Thoughts from the peeler: The artisan obsession and where does it end?

There is in just about every artisan, a touch of obsessive compulsion. Whether or not it’s a disorder depends on how you feel about being both obsessive and compulsive at the same time with sharp implements in hand.

I don’t want to make light of a genuine medical disorder. As someone who suffers the black periods of lost joy and time that is depression, far be it from me to make light of someone else’s affliction.

Obsession and compulsion exist on a sliding scale, which is set by the same people who have categorized an affection for coffee as a mental disorder. For all practical purposes, it boils down to whether your obsession/compulsion is positive or destructive influence on your life…

Be ye moderate in all things except moderation.

So it is with caffeine and beer and so too it is with handicrafts.

But where is that moderate line? When do I stop? How far do I take each of these explorations of a craft? When do I tie it off and call it good? Do I keep going until I’ve got it perfect? Is perfect the enemy of the good?

I discovered recently when I began exploring the uses of the sector, that I was wrong in a very important way when I discussed the many ways for finding the angle at which the staves of a bucket or tankard meet.

My methodology was modern. For one thing, we started with an equation. For another, it depended heavily upon looking at the tankard as an equilateral polygon and we did some really sweet math based on that assumption.

That was an inaccurate assumption.

Even though it worked.

As I examine more coopered buckets and tankards, it because clear to me that the old coopers didn’t think that way. The staves of a bucket are rarely all the same size, and no two identically-sized buckets seemed to have the same number of staves.

My math was accurate, but my method was wrong.

The period method is really cool. It’s easier. And it involves a sector and some different neat math having to do with isosceles triangles and dividers.

My assumptions were wrong and even my successful result was… I don’t know. Was it a failure to achieve the goal by apparently modern means?

A period item was created, but it was based on best guesses made with a modern mind. My methods of arriving at that item were modern even though I used my best period tools to achieve the result.

I know all of this because I didn’t finish exploring coopering when I finished writing about it. I kept going. I kept talking to other coopers. I examined barrels and buckets in antique shops. I made a bucket. Then I made a butter churn. Then I repaired some damaged buckets and barrels and tankards back to working order.

I know I was wrong because I didn’t stop.

I made an ale pail that would hold ale, but did I succeed or did I fail.

Sorry, that was Seussical. Sometimes I can’t resist.

At some point do I stop going back and adding to these projects?

Or is this exploration of artisans a reflection of artisanship itself in that the learning never actually ends? And if that’s so, is my quest really impossible after all? Will I ever have more than the most surface knowledge of any of these crafts if I cannot devote more than the duration of a few blog posts to each of them?

How do I know when to stop?

And if I’m honest with myself, can I stop even if I want to?

– Scott

One comment

  1. […] As we discussed yesterday, that wasn’t quite right. Coopers make their staves whatever width their wood allows and it’s not always symmetrical and there aren’t always an even number of staves. This is important since they were cutting wood straight from the log and doing a lot of their shaping with an axe. (Axes are awesome and speed up woodworking considerably, but they’re not really precision instruments.) […]


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