Words From a Master Craftsman

Picture of hammers and tools from Ford Hallam's website - http://fordhallam.com, used with permission.

Picture of hammers and tools from Ford Hallam’s website – http://fordhallam.com, used with permission.

Ford Hallam is an extraordinarily talented metal smith trained in the Japanese tradition. A short film was made about his work, Utsushi – in Search of Katsushira’s Tiger which I think everyone should watch. I have watched it many many times and I take great joy in it each time. Opportunities to watch a master at work in this way are too rare.

Utsushi itself is a wonderful concept for anyone working to recreate the crafts or artefacts of the past but it will be the topic of a future post.

Today Ford posted this on his facebook page, and I am reproducing it here with his permission.

“A worker may be the hammer’s master, but the hammer still prevails. A tool knows exactly how it is meant to be handled, while the user of the tool can only have an approximate idea.”
Milan Kundera

Contrary to what some may imagine I’m not a tool collector. In my philosophy the most important tool any maker posses is their hands. The skillful and sensitive use of our hands is what gives life to our creations. Naturally, we need to use tools to manipulate the media we choose to work but allowing too many complicated contrivances between our skin and our medium can only stifle expression. Like a game of Chinese Whispers each degree of separation between fingers and metal dulls and distorts our voice.

I’m actually distrustful of what I see as the fetishisation of tools. Is this an inevitable aspect of our consumerist marketplace? If it is it’s profoundly ironic given that real makers don’t make to accumulate but quite the opposite. There’s no harm in decorating a favourite hammer or giving a fancy twist to your chasing tools…but when this elevates the tool to something beyond merely a means to an end than I feel focus has been lost. The tools become a substitute for real work, but no amount of these substitutes will satisfy the genuine need to make. There’s no easy way, we’ve just got to do the work. There’s no labour to be saved…saved for what?

Milan Kundera’s quote makes a very important point. Our tools, those most simple and ancient ones, those which served our ancestors for thousands of years, have much to teach us…if we could only listen. But our tendency to be distracted by every new gadget, labour saving gizmo or ‘new and improved’ tool keeps us from getting a glimpse of the real potential of the fundamentals of any art. There will always be something new, something promising an easier way or claiming to bypass the need to develop real skill, but these alluring Sirens flatter to deceive.

It’s not about the tools, it’s what you do with them. Care for them, even honour them, but ask yourself this: do you want merely to play with cool tools OR do you really want to create, to give voice to your most authentic imaginings ?

Postscript: I realise that most of what I’ve written may appear extreme or even an affront to some. It’s not meant to offend. I’m merely offering food for thought and a slightly different perspective. Namaste all.

For the record, I don’t think Ford’s position is extreme in the slightest. I think that toolmaking can rise to the level of an art into itself, but the collection of such tools is different from the mere acquisition of tools in the hope that they will somehow magically produce better work as a substitute for practice, failure, learning and more practice.

Your hands are the most important tools you have, and you need perhaps five others to make great shoes.

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