Are Workshoppers Wacky? (Dec, 1946)

Judging by the delightfully insane people at Maker Faire I’d have to say yes, workshoppers are wacky.

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Are Workshoppers Wacky?

By HAL BORLAND

IN CHICAGO there is a steely-faced banker who would rather duck into his cellar on a sunny Saturday than shoot 19 holes of golf. In Hollywood there is a movie actor who prefers tinkering with old clocks to night-clubbing along the Strip. In Boston there is an auto mechanic who passes up the movies to sneak back to the shop and whittle bronze into chessmen. All over America, the breed of male who keeps the cellar light on half the night is increasing.

Who are these artists who scorn the conventional pastimes, and why do they do it? To be blunt: Are workshoppers wacky? Most of their wives think so, and some of their best friends are sure of it.

But what is a workshopper, anyway?

That’s not so easy to answer—and maybe that is one way of replying to the charge of wackiness—for outwardly the man looks normal. A little more contented, perhaps. Probably a little more competent in carving up the Christmas turkey. But what makes the workshopper different from his fellow clerks, vice-presidents, and machine operators is an appreciation of the well-made thingumajig, plus the ability to use his hands as well as his head.

Your workshopper likes to make things for himself. And he knows how: how to run a lathe or a band saw, how to read a micrometer or an oscilloscope, how to mix developer or paint. So he spends hours making something he might buy for a fraction of its time-cost. But in his own shop he can afford to hire himself, and his product is as personal as a baby, bringing out the usual smugness of paternity.

Who is he? He is the lawyer who relaxes from the courtroom by making inlaid wooden bowls on a lathe. He is the accountant who clears his mind of statistics by carving figurines from plastic. He is the writer who “wastes” a day making a fancy belt for his wife out of a worn-out pair of boots.

There are probably 10,000,000 of his kind here in America, men who have developed skills and ingenuities that add immeasurably to their lives. They aren’t a new breed. Their American line goes clear back to Franklin and Whitney, and it comes down through Henry Ford, who mended clocks and dreamed of building an automobile; through the Wright brothers, who ran a bicycle shop and dreamed of flying; through “Boss” Kettering, who worked with telephones and dreamed of building a self-starter for the automobile.

It is inevitable that in our specialized modern life we should turn from the job to something wholly different. The human mind needs more than one narrow track. That explains the dentist who is far prouder of his intricately carved tabletops than of his best dental inlays. It explains the doctor who would rather make a new fly rod than attend a medical convention. And that’s why one famous musician is reluctant to make more than one concert tour a year—he begrudges the time he could otherwise spend in his workshop designing new tools for industry.

In his shop the workshopper is his own boss. His time is his own, and so are his materials. When he has finished, the product is his; so are all the things he learned along the way, and so is the deep pride of personal achievement.

Sometimes the workshopper develops his manual skills on a doctor’s orders. Handwork has a healing effect on those under severe mental strain. A well-known German editor came here as a political refugee and in a sanitarium learned to use his hands at a lathe. Physically recovered, he resumed his writing, but his hand-turned bowls and trays are now better known than his books. He would never have done that abroad; it would have been beneath his dignity, and neither tools nor materials would have been readily available. Here in America, any man can equip his own shop with excellent power tools for relatively little money. And there is respect here for any job well done.

America has always had room for the man who could make things. The pioneers made their own furniture and most of their own tools, of necessity, and those who proved most adept at it soon had a respected craft. Out of their skills and imagination came still other crafts, and as demand increased they invented new tools, new methods. From water power they turned to steam, and eventually to electricity. Today the workshop of even the most casual home craftsman has tools that would have been unbelievable to Eli Whitney.

The workshopper of today has electricity for power—clean, compact, and quiet. If he works in wood he probably has a lathe, a drill press, a sander, and a power saw. If metal is his medium he probably has a precision lathe, a drill press, a router, and dozens of special attachments. If he works in radio or electronics, he has gauges and meters, vacuum tubes and condensers. Even such a simple tool as his electric soldering iron would have been a marvel anywhere 50 years ago. If he is a photographer, he has a whole cabinetful of chemicals, hot and cold running water, any kind of light he wishes, his own enlarger, and a wide choice of printing papers.

Even specialized knowledge is his for the taking. Fundamentals are available in school textbooks, and beyond these are bookstores, libraries and magazines, popular and technical, for background information or current developments. And for broader schooling in any field, there are night schools and correspondence and extension courses. The workshopper today has a base of known fact from which to work, and whatever he can add to it is new knowledge, his own contribution.

The Inner Glow

There lies one of the deepest urges of the serious workshopper: He can contribute. True, nine out of every ten of those working in a basement shop are working for their own satisfaction. Their time is not wasted, however, for inner satisfaction, the glow of accomplishment, is important to any person. And the tenth one is, in effect, a lone researcher seeking new truth. Sometimes he finds it.

Edison started as a workshopper. Go over the inventions of the past half-century and you will find dozens of such men, who worked alone in their spare-time shops or laboratories—questioning, seeking, eventually finding.

No, most of those in today’s home workshops are not inventors. They are craftsmen. I remember the executive whom I found at home one Sunday morning making a pair of plastic link pins for his small daughter’s wrist watch. He might have bought those pins at a jeweler’s, any day but Sunday. But his daughter wanted to wear the watch that day, and she was firmly convinced that her father could make anything. So he made those pins, turned and polished and fitted them. On a time-cost basis they probably represented close to $50, for he is a high-salaried executive. I suspect that he actually got at least $100 worth of satisfaction out of the job—not to mention the fact that he further enhanced his reputation as a capable, versatile father.

The workshopper has any number of reasons to offer for his part-time preoccupation. There is a surgeon who keeps both mind and fingers supple by doing miniature wood-carvings, mostly of animals. There is a physicist who carves costume jewelry out of nuts. He says it satisfies his artistic sense. And there is the architect who makes scale-model trains because, as he says, it keeps his mind aware of the detail necessary in his daily job. All these men, of course, get the mental stimulus of handcraft and the relaxation of concentrating on something wholly different from their daily jobs.

You will sometimes find a man who holes up in his workshop to get away from a nagging wife or demanding children. At least, he is doing something constructive, and he is probably wiser than the man who goes down to the tavern to get away from it all.

A Collector at Heart

Occasionally, too, you strike the magpie type of workshopper who accumulates tools and materials and spends most of his spare time listing them and keeping them free from rust. Even he is no worse at heart, I suspect, than the stamp collector.

But for the most part the man in the work shop is a good average citizen who knows, or wants to learn, what makes things tick. When he buys an automobile, he wants to know about its bearings and its ignition as well as its paint and upholstery. When he buys or builds a house he checks on its foundation and its piping as well as the view from the picture window.

Why does he cling to that workshop? Because it is his own kingdom. It is the place where he can prove to himself that his own industry and ingenuity have their value. He can adventure there as he will. He can make a shelf to hold his wife’s kitchen spices, or he can build a canoe with which to explore the near-by river, or he can build a telescope with which to reach out to remote galaxies. He can undertake anything his imagination or ambition suggests, and his success or failure in that undertaking is wholly dependent upon his own resources.

1 comment
  1. Danyelle says: August 29, 20084:02 pm

    Wow..

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