Sunday, 7 March 2010

On Making Things

Gerhard Richter,  Annunciation After Titian,  1973 

The German painter Gerhard Richter has claimed that he  painted his Annunciation after Titian because he wanted one.  As I recall the story, he had been in Venice studying renaissance paintings and, more or less decided he wanted a Titian for himself and so he painted one.  The interpretation of Richter's work causes untold consternation among critics and those who would pigeonhole his motivations.  Some propose his work be interpreted as conceptual art rather than on its own terms as painting.  The more common motivation in the art world is to create something new, something that hasn't been done before and yet that is in dialog with previous work.  If we take Richter at his word, his motivation, for the Annunciation at least, is concrete and simply understood by anyone who would make something for themselves. 

Titian, Annunciation to Mary, c.1540

There is a naivety at work (and an audacity too) in looking at a painting in a museum and deciding to make one for yourself.  An acquisitive nature underlies such an action: "I want one."  But in a time when owning your own tools is more and more a kind of  luxury, the idea of "making one for yourself" is a profoundly fundamental and uncomplicated initial motivation.  Later, satisfaction with your own work comes into play.

In 1973 when  Richter painted his Annunciation, owning a Titian was not a financially feasible option for him, so he made one.  This seems to be an aspect of making your own things;  for whatever reason, not being able to purchase one.  I started  cooking, tying my own flies, and working on my  own rifles and shotguns  for much the same reason.  My most recent cooking jag started after we ate in a Tapas restaurant in Portland and I was inspired to make more exotic fare at home.  Early on in my own flyfishing I started tying my own flies.  In Ithaca I'd caught a number of beautiful (and delicious) landlocked salmon on an olive Matuka pattern. I was convinced the color and size of the fly was perfectly matched to the water I fished. When I lost the last one I discovered I could not find another anywhere.   I had to learn to make my own. Guided by similar motivations, I started doing some work on rifles and shotguns.

But why bother? From a strictly functional point of view, from the point  of view of what we actually need to live, none of us is required to  "make" any thing, except money.  And even to make money, fewer and fewer  of us actually make anything, at least nothing  that we can concretely  identity.  By "concrete" I think of something that has a unique physical  identity; something I could poke myself in the eye with or drop on my  toe or burn my tongue on.  Money, a bank transaction, a report, this blog these are not concrete in the sense  I mean. This absence of making things as part of ordinary everyday life  seems to be the core nature of the service economy we have rushed  toward with such a vengeance.  

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Writing about customizing and restoring motorcycles and motorcycle maintaining has provided a vehicle for discussion of the contrast between the abstract nature of modern work and the  concrete nature of building and fixing things. 

Monkee #10, Yamaha SR500,Wrench Monkees, Copenhagen
There seems to  be something about motorcycles that inspires this kind of thought.  Robert Prisig's classic Zen  and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: an inquiry into values  addresses  quality using concrete  examples from motorcycle maintenance. Quality, and this has something to do with handwork,  turns out to be a surprisingly hard abstract concept to nail down. I first read Prisig's book, and mostly did not understand it, when I  was in my 20's.  I reread it a few years ago after buying an old  motorcycle that required an inordinate amount of maintenance before  I could ride it. I was better prepared to be more critical in my second reading but in rereading it I  also realized the effect it had on me.  Adrien Litton wrote a nice personal account of  the effect Prisig's book had on him the International Journal of  Motorcycle Studies titled Finding the  Zen in Motorcycling.  Litton explains that Prisig's conclusion  seemed to be that perception of quality, as a property or judgment about  the goodness of a thing, is prior to, or somehow more fundamental than  rationality or language.  Litton says, and I'd have to say as much,  that Pirsig's book framed the way he thinks in significant ways.

Matthew Crawford had an interesting article in the NY Times about a year ago; The Case for Working with Your Hands.   Crawford earned a Ph.D. in Political Philosophy from the University of Chicago in 2000 and, for a time anyway, gave up academia to work with his hands.  He became a motorcycle mechanic.   The Times article came out at about the same time his book was published, Shop Class as Soulcraft: an inquiry into the value of work.   Steven Alford has a nice review and discussion of the book (also in the International Journal of Motorcycle Studies.)  Quoting Crawford from Alford's review, the book presents “a nested set of  arguments on behalf of work that is meaningful because it is genuinely useful.  It also explores what we might call the ethics of maintenance and  repair."  Alford really likes the book, and as a motorcycle studies person I expect he would.  The New York Times review  by Dwight Gardner is less enthusiastic and matches some of the others that I have read online.  I see that after the publication of his book Crawford is back in academia which has to make you wonder if working with your hands for a living is so great for someone like Crawford who has other options. My own copy just arrived and it looks great and I'm looking forward to getting into it.

