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The Craftsmanship of Jamaican Woodwork

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THE CRAFTSMANSHIP OF JAMAICAN WOODWORK Submitted May 2, 2010 Amended September 28, 2013 Michaelia Henry ID No. 0210073 M.Arch 1 Course: Critical Theories in Architecture Lecturer: Arch. Jacquiann Lawton Critical Theories in Architecture: Modernity Exploring Research Methodology – Writing Dialectical History Thesis Statement Craftsmanship is the basic human impulse to do a job well for its own sake. It involves Creative Thought, Precision, Apprenticeship, Crafting an Object Well, adhering to The Structure of the Workshop and the Practice of the Intelligent Hand. Contemporary Jamaican Woodcraft is an example of Craftsmanship. Introduction Fashioning furniture, doors, windows and other architectural elements out of timber is an old practice. Before the industrial period, many of these items would be crafted by hand. The effort and care taken to create each piece; seen in the final product. This is one way of romanticizing traditional woodwork. A more cynical view would be to criticize the minor imperfections of these pieces – the uneven pattern created by carving by hand, the lack of perfect symmetry in the manmade spindle form. This cynical view has some validity – if; the priority of making the object is the actualization of perfection. Social commentators like Richard Sennett believe this kind of priority misses the true point of Craftsmanship – the desire to do something well for its own sake. I agree. The actualization of Craftsmanship is not about the making a perfect object. It is about the intrinsic need to do a job well for its own sake. There is not much published documentation about the history of professional woodwork in Jamaica. Inferences can be drawn through history, that making items from wood has been a longstanding part of Jamaican culture, beginning with the crafts made by the Tainos. These indigenous people crafted their homes, boats and even gods (Zemis) out of timber. The tools used to construct these items were crude – simple hammers with stone heads and wooden handles. However, these tools served their purpose in creating objects of daily use. With the arrival of the English Settlers to Jamaica came the need for more complex tools to create more refined furnishings. Through the continued preservation (or conservation) of British Caribbean Colonial buildings, the intricacy and finish of these wooden items can still be seen. Woodwork tools have since evolved, but in principle remain the same. For the most part, they are sharp edged tools, which to varying levels of precision - clean, strip, cut, etch, carve or shape the timber. Jamaican woodwork is lauded as a time-honored profession, one of the best examples of the relationship between apprentice and master; and the least complicated vocation to enter. Many Jamaican secondary schools – especially Vocational and Technical High Schools still consider woodwork to be a valuable skill1. It has been a part of the general curriculum for more than 40 years. The types of woods used by Jamaican craftsmen range from hard woods, for example, mahogany, to softer woods – cedar or pine. Traditional vs. Modern Contemporary Woodwork Woodwork can be broadly categorized as either Traditional (Pre-Industrialization) or Modern/Contemporary. Traditional wood crafting is a more tactile experience. The Craftsman is directly involved with the timber from beginning to end – manually sourcing it, cutting it to size, holding the smaller pieces between his fingers to create that final object. This is what biologist, Charles Sherrington describes as the “active touch”2 the inquiring feel that kindles thought.

