that’s why I called the failure to clean up the surfaces before painting “inexplicable.” Adults, especially adults who’ve done woodworking before, know better.

    And if you’re still interested in woodworking, don’t give up. There are, as I said, publications pitched at every level. Find the ones at your level and see if it’s the hobby for you. If it is, it won’t take too long for you to work your way up the skill ladder, and you’ll enjoy the climb. My dad was a serious amateur woodworker (yes, I’m sure that contributed to my annoyance at the display case project), and he was never happier than when he was working in his shop.

  4. Daniel says:

    Thanks for the response, Dr. Drang.

    I did miss the “master craft-table builder” bit and that (supposing it’s not an ill-advised exaggeration) definitely ought to raise expectations. I can’t say I’m enthusiastic about defending this particular piece, as even I can appreciate the judicious application of sandpaper. But I still stand by my appreciation for Make and Craft. I think their enthusiasm is infectious and is a kind of anti-hipsterism; they seem to genuinely like the act of making, unironically. Make and Craft have inadequacies, but they’re not alone in teaching this stuff. There’s clearly a big unmet demand to learn how to make stuff and they satisfy a part of that, as do the traditional DIY publications. I’d hate it if Make cornered the market, but for now they offer something encouraging.

    As for your consideration about writing this post, I appreciate where you’re coming from. As a technical writer, I literally write directions for a living. I get the temptation to rag on this kind of writing, too, though for different reasons (let’s not talk about, say, Instructables). But the question of what makes for good criticism has reminded me a bit of Pixar’s Ratatouille. Near the end of the movie, Anton Ego writes his review of Gusteau’s restaurant, saying:

    In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.

    Making good use of negative criticism is deceptively difficult. It’s easy to find fault, but it’s hard to find the right way to make note of it. Too little and what’s the point? Too much and it’s cruel. And no matter how finely-tuned it is, you can still get complainers like me, calling it needlessly this or that.

  5. Michael says:

    While I agree the work in these often looks rough, I disagree about this being intentional.

    They’re GOING for roughspun. It’s like leaving lumps in your mashed potatoes, to make it look rougher, and being okay with that.

    They’re going for approachability in the project, making it easier to look better than the guide than caring about presenting an idealized item perfectly made to actual furniture standards. It’s okay with them if the project is a bit slapdash: People who that’s not okay will correct it, people it is okay will not.

    I know my father made a bit of very very nice furniture in his wood working shop, and TONS of very serviceable items of lesser quality. That ended up being far more useful than the considerable number of well finished pieces.

  6. Herb says:

    I got a kick out of: “Building a bookshelf isn’t edgy or subversive, no matter how many tattoos and piercings the builder has.”

    Hopefully you’ll find this as funny as I did: