Quality Is King

While craftsmanship can be detected in a number of ways, it’s a pleasure to see it in action.

When I was a teenager, but not yet old enough to drive, one of my first jobs was in a woodworking shop. Partly because I could ride my bike there from home, but also because the owner was a close family friend. W.T. King had been an engineer with U.S. Steel who was also an accomplished carpenter. He made grandfather clock cabinets for the Emperor Clock Co. in his retirement, and he also had a thriving furniture restoration/repair operation on his property. He even took my father under his wing and taught him the tricks of the woodworking trade.

His shop was a two-story structure, with framing rooms, lumber bins, paint booths and every kind of woodworking machine you can imagine. The smell of fresh sawdust is still one of the sweetest I know.

Although I wasn’t particularly interested in building bookshelves, I do have fond memories of my two or three summers spent sweeping up Mr. King’s shop and watching him work. His hands themselves were like wood, knotty and gnarled, and I liked the way he would run his palms across the surface of a piece he was sanding, testing the grain and texture of the finish. The gesture spoke of an intimate knowledge and appreciation of the wood.

The other day I had a conversation with the president of a gear manufacturing company that brought all these memories flooding back. When speaking of his reasons for getting into the industry, he said he’d always felt that gearing—the actual craft of making gears rather than the business of selling them—had always seemed driven more by a love of engineering than commerce. While some would surely find this debatable, I think I get his point.

While touring his shop floor later that day—and thinking back over many similar instances—I saw men and women holding the gears they were making at different stages in the process, peering closely into their crevices for burrs and examining their surface finish for flaws, with the same intimacy with which Mr. King once held a wooden spindle for an antique chair he was repairing, or a warped picture frame he was returning to square. These gear experts could hear, see and feel things that I simply can’t, and their enthusiasm was contagious.

Just as Mr. King could tell when a dull sawblade was about to heat up the cut and start burning the wood, a seasoned operator listens to the sounds the machine is making and the way it is behaving and can ward off things like impending cutting tool failure or a toolpath error. He could tell when the weather was just right to apply varnish to a tabletop in the same way that a grinding specialist intuitively achieves a superior surface finish on a gear.

I guess what we’re talking about here is craftsmanship, which exists in every industry and pursuit, and can be appreciated in any environment. All I know is that there’s something immensely satisfying in watching a person examine something they’ve created with their own hands, and with great care—whether it’s made of wood or steel.