Contemporary crafting of wood is less tactile - a machine driven activity. The question then, is how much thought does the Craftsman put into the final product if, his major tools are machines? There are two main criticisms. The negative criticism can be found in Manfrado Tafuri’s 1969 Essay Toward a Critique of Architectural Ideology. Tafuri - an Architect and Historian - is against Capitalist Industrialization. He proposed that this spawned a new perspective of craftsmen as simply commodities. These skilled workers were reduced to objects – means of production; living automated tools - extensions of the machine. This social objectification of Craftsmen is only one rotation of the cycle. The other is his self-actualized automation. John Ruskin presents this theory of automation in his written work, The Stones of Venice. He suggests that encouraging an apprentice to find a new way of crafting a form is better than simply teaching him to replicate that same form with efficiency. His thoughts, hesitations and errors during this process of discovery are good things to Ruskin, because in the end the apprentice has become a man. He is no longer a machine, an animated tool. Although, Tafuri and Ruskin present strong cases against Industrialization, there is a stronger counter argument. This is, that - Industry is not the enemy of creative thought. Physical proof of this argument is the work that emerged from the Bauhaus movement. The supporters of the Bauhaus embraced the industrial tone of the 1920’s. They encouraged thinking that attempted to move beyond creating standardized machine products - using the machines themselves, the true means of production. This action of transcending the typical to create the special is part and parcel, the collective push of three things. These are creative thought, precision and the act of doing something well for its own sake. This ideal of the Bauhaus – the collective push - can be found in the practice of Contemporary Jamaican Woodcraft; where machines are the primary means of producing precise and beautiful cabinetry and other finishes. Other points, which define Contemporary Jamaican Woodcraft as a system of Craftsmanship, are Apprenticeship, Crafting an Object Well, The Workshop Structure, and The Practice of the Intelligent Hand. The system of Apprenticeship is the relationship between two people. The act of Crafting an Object Well, for it’s own sake is an individual choice, driven by desire. The Workshop Structure is the structure of skill level and obedience that was present in medieval workshops. This still exists in workshops today. Finally, there is current Practice of the Intelligent Hand, where the Carpenter must “look ahead” to complete the project. These are the six points investigated in a visit to Modular Kitchens and Baths (MKB) - a small woodwork shop located on Waltham Park Road in Kingston Jamaica. The front section of this workshop is a single storey residence and the only indicators of non-residential activity from the road are the lengths of sawn wood propped up in the front yard, the loud mechanical sounds beyond and the small piles of sawdust on the concrete pavement. No more than ten people work in the shop daily – cutting, sanding, gluing or staining some item of wood. Michael ‘Mike’ Latibeaudiere, an unassuming, easy-going, pleasant gentleman, owns the workshop. Trained in carpentry, he inherited the business from his father. After explaining the purpose of the visit, Mike happily introduces me to Paul, a senior carpenter, who immediately asks the question, “Are you ready to begin building something?” Apprenticeship The question Paul asks is reflective of a teacher’s attitude of interest in a new pupil on the first day of a lesson. The fact that someone wants to learn how various woodwork items are constructed is enough for him. This is because; Paul’s interest in carpentry was encouraged in a similar way, while he was a youth living in rural Clarendon. As he tells the story, “A guy in the community was using a bigger chisel than I was to make things. I used to take small nails and put things together and one day I felt like I loved it and I went to his workshop and yeah.” Paul has had no certified training in Carpentry. However, he has been in the field for more than twenty

