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Adventures with Slow Work

by rdf Thu Jun 4th, 2009 at 04:42:04 PM EST

I thought I'd relate some of my personal experiences with semi-custom makers as examples of what has been practical in the past. I invite others to add their own stories.

In no particular order listed below.


We need to bring some nibbles to a memorial service for a couple of old friends who died recently. So we went into the local bakery and discussed choices with the baker and then ordered the needed amount of small pastries to be ready for pickup on Saturday. He even gave us an extra dozen for "free".

Last Christmas I wanted a goose. This is no longer a popular choice around here, most stores only carry turkey and ham in quantity. We went into the local butcher shop and they ordered one for us in time for the holiday. On another occasion I wanted a duck and my daughter, who lives in a slightly less populated suburb than I do, went to the local farmer who had one already prepared. If he hadn't found one in his refrigerator he said it would be ready in an hour or so!


At one time I was an avid recorder player (vertical wooden flute) and ordered two different models from a well-known English maker. It took 18 months until they finished the order. One of them needed a bit of modification, so I took it with me on a trip to England and stopped at the workshop to drop it off. I discovered why there was such a long backlog. A worker was hand fitting two sections together. He chalked up one part fitted them and looked to see where the chalk had rubbed off, then took some sandpaper and made an infinitesimal change. This was repeated dozens of times. The same firm makes plastic injection molded instruments by the thousands. The handmade ones sell for about 500 times the plastic ones. This illustrates the two extremes.

I used to make some of my own furniture. At the time there was an old family business in the Bronx that catered to woodworkers (I just looked them up and they seem to have moved to Florida and gone web-based). So I drove there (only about 15 miles) and went through their lumber yard and picked out some beautiful pieces of walnut and mahogany for my projects. They also had many exotic hardwoods, but those were too rich for my budget. Home centers still sell furniture grade lumber, but only oak, maple and pine and only in narrow widths. I did buy some veneer from them on other occasions and then getting nicely matched pieces is even more important. I wish I could say my veneering efforts matched the quality of the supplies, but this was one of my failures... Some things really required expertise and specialized equipment.


The women in my family are all into the fabric arts, so I've been able to "commission" several hand knit sweaters and quilts. Of course sometimes they make what they want as a gift and that's nice too. Being surprised has its rewards as well. They make more than we all can use and give away a steady supply as gifts to all the new babies that seem to be appearing in our circle. I've never heard of a single recipient (the parents, if not the babies) who wasn't thrilled.


Even though I've tried to focus on the practical (recorders being the exception), much of what we have around the house that is handmade falls into the "arts and crafts" category. So we have several ceramic pots and sculptures made by friends as well as various paintings and prints bought from the artists themselves.

Recently I decided to package up the essays on my web site into a book I could give to people. I found, what can be seen as the prototype of my new semi-custom enterprise model - a demand publisher. Using modern technology this firm can take my formatted electronic file and produce a single copy of a hardbound book for a price similar to what one would pay in a store. This will be a boon to poets and novelists who will no longer have to order hundreds of copies from a printer and then fill up their basement with them while they try to sell them over time. Multiple copies cost the same as the single copy price, unless one wants to buy in the range of conventional publishing in which case prices get cheaper. The only limitations on what I could do concerned the actual page size. This is restricted to about a dozen of the most common formats. Even commercial printers impose such restrictions in most cases.


Technology already exists (and is being used) to create custom fabric designs using something similar to inkjet printing. With this capability one will be able to design one's own fabric and order enough for a single garment or so, just as I have done with my book.

Modern sewing machines already have computerized software that will accept scanned in pictures and will generate embroidery patterns that they can execute. I expect to see more decorated clothing using this capability as prices for the machines come down. Perhaps there will even be a rise in home clothing making, especially as budgets get tight. A computer capability that will allow printing out of a pattern for cutting the pieces of a garment to measure would complete the process and remove the need for the skill to resize commercially obtained patterns.

I think there is similar technology available for decorating pottery, which would allow for custom designed dinnerware. I know there are inkjet printers for putting edible pictures made of icing on cakes, so why not for ceramic glazes? Many communities already offer ceramics classes and thus have the appropriate firing equipment.

I've just heard of a company that is planning to decentralize car assembly and do away with huge factories. With standardized parts one could mix and match and get exactly what one wants in a vehicle. We will see if his idea turns out to be practical.

Look around your environment and see how little of it exists that isn't mass produced. We may be cogs in the big machine of modern life, but we should be able to put some of our own preferences into our individual environment. We may be cogs, but at least we can be brightly colored ones.

Let's hear your stories, or ideas for a new age of responsiveness.

Home centers still sell furniture grade lumber, but only oak, maple and pine and only in narrow widths.

