For going on twenty years now I have made a living teaching history, usually some version of United States history. And some time every January I have found myself discussing the Industrial Revolution, the plight of the craftsperson and the changing nature of labor. I have always wondered at the cruel irony where, say, shoemakers watched their businesses wither as cheap, mass-produced knockoffs flooded the market, only to find themselves forced by necessity to take a job in one of the competitor's shoe manufacturing facilities, endlessly stamping leather into the same patters, having lost all control of the design and production process of which they used to have such intimate mastery. Craft was integral to our cultural DNA, expressed in such surnames as Turner, Smith, Potter, and Fletcher, and to watch it die out so quickly must have been a major shock. But what I never really understood, though I knew and even taught others about it, was the complexity of the skill sets that were lost.
Like I said, I make my living teaching. I like to think I am pretty good at explaining things. But when faced with the complexities of bowl turning, with so many "moving parts," I find myself at a loss for words. Beyond the intricacies of wood selection, moisture content, etc..., just the methods of grasping the tools and presenting the hooks to the wood are immensely complex. The hook of the tool should be at a right angle to the piece, rotated slightly to "present" a bit of the blade to the wood. But when you consider that the blade can be moved up and down, fore and aft, in and out, and rotated, and remember that the surface you are working is concave in some instances and convex in others, understanding the right angle of attack is not an easy thing. And at times I find the best way to remove wood is to bring the blade nearly parallel to the surface. Which of the three hooks should you use? Should you use it hook side up or hook side down? Should you work on a plane level with the centers, or below the centers? Should you hold the handle under your arm, or in your hand, or cradle it like a baby? Banging around in my basement, with no guidance other than a few you-tube videos, I have longed for someone to look over my shoulder and give me some guidance. But no one around me does this type of turning. I think there is one guy in Western Massachusetts that teaches bowl turning on a treadle lathe. There are also several folks out in Wisconsin and Michigan. But I felt pretty alone in that moment, and truly understand, not just know, what skills were lost with the Industrial Revolution.