The Handmade Dilemma

The heat is killing me. Temperatures outdoor during the day over 35 °C, overnight never lower than 18 °C. Temperatures indoor 28 °C throughout the day and there is nothing I can do about it – if I open the windows wide, the house will be swarmed by mosquitoes in minutes. I have nets, in some windows, and in normal weather those suffice for ventilation. Not in this weather though.

So works on the dagger progresses at a snail’s pace. Not that it matters much, because snail’s pace is also the speed at which linseed oil hardens. But it means it is unlikely I will have anything to post about it anytime soon. However, that does not stop me thinking about stuff and one of the things I am thinking about – will it be fair to say, that the dagger is handmade?

In the past, when I have made a knife, it was truly and undoubtedly handmade. The only electrical tool I had was a drill that I used to make holes for pins. Everything else I had to do manually, with hand-held and hand powered tools, whereas today I have a table top belt grinder, handheld belt grinder, an angle grinder, a lathe, a bandsaw, a circular saw and a jigsaw. And in due course I intend to build a power hammer and a polishing drum.

And I do not spare any of those electrical tools. If I can save time or my muscles by using electricity, I do it without hesitation. But there are some purists, who would argue that therefore things I do are not handmade.

I disagree with that.

The way I see it, these electrical tools are nothing but providers of raw power. They do not provide or increase any skill – all that still has to come from my hands, because ultimately they guide either the tool or the workpiece during work and therefore determine its quality. In fact, some of the tools – especially the belt grinder – require a slightly different set of skills to do the work properly, than doing the same work with bastard file and a set of polishing stones would.

So I think the dagger is handmade. And purists can go and purify themselves.




  1. says

    I think that “handmade” is a vague concept -- there is no specific point at which you can say something is handmade or not. I agree with you, the purists can go pound sand -- except that using a funnel and a mallet would be too much automation.

  2. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    My two cents. If you use nothing but tools you hold in your hands, like a hand held drill vs. a drill press on a stand, I would consider it hand made. Ultimately, it’s up any customers of your wares and their definitions.

  3. ridana says

    Maybe I’m missing the point, but perhaps an easier distinction would be “homemade” v “factory made”? The former implies crafting skills (regardless whether the medium is metal, textile, stone, food, etc.) and personalized one-of-a-kind-ness, while the latter implies the anonymous uniformity of mass production. To me, “hand-crafted” = “homemade” whatever the tools used. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop manufacturers from co-opting the “hand-crafted” label for anything not yet automated.

  4. dakotagreasemonkey says

    To me your dagger is handmade.
    The tools you use do not count in the “Hand Made” label, electric or not. A simple hammer that you use is not handmade, but factory made. Your files and whetstones are factory made, and all three are non-electric. Yet, all uses of them are considered “Hand Tools”.
    Even a drill press is a hand controlled tool, and requires skill from the operator.
    I work with Tool and Die departments in a factory setting, to create repair parts for production machinery. Sometimes a Factory part requires a “lead time” of 6 to 8 weeks for a factory part to be made by the factory. We figure out a way to make a substitute part to get our machine back up and running while the factory part is made and delivered to us.
    To me, the machinist in Tool and Die still made a handmade part, whether he made it with CNC or “Hand Crank” machine tools.
    Your Dagger (which I read with enthusiasm every time you post) is extremely handmade, trying to use the right materials for the time period, is amazing.
    You didn’t make 100 of them, You made only one. With materials uniquely available to you. Tools you constructed for a one time use. The “fails” and re-trys until you got it right.
    Definately “Hand Made”.

  5. dakotagreasemonkey says

    Could these Purists do a 32 KM hike a day(the Pure way to travel in your targeted time period of knifemaking) to meet you? And see your tools and methods? Much easier to criticize from a keyboard or phone, than to actually do what you have done. Jealousy of unskilled finger tappers is best ignored. 10 to1, they also want to buy your knife for 1/10th Euro, so they can turn around and sell it at a big markup as “period perfect handmade knife”.
    Don’t pay any attention to them, they are just vocally jealous.
    Me, I’m proud of your creativity and knowledge of ancient knifemaking skills. All I can say is: Please make more knives!

  6. says

    And purists can go and purify themselves.

    I would have used a word starting with F, but that’s my sentiment exactly. I know these discussions from historical costuming, where a lot of people get their knickers in a twist over “authenticity”*, without ever questioning what it is that people want or mean.
    Now, I never tried to recreate some period clothing, but among those who did there were bitterly feuding fractions arguing endlessly over fabrics, dies, patterns, techniques.
    Now, I’ll say there’s value in trying some techniques. I’ve certainly worked my hand sown eyelets. And some times you really need to do shit by hand, but everybody uses tools.
    And now that I’m doing machine embroidery many people claim that it’s not “handmade” or “art” at all, to which I say “well, just do it yourself”.
    Not to mention photography.

    *The best thing I’ve ever heard was people genetically testing sheep to find out if those sheep would have existed in the middle ages.

  7. jazzlet says

    I think it can be valuable to make something only with the tools and materials available at the period, but mostly from an archeological and historical view point, to get an idea of how the processes involved actually worked, as well as how long it might have taken to make the object in question. Doing so can reveal why particular materials were chosen for particular tasks especially when multiple materials were used in the same object, whether it required special skills to make or was something most people could have made and so the likely cost of the object etc, However I think that confining oneself to only the tools and materials available at the historical time period the object was made is just daft.

    I sew and knit, all the the knitting is completely handmade, though the yarns are all machine spun, the sewing is another matter. There I will use the machine unless there is a jolly good reason not to, but would still consider everything I produce to be handmade. I don’t want the dyes to be confined to what is available from plant materials because I love stronger permanent colours, but I’m not trying to make historically authentic garments. Though I bet given the chance many historical people would have used stronger, more permanent dyes if they were available as whenever better dyes have been discovered they have been adopted by anyone that could afford them, as a species we seem to like colour. Similarly whenever better tools or techniques have been invented they have been widely adopted by anyone that could afford them.

    Charly I guess what I am trying to say is that what you produce may not be entirely authentic in terms of the tools you use, but you also didn’t go through the years of appreticeship you would have required to gain the skills to be able to make such a knife at the time of it’s origin. Part of what you are doing with your modern tools is circumventing those years of apprenticeship. Your rondel dagger is not entirely authentically crafted, but it is Charly handcrafted.

  8. rq says

    Definitely handmade and handcrafted.
    (If they really want to be pure about it, perhaps they should be grinding with their fingertips and heating with their breath for malleability. It’s your own muscle strength, sweat and frustration you’re pouring into your creations. The purists can just fuck off.)

  9. rq says

    Also I’ve heard a lot about authenticity recently re: the Song and Dance Festival just past and the folk costumes most participants wear. So many complaints about doing it wrong!! Well, the only ideas about wearing them ‘correctly’ come from the 19th century and burial mounds. I say, wear your folk costume with pride, joy and much abandon and treasure its personal significance -- I highly doubt the ancient Latvian tribes had a panel of judges before every feast day just to make sure all women had their hair braided before putting on the festival headdress.

  10. says

    BTW, I just made another sourdough bread (more to come).
    I served it to the kids and told them that this is bread like people have eaten for centuries, to which they replied “but centuries ago they didn’t have a kitchen machine!”
    Right, they didn’t. But why on earth should I spend the time and energy on kneading the dough for 10 minutes if I’ve got a wonderful Kitchen Aid that will work just as well? The bread won’t be any worse for it. It#s still a traditional bread without the happy mix of chemistry store bought bread has.

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