years now – self-employed for twelve. His association with MKB is as an independent contractor who Mike allows to use the shop’s equipment. Paul passes his knowledge of woodwork on to the younger employees in the shop even though he’s not required to. When asked why he is so generous with sharing what he knows, his response is simple. “I believe in good quality work. I can’t see someone doing something wrong and not say anything or do anything.” Paul’s eagerness to pass on his skill set to any other interested individual is a large part of what apprenticeship is about. By showing the younger workers or even willing strangers who visit the workshop how to properly craft an object, Paul is explicitly passing on the knowledge he has gained – firstly from the “guy in the community” and secondly from his twenty-years of experience. Once Paul determines he has a willing pupil, his follow-up question is what to make. “How about a miniature muntin?” he suggests as he starts the first machine, a sander. Interestingly enough, he is not wearing any protective gear, although, there is a large sign mounted in the shop promoting, “Safety First”. Neither is anyone else in the workshop wearing safety gear during the visit. Paul explains this away by saying, “This is a professional shop. We don’t need to use protective gear. Visitors should use it though.” This response is also a comment on the level of influence of the Master and his Apprentice. The responsibility of establishing a good work ethic is the teacher’s, because his actions – both good and bad - are imitated. The Apprentice Goes to Work Precision and Concentration Machining woodwork is a precision skill. The gauges of the cutting equipment can be adjusted to the height of the wood just enough to scrape its surface if necessary. During the entire process, Paul demonstrates each step before turning on any machine. Then he steps back and watches while the visitor works. Another senior carpenter in the workshop, FitzRoy, sees the activity and joins in. At times, he places his hands on the visiting apprentice, while firmly verbally reinforcing what should be done. This coaching is another important part of the apprenticeship process. Crafting a muntin – the vertical framing member set between two rails or panels in a door – is an eight-step process. Seven of these steps involve using specialized electrical machines. More than one process includes interacting with multiple moving machine parts and sharp blades. These seven crafting processes require the craftsman to follow through with the wood, fearlessly. Stopping mid process, or reversing the wood through a blade could result in an ill-formed object or serious physical injury. The craftsman must be aware of his body at all times while operating the machine. His hands must be firmly placed on the wood, but never too close to a blade. There is also a motion of lifting his hands away from the cutting head or sweeping both his hands and wood in a kind of circular motion to the opposite side of the blade for safety. Quickly, two rhythms of “firmness, pressure, though, up, away” or “firmness, pressure, through, side, back”, are adopted and applied while operating each machine. The apprentice’s teachers reinforce each rhythm. Sennett describes this as “looking ahead” – the tempo of the work rising and diminishing all the while moving forward. The Process of Making the Muntin The first part of the process involves using the drum sander to smooth the large piece of wood. A drum sander is essentially a unit of two large rolls of rotating sandpaper. The block of wood is placed on a moving belt between these two rolls. It is then automatically fed through from one end to the other. The second step is leveling the wood. Passing it over a surface jointer does this. This step requires the craftsman to simultaneously press on and guide the wood over a horizontal moving blade. The third step is to plane the jointed wood. This ensures that both sides of the timber are parallel. The tool used is called a planer, a surface pressure roller with a cutter head. The wood is placed on a moving belt and a blade trims the wood to an adjusted level. A table saw is then used to cut this piece of wood to the required size. This machine uses a vertical circular rotating saw fixed to an arbor and mounted on a table. The blade protrudes through the surface of

the table. There is apprehension when using this machine for the first time. Firstly, the craftsman must move his body along with the wood over the blade. At the same time, he uses his arms to hold firmly to the wood while adding pressure and guiding the piece though the blade while it rotates at a velocity. Once the piece is cut to the desired size, a hand sander and then a vibrating sander are used to further smooth the surface. The next step is creating the profile or edge of the muntin. A spindle machine does this. A prefabricated cutter head is placed on the spindle. This rotates at high speeds. The wood piece is then passed along the spindle head, which carves its profile. It is important to note here, that although the spindle machine uses a pre-shaped profile, the craftsman is still capable of being creative. He can determine, where and how often this profile appears in the piece he is crafting. This is where visitor’s experience ends. Normally, the muntin is then fitted together along with the other door parts using wood glue and joinery techniques. Finally, the entire door is sanded by hand with sandpaper. This technique is unique in the overall process because it does not involve the use of a machine. The Practice of the Intelligent Hand By now it should be clear that contemporary crafting is not the mindless work of a living automated tool. It is a complex hand skill involving thinking and feeling (touch) in a rhythm. This is the practice of the intelligent hand – the coordination of hand, eye and brain. The Structure of the Workshop The visual appearance of the shop is reflective of the idyllic notion of “the workshop is the craftsman’s home”. However, MKB operate’s using very different organizational structures. The home system is guided by love and respect. The organization of a workshop is based on skill level and obedience out of respect. This structure of skill level and obedience is reinforced at MKB. Every member of the shop has a role and the younger men perform lighter, less specialized activities – learning to use the more specialized equipment from the more experienced carpenters. In this way, the workshop becomes a productive space in which people deal faceto-face with issues of authority. Mike’s ownership of MKB is validated by the strength of his certification (school training) and his adeptness with using the machines in the workshop. Below him is Paul whose experience is endorses his informal position as a Master in the shop. The structure reinforces a social value of formal and informal education, experience and learning from those who posses both these things. Conclusion The reward for Craftsmanship is the pride felt with the completion of the project. That pride for the craftsman comes from learning and then mastering the ability to create. References 1 Knox College Curriculum. Retrieved May 4, 2010. 2 Sennett, R. (2008) The Hand. The Craftsman, (page 152). Yale University Press, New Haven and London.

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