October 2012

What Does Handmade Mean?

This a post I made on a guitar builder’s forum that I frequent. This subject has seen a lot of discussion in the seven years that I’ve been on that forum, and on others as well.

I’m also of the opinion that the concept of handmade is subjective. But it seems like builders and our customers do not share a common perception of what it might mean. As builders, I think we tend to split hairs and ask questions such as: CNC or no? Hand tools or power tools? Outsourced inlays, finish, necks, or builder-made? You know, builder kinds of questions.

Our customers on the other hand—mine at least—seem to be asking different questions. Is this your own design? Did you really use a brush for the finish? How did you ever learn to do this? Can I see your shop? Can you really design a guitar just for me? Wow, the top is tuned by hand?

Seems to me that people in the market for handmade goods of quality are putting a high value on objects that are the work of someone they can talk to, ask about their work, provide input on what is built for them. The value seems to lie in the fact that the builder(s) has a certain level of skill, and it is the use of those skills in creating the customer’s piece that people some people will pay for, as if to say, “a guitar builder who labored for years to master his skills made this guitar for me” rather than, “a team of factory workers, none of whom could alone build an instrument, built this guitar in a big factory overseas.” It’s as if the builders personal involvement is the attraction, even if there is a slew of builders in a factory who are all masterful as was often the case in the old days (CF Martin for example). It is that personal, emotional involvement that can result in a piece of work that is a masterpiece or has mojo, or however you want to describe it. A human being(s) drew on their experience and hard won skills and put their own sweat and blood into the thing, whether they were pushing a mouse or a plane. And through the builder, the customers gets to put those skills to work vicariously.
That is where I think the romantic notion of handmade lies out there in the marketplace. Or not.

I think we need a new term. Handmade just doesn’t convey what I think it is that we do, what with the advent of all the devices, machines and computers that are found in modern shops. But what would be an apt descriptor that would still convey the romance of “handmade”?