Craftsmanship and My Father

Dad and Me in 1972

Dad and Me in 1972

Today is the 20th anniversary of my father’s death. My dad was awesome. Here is a reprint of my recent essay on Craftsmanship and My Father from the Read & Trust Magazine.

As words like craftsman and artisan come back into vogue, it is important to remember they are more than clever phrases for selling the latest geegaw. Indeed, I became obsessed with becoming a Craftsman 20 years ago.

You see, growing up, my father and I had very little in common. He grew up in Missouri where he shot his dinner while riding his horse home from school. I grew up in suburban California. Instead of firearms and horses, I rode bikes, obsessed on Star Wars, and programmed computers. Dad didn’t object to my interests. However, he didn’t understand me and I didn’t understand him. I was a geek. Dad was a craftsman. He sold lumber for a living and had a wood shop in the garage, where he’d spend his entire vacation building furniture. He obsessed on every little detail and made some really great stuff. I, meanwhile, was busy growing up, then attending college, and then law school, all the time with my head down. We loved each other. We told that to each other openly. However, we really didn’t get each other.

As the end of law school approached, I began to think more about my craftsman father and how much I could learn from him. He was newly retired and I planned on having more free time after the bar exams. We talked about it. We decided to start building furniture together. We both wanted to connect better and were excited to get started.

Then Dad got sick. First he got kind of sick, then he got really sick, and then he died. He spent his entire life working to support us and when he finally had time to pursue his passion, he died. I was six months shy of graduating law school, and after waiting 25 years to learn how to speak my dad’s language, I suddenly found my teacher was gone.

Cleaning out Dad’s shop after he died was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Losing him when we were finally figuring each other out broke my heart. He had so many new tools he’d been squirreling away as he edged toward retirement. He had a small wooden box (which he built, of course) full of plans and drawings. He had sketched and detailed most of the projects we’d been discussing without ever telling me. Like I said, my father was a craftsman.

So you can imagine the thoughts that ran through my head as I looked through those drawings with tears running down my face. At that moment, I decided that, hell or high water, I would become a craftsman just like dad. So I started my journey. In the years after that I spent countless hours in Dad’s and, eventually, my own wood shop. I taught myself with old copies of Fine Woodworking and lots of mistakes. Within a few years, I gravitated to old-school hand tool woodworking. I made my own tools with mail-ordered blades. I spent hours flattening and cutting walnut, mahogany, and maple. I bought books on intricate Japanese joinery and spent days cutting dovetails. I built some of those projects Dad sketched, which, in hindsight, I had to do. I even managed to keep all of my fingers. This whole journey was one long conversation with my dead father. In time, I became a craftsman.

Dad died on January 21, 1993 and as I sit here on the 20th anniversary of his death, I don’t spend as much time in the shop as I used to. My kids are growing and I’m busy raising them. I’ll get back out in the shop eventually but that really doesn’t matter. Whether or not I’m making wood shavings, I still consider myself a craftsman. I’m in the club. I apply those craftsman skills that I learned from dad and the the shop every day to everything I do, including writing these words.

Craftsmanship means caring about what you create. It means you measure twice and cut once. It means you look at what you are creating from every angle and don’t cut corners. In short, craftsmanship means you don’t ship crap and you never mail it in.

Now, more than ever, words come and go but craftsmanship is something I will hold dearly for the rest of my life.