Chances are that they sell this kind of wood because the wider, better kinds are no longer available--because the trees themselves are no longer there, having been logged out; or because of import and transportation restrictions; or because it's simply cheaper to sell standardized sizes of middling-quality wood.

I've spent some time around people who build wooden boats, and even they are having trouble getting some of the top-quality wood, which has prices to reflect that.

by Mnemosyne on Fri Jun 5th, 2009 at 10:46:04 PM EST
The examples of handcraft versus machine craft are far too many. In the case of metals, rotary machine polishing cannot compete with hand burnishing. Reflectivity and hardness, no contest! The craftsman of a menuke, for example can polish uniformally in the the most inaccessible corners of the object with  files, dedicated kisage's and particular wood carbons. Try to find a scratch there! Or invent a machine that can outdo the human eye and hand on that.

As for the future, there is plenty of cross-pollination. Modern metalcrafts borrows wholehand from advances in dentistry, just as sculpture from developments in aerospatial technology. The bronze cattle crossing downtown Dallas were made in Rawlins, Wyoming using ceramic investment material originally developed for NASA (Rolls Royce in there).

by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Sun Jun 7th, 2009 at 05:11:20 AM EST
There are a number of lumber yards near me that cater to people needing specialized wood.

Some of your examples are examples where the purchaser is a "professional" class (or you masquerading as a pro-class), and expects something outside of the mass-produced norm. The wood and veneer, for example. I'm not sure how this fits in the 'slow work' thesis: this is simply work that hasn't been made efficient yet, because the market will bear a higher cost and slower turnaround times.

To reflect my earlier comment I would also argue that other examples are a case of buying art instead of a commodity good. In such a case, you are effectively patronizing an artist -- the recorder manufacturer above is a good example -- to get a certain style/result that you like. For example, you can buy a passable quilt from K-Mart for $25 (in fact I have one and it is serviceable and reasonably attractive) vs $1000 for a hand-made one which is made with more creativity and individuality. (Or free if it happens to be made by your mother.)

You might be interested in Kevin Kelly's writings. This essay feels REALLY relevant:
Better than Free

Haven't read this yet but it may be apropos:
New Rules (blog)

by acf on Wed Jun 10th, 2009 at 12:31:09 PM EST
One of the problems my adventures illustrate is the limited scope we have for purchasing non-mass produced items.

I'll give a more modest example, to show that there could be change given the right conditions.

When I was growing up everyone went to the local butcher who got in sides of beef (or whatever) and then prepared them in accordance with his customer's wishes. Typically almost nothing would be cut up in advance. If you wanted ground meat you picked a piece and he put it in a grinder right before your eyes.

Being a butcher was a skilled trade, lots of people were needed. Now meat is cut up into standard portions in huge factories by unskilled workers doing repetitive and dangerous tasks. Ground beef is prepared in huge batches so that when one bad cow gets into the process hundreds of people can be affected and millions of pounds need to be recalled.

With local butchering we get a better level of work for those so employed, we get more satisfied customers and we get a better product. It is not even clear that the current technique yields cheaper items for sale. What it does yield is huge profits for a handful of meat packing firms which dominate the industry.

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Wed Jun 10th, 2009 at 12:46:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This is still standard for butchers and fish in Spain, even in supermarkets (which also sell pre-cut, pre-packaged products).

The brainless should not be in banking. — Willem Buiter
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Jun 10th, 2009 at 12:50:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
rdf, just because there are pre-cut and pre-packaged meats available in supermarkets, it doesn't mean that there are no alternatives.  I don't buy beef, but when I've bought chicken or salmon at Whole Foods, they are happy to cut it up to my preferences.  And there are 3 "butchers" or meat markets in my neighborhood.  Of course even then there is the possibility of contamination, but I think far less so, since they generally have a close relationship with their suppliers.  I think it is the factory farming and fast food joints that pose the danger.  

Or, you could not eat ground beef.

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Wed Jun 10th, 2009 at 01:22:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Then there is this story:

Neighbor, Can You Spare a Plum?

A year and a half ago, Ms. Wadud, who studied urban sociology in college and bartended at Chez Panisse, began organizing a little neighborhood fruit exchange called Forage Oakland. She did it as much to build neighborhood relations as to get her hands on some of that fruit.

It works simply. A woman with a yard full of lemon trees, say, can share her bounty in exchange for a paper bag full of someone else's persimmons when they come into season. So far, 200 people have signed up.

I'm not saying such things don't exist, it is just that they have become the exception.

So, after six(!) butchers at Walmart voted to form a union, the chain eliminated all meat cutters and went to 100% "case ready" meat. This is meat that is cut into portions at the packing plant, put in deep Styrofoam containers, filled with CO2 to keep the meat looking red and frozen.

The "fresh"date is the date it is thawed at the store which can be weeks or months later.

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Wed Jun 10th, 2009 at 02:54:23 PM EST

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