Chordal's Letters Considered by Today's Shop Men

A discussion of a century-old book about shop craft, "Chordal's Letters" by James Waring See, available today as an on-line archive. February 6, 2010

I was contemplating Chordal's Letters last night on the way home from work. I think he would be so pleased to know that over 100 years later his writings are so informing and edifying. For those of you who don't know, edifying means to educate in a morally uplifting way. There is a lot of this type of inspired thought in this book.

I'm going to post a bit of this from time to time. I'm sure some of you will get your own link to the online version and find your own favorites. For now I point to the preface. This gives some insight to the man, James W. See.

Extracts from Chordal's Letters - Click here to read now

Extracts from Chordal's Letters - Click here for the option of downloading a PDF version

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor A:
Thank you for exposing all of us to this literary work. It is often still pertinent to the shop environment, although there are some terms I am not familiar with (does anyone know what "blackguard" means?).

I have not read it in depth, but skimmed the first few chapters. The point he makes that a workingman can have as good (if not better) a life as anyone is, I believe, accurate.

I am not a shop owner, but as a benchhand I have many times worked with others in this trade who grumble, complain, and wallow in the "us vs. them" view of the employee/employer relationship. I think in this day and age unions only perpetuate this notion. Even in the current economy, a good employer negates the need for union interference.

The preface outlines the value of education, even in workingman (or blue-collar) culture. I have a college degree but we still cannot equate education with good character, as I think was often done in Chordal's time. I have worked only one shop in my career so far that is not teeming with small-minded, bigoted trash. What is it about this trade, or any trade for that matter, that attracts so many men/women of questionable character? Is it because there is essentially no filter? If you can lift 100 lbs. and shoot a nail gun, you can do the job. All employers do their best to hire quality people, and it is a gamble no matter what the first impression. I try my best to uphold the work ethic and model of good character that was my father's example.

Chordal, I think, would advocate that there is more to a good employee than how much they may help the bottom line. If we set higher standards for the conduct of the workingman, we could improve not only the public perception of our trade, but the quality of those who choose to practice it.

"In our land, the ignorance of the mass will insure the total destruction of the existing civic form." - Chordal

From contributor T:
That is what I got out of it.

black•guard (blgrd, -ärd)
1. A thoroughly unprincipled person; a scoundrel.
2. A foul-mouthed person.
tr.v. black•guard•ed, black•guard•ing, black•guards
To abuse verbally; revile.

From contributor D:
"Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work" by Matthew B. Crawford is a recent book that apparently announces to the world/literati that there is real value to working with one's hands, and the spiritual side of man can also benefit from such work. While Crawford is a motorcycle mechanic (shades of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"), his philosophy PhD has allowed him to enter the rare air of Letters, and he is kind enough to pass on this news to those inhabitants.

Isn't this yet another thing that those of us in this business/career/lifestyle know, but have failed to communicate to the world at large? We may look like knuckle dragging Neanderthals, but we can think and reason, we are human, and we deserve respect and a measure of acceptance similar to other professions. We have (almost) all learned to derive great satisfaction from our daily grind. Does that cause such jealousy that we can't be allowed in as equals?

Sometimes I am still surprised by the gulf that lies between us and the rest of the world, yet I am unsure as to how to bridge it.

From contributor G:
I read page 302 which delves into shop drawings - very interesting... and there are two paragraphs in particular that are still quite valid.

From the original questioner:
John Wayne had a saying for woodworkers: "You gotta be tough if you're gonna be stupid!"

We did this to ourselves.

As our benefactor, Chordal points out, the smart mechanic of today has prosperity available to him that Lords of earlier centuries never dared to dream of. All through his writings you will see missed opportunities in our shops, 125 years after we were gifted the clues.

We've always had the respect of the community. Tell anyone what you do for a living and you always get a nod of approval. Look at the price point of our product. Outside personal aircraft and high end art, there are not a whole lot of consumer purchases available with our price tag.

So we've got the respect and we've got the revenue. The only thing that is missing is the discipline. And we have to get that ourselves.

If you are interested in a discussion of meaningful work, watch the conversation between Charlie Rose and Malcolm Gladwell. It's well worth watching.

From the original questioner:
That part about shop drawings is special. It's also as fresh today as it was when he wrote it. It's stuff we should make the drafting department tattoo on their arm. I particularly liked the part about how it should be a penitentiary offense to roll up the drawings. Come to think of it, architects tend to ignore all that good advice he proffers. Every dumb thing he recommends against, they continue to do with regularity.

Big tip: Whenever you see a set of drawings show up bigger than a baseball bat, there is a good chance they are going use them like a club on you.

From contributor T:
I think this is one of those "the question is the answer" type deals. The public has no interest in/respect for craftsmanship. The answer is to create interest, i.e. it is a PR problem.

The poor impression people have is not without some truth. How many guys on this forum have had formal training or any training before opening a shop? It's a case of not knowing what you don’t know. It is sort of ridiculous to take responsibility for something you don’t know how to do.

