Saturday, April 24, 2021

The Status of the Traditional Craftsman

By any conceivable measure, low. Often young people who are trying to figure out their life will ask me if traditional craft might be a viable path for them. My response is basically as follows: if social status is important to your sense of identity, don't walk away from pursuing and never look back. 

There are a few diminished, crumbling legacy infrastructures in place for learning craft sporadically limping along around the globe. Nowadays these typically function as half way houses for wayward youths. However, for most folks pursuing a life as a traditional craftsman there is no support, it's by and large a self-directed process. Obviously, there is very little in the way of a traditional craft culture remaining in the modern, industrialised world. This was certainly my experience in learning traditional plasterwork. Years of experimentation, trips at great expense to the UK, France, Italy, Morocco to try an pick up dribs and drabs of knowledge from folks who are struggling for their own existence and only half-willing to tolerate your presence. Why should they share anything with you, their hard earned pearls before swine? Not exactly a recipe for the next Michelangelo.

Then there is the architectural side of things. Once again, plan on doing the heavy lifting yourself, pouring over old out-of-print books, learning the geometry inside and out that gives form to your material. Don't count on any support from the architectural establishment or academia. There is an hierarchy in place and you'll always be at the bottom of it. It's not personal, actually you're not thought of in terms of an individual at all. One must understand that a traditional craftsman is not a professional. They're literally unentitled. Most lack an university education and if they do well, it's even worse. Fools. What a waste. So it's now standard practise that craftsmen are expected to sign non-disclosure agreements having the work of their hands be the intellectual property of others whilst the professionals get to appropriate and display said "work" as their own.

Yes, I've heard the arguments that some craftsmen earn a better living than some college educated folks. First, this is mostly bollocks. Typically one can work for low to mediocre wages for a semi-industrialised craft business. True enough, the owner of that business, who more likely than not knows nothing about the craft, never getting his hands dirty, might be making good money and getting awards, praise, and respect. The craftman doing the work? Not so much. Alternatively, the independent path of "the man in the van" isn't better off. He either has to have the entire infrastructure of a large business to function (insurances, incorporation, licensing, accountants, etc.) or he is by legal definition a criminal living an off-the-books, black market life.

So if you're a young person that is really into craft but social status is also very important to you I would suggest you pursue a path of being a traditional architect, preservation technologist, or if you're entrepreneurial, ambitious, and have access to capital maybe even buy a craft-like business in the manufacturing industry. You can make some good money and will have an identity in society that is respectable while fulfilling your craft fetish. Win win. However, if you're very good at math, dexterous, anti-social, value your independence, not giving two shits about what other people think then perhaps you can join the counter-culture, throw your life away into the decades-long process of mastering a traditional craft. Heaven knows there are plenty of spaces open.

Contributed by Patrick Webb


  1. I’m sorry that you feel this way Patrick however I don’t disbelieve this has been your personal experience.
    The historic building industry here in the UK is in my experience an excellent place for a young person to start a career.
    Financial rewards once qualified and experienced ( perhaps after 20 years ) can be in excess of £100,000 per annum.
    We have been working with the Princes foundation for 15 years or so providing placements for young people during which time we have had 8 students all of whom are now working independently in the industry.
    There are not places for 100s of young people but the industry isn’t big enough to cope with those numbers.
    We the craftsmen and women have never been more respected and are looked to by the enlightened architects and surveyors to provide guidance on material science.
    Your description of those joining the counter culture does rather describe me and I wonder if I wasn’t in your mind when you wrote this perhaps subconsciously.
    As I started by saying this must have been your personal experience but if a young person is committed to putting in the hard yards in those early years then I’ve no doubt that there are plenty of opportunities for them to carve themselves a very rewarding career.
    I enjoyed the article.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comment Philip. Yes, of course this is a personal perspective based on my experience over the past decades based as I am in North America. It's commendable what the Prince has done thru his foundations in support of traditional crafts education. A true patron, in a sense he has come closest to carrying on the legacy of Ruskin, Morris, and Webb. Such support has a social dimension as well. Beyond financial compensation, traditional craftsmen in the UK benefit from an identity that carries a modicum of respect and associated with an honourable heritage. Furthermore, as deeply flawed as the NVQ system may be, at least there are some public funds allocated for traditional craft in the UK, applicable to many parts of Europe as well. We lack such basic support here and it shows in how we struggle to learn our craft, to make a living, and lack social standing. Here, we're essentially looked at as people who've make poor life decisions with no one to blame but ourselves. As I've said many times before, if I had to do it all over again I would not have become a plasterer. Rather I would have pursued stone carving, an even more impossible vocation because that is the glutton for punishment counter-culture fool I see myself to be.

  3. While at times I have been treated as a knuckle dragger (thanks facilities manager at Harvard) by and large I am revered for my specialized knowledge of windows. And my compensation is far greater than it was when I worked in the corporate world. I provide meaningful employment to 10 people who have a variety of educational and work backgrounds - all of whom are well compensated and have generous benefits. We strive to be affordable for as many people as possible, but we won't sacrifice quality to meet an unreasonable price. Stop worrying about how you a perceived and just do good work you can be proud of and don't do it for a price you can't live with. Raise yourself up.

  4. Window restoration is of course a very different craft than plasterwork. That said where I've lived the past few years in the Carolinas, new traditional windows are basically forbidden by code and even in the historic districts like Charleston and Savannah there is incredible negative pressure by way of compliance regulations and positive incentive with green energy tax relief to replace 200 year old functioning windows with industrially produced double or triple glazed metal and vinyl windows. Perhaps it is an entirely different story in Massachusetts. I'm curious what you think the future prospects of traditional windows, new or restoration as things are trending now?

  5. A very passionate post with a great argument. But what would you really suggest? You have had a great experience and you should celebrate this rather than diminish it. For others you only have choices and life's River will take you to wherever it pleases.. Define a craftsman as true craftsmen are revered by the enlightened. Lol.