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Studying the classic texts on gunsmithing leaves me in awe of the craft. Classic American and British rifles and shotguns represent a  kind of pinnacle of hand craft. Gunsmithing  combines woodwork with metalwork and requires extraordinarily fine  tolerances.   In a well equipped shop a gunsmith familiar with traditional techniques can fix just about anything; and this is the connection to what Crawford calls the ethics of  maintenance and repair. When I think about something not being fixable, I think of a gunsmith who can  form a main spring for a boxlock shotgun from scratch.  My appreciation for gunsmithing and my aesthetic taste in rifles and shotguns was initially formed by  reading Stephen Bodio's excellent book Good    Guns Again: A Celebration of Fine Sporting Arms.  I highly  recommend it to anyone who comes to hunting like I did without a tradition of guns  in their own upbringing. It's been fifteen years since I first read it and I do not believe there is anything better.

Checkering on a rifle or shotgun stock would appear to be  impossible for a tyro.   It was as naive and  absurd for me to hope that I could checker my own rifle as it would be  for most  people to decide they would paint a version of Titian's Annunciation for  themselves.  But I wanted one for myself and could not bring myself to justify paying someone do it for me.  I guess it depends on how hard you want to learn a new  skill, how patient you are at leaning new skills and, in the end, how  much imperfection you are willing to live  with.   
For a rifle, the number of lines per inch (LPI) of the checkering often  counts a measure of the quality of the rifle itself.  More lines per inch takes more time to do and the required work is that much finer. Standard factory  checkering is typically 18 LPI and is often pressed by machine.  Lines per inch of checkering on fine custom rifles starts at 20  or 22 LPI and can go as high as 36 LPI or more.  The quality of the wood determines how many lines per  inch is even  possible by the finest craftsman, so a very high LPI count is  a  reflection on both the craftsman and the wood itself.  Although it distinguishes a rifle, at some point, adding more  lines per inch defeats the functional purpose of the checkering in the  first place; to give the shooter a secure grip on the rifle.  This kind of over refinement, to the point of foiling the functional integrity of an object, is not uncommon when craft is elevated to art.  Many of the best rifles are show pieces, destined for someones gun safe, never to be used as the tools they are, never hunted. 

My  first checkering effort was on a Ruger No. 1A.  The No.1 is a single shot rifle based on a classic  British Farquharson falling block action.   I have Bodio to thank for my infatuation with Ruger No. 1's.  I've owned  three. I bought the 1A from a friend who had reshaped the stock but had not checkered it.  My  checkering job on the Ruger by no means turned out perfectly, but it wasn't bad for a first try either.  Perhaps most importantly, I learned some crucial lessons. Every new job presents itself uniquely,  but as you begin to master the technique you get better as you go. My second effort was on a pre-64 Winchester model 70 that had been rebarreled for the 35 Whelen cartridge, this is my elk rifle.  Among other things I reshaped the 1960's Monte Carlo style stock to a more classic shape, added a Silvers style recoil pad, a metal grip cap and an ebony forend.  The reshaping necessitated a recheckering job.

I've talked to Nate Heineke about checkering. His rifle and shotgun work is world class.  When he opened shop in Laramie in an old bank building I started hanging out whenever possible.  I soon realized he is the ideal gunsmith, I could not have invented him if I'd have wanted to. He describes checkering as the means to create the illusion of straight lines on a  curved surface.  A good checkering cradle and sharp tools are required.  Some well known custom rifle makers were know to have checkered without a cradle, but not many; this is kind of like Lee Wulff tying flies without a tying vise.  I did not have a cradle for the Ruger job and bought one used from an old gunsmith and friend Jim who doesn't checker any more.  As for work habits, Nate says he does just a bit at a time.  He works for a few hours at most on a job and then sets it aside until he is fresh again.  Checkering requires concentration and focus.  I made my worst mistake checkering the Whelen when I pushed on past the point where I knew I was too tired.

The thing about checkering is that you need to keep at it.  The most  important thing that I learned from my imperfect job on the Ruger was  that you need to push on past small imperfections that, at the time, may  seem to be disastrous.  Some of the imperfections disappear as the  pattern is deepened.  Some just get lost in the overall intricacy of the  surrounding pattern. In a lot of hand work imperfections make you want  to just quit. Like most things, persistence is key.


  1. Pretty cool stuff. People call me crazy for making wine, cheese, salami etc. But I am pretty sure I would never think to try to make my own rifle from scratch. You have hit on the charm of making, however: Making something brings a pleasure unlike anything else. It's yours and yours alone. And that's pretty cool.

  2. Hi Hank, I'm not really building rifles from scratch -- some minor metal work, shaping and checkering stocks is challenge enough for now. Aside from being hunting tools, rifles and shotguns carry their own extraordinarily rich traditions of fine craftsmanship -- and that is mostly disappearing. A few makers like Nate Heineke carry on.

    I'm getting ready for some salami making myself.