The Chordal letters talk about ethics, but ethics comes after training. Before there is training, there has to be interest or a willingness to learn which does not occur if you “already know it.” Today’s culture does not foster genuine interest in much of anything beyond being entertained, which is the antithesis of interest.

From the original questioner:
I've been giving this thread a lot of thought lately. You make the observation that being entertained is the antithesis of interest. I think you are correct.

Malcolm Gladwell discusses a possible root cause for why some people are interested in what they do and why some people are not. He speaks of meaningful work. For work to be meaningful, it needs to have three ingredients: You have to have some autonomy in your decision making, the work has to be complex (it has to require some concentration), and there has to be a reward that is correlated with your effort.

He goes on to theorize that people are interested in learning new things because of how it bears on meaningful work. People who are curious about lots of things are more interested in their personal time to research those things because they fundamentally believe that there will be a reward coming from the effort.

From contributor T:
Another way to look at it is that a person can be cause or effect. Cause = interested. Entertainers want to be interesting or effect, which is the root of their problems (Paris Hilton comes to mind). Being cause is creating things, becoming a champion; cause is playing for blood. When one is being entertained, he chooses to be the effect of the entertainment or drugs or alcohol, etc. which in moderation is not a big deal, but... When a person has enough interest, he takes on something as his purpose, e.g. a programmer. Gladwell mentions the Bill Gate’s story, a cabinetmaker Sam Maloof comes to mind, etc. The current culture discourages being at cause; it punishes being at cause.

From the original questioner:
There are a lot of very competent woodworkers laboring away in their garage shops. We tend to use the media to create and define our heroes. Paris Hilton is a good example. We are not immune to this in our industry either. When Gustav Stickley carved out his fame there were 400 woodshops producing a similar product. Somehow he became the "father" of Craftsman Style furniture. Rennie McIntosh was laboring away in obscurity during the same time period. The difference, I think, was that Stickley had a printing press.

From contributor K:
How many have heard of John Nyquist? Maloof was the master of overhype. Our culture worships superheroes that don't exist, at the expense of the average man.

From contributor T:
So you guys are saying Gustav Stickley and Maloof were successful because of good PR? Okay, good point.

From contributor R:
Often the perceived value of industry is based on comparative judgment thought (emotional perception) rather than rational critical thought analysis, which explains why idiotic flamboyancy qualifies as heroics in the minds of many of the unlearned populace.

With all the comments here stating, "we build high end cabinets," one could conclude that there is no real "profitable custom market" for serving the masses or average Joe, outside of the box stores, since there are obviously more McMansions out there than average houses. How many people have truly custom (exotic) items made: cars, clothes, shoes, jewelry, or even homes?

From the original questioner:
Quality woodworking is just an admission ticket. Nobody is going to pay attention to you unless you have a good product. Extraordinary success, however, requires extraordinary marketing. The luminaries in our industry have inherent talent, but so do a lot of others. It is very rare that you see these "visionaries" continue to reinvent themselves. A mediocre product with great marketing will usually suffice.

From contributor P:
Stickley was a lot more successful after he was dead than when he was alive. I think part of the reason Stickley and Maloof are well known is because the press has a tendency to repeat itself - just think, Joe Reporter gets assigned a story on furniture trends, doesn't know anything about it, does a little digging and turns up...? Stickley, Maloof, or (fill in the blank) who has been written about before. So his article rehashes the previous. It's difficult and confusing for the press and readers to investigate a large number of makers once or twice - much easier to see the same ones over and over. It's not necessarily PR that did this, it's just how the world works.

From contributor K:
The best way to get to the top is to start there... or so I've been told. That's what Maloof did. All the top artists have agents. Just look at Pollock.

From contributor N:
There are people known as "synesthetes" who hear paintings as tones or music. A number of Jackson Pollack's contemporaries had synesthesia, and he was painting for them. He didn't just drip paint at random - he had a purpose.

From contributor C:
I was once told that Maloof started out as a graphic artist, and that a lot of the furniture he made for his home starting out was old concrete form crap off of foundations. Right at the top, if you ask me.

From contributor K:
Hey, no doubt about it, the guy was good. I still think his settee is one of the finest pieces of furniture I've ever seen.

What would a Pollock be worth if it sold in a thrift store as opposed to an art auction?

From contributor N:
There's a long history of treasures turning up in garage sales and thrift stores - just watch Antiques Roadshow a few times. But I get your meaning. Why is a painting or a shiny stone or shiny metal or a stamp with an upside down airplane valuable? I'll go with contributor P: it's just how the world works.

From contributor K:
The five dollar Pollock has no value until those in the art establishment say it does, and they've said as much. A Drunken Pollock dripped house paint on the floor. How that became worth something is the only real art he ever got close to. Anyone can be convinced of just about anything - it just takes time.