A Craftsman Is As A Craftsman Does (Regrets to Forrest)

I have a buddy, well an ex-employee really, but still a buddy. I classify friends based on the 2:00 am rule. Like, if my car broke down on the beltway at 2:00 in the morning and I needed to call someone for help, would this person show up? Rob would.

Rob came to work for us right out of high school. Warmly, I can say he was the most naïve person I had ever met. Great kid, but needed to be taught, well, everything. Fortunately, there was a strong willingness on his part which made it all happen. So, a few years at Hardwood Artisans (twice), a run in the Navy as a navigator on a fighter plane, and 15 years of working hard have produced a really good man, husband, father, and craftsman.

Rob and I stay in touch here and there. He pops into the store sometimes. I know that he values the time he spent with us at Hardwood Artisans. I know it has had a lasting effect on him, perhaps a life-long impact. After my last blog post on tools, he wrote me the following:

“I don’t know how you choose the topics for your blog, but I’d like to hear your thoughts on the difference between a carpenter, craftsmen and artisans.

When I talk with people about my time at HWA, most of the time I hear “you are or you were a carpenter”. I don’t know why, but it bugs me when someone calls me a “carpenter”. I always considered myself to be a craftsman and I considered Greg [Gloor], you or Kevin [Carlson] to be artisans.

I wonder, does it also bug you when someone calls you a carpenter?”

Well Rob, the short answer is “Yes”. But, after years of doing this work, I realize that this knee-jerk twinge of irritation is merely my ego getting in the way. Many people get hung up on titles, certificates, those two, three, or four letters after your name. As a Craftsman, accomplishment is not something you hang on the wall. In the early days, I worked so very hard to get from Apprentice to the level of Journeyman, then Craftsman, and then Master Craftsman. I hung onto those titles, I think because the effort to get there was still fresh in my mind.

Back in the day, I would cringe when someone referred to me as a Carpenter, or even as a Woodworker. I do not know a single Carpenter who knows how to make a chair. I’m sure they are out there, but I have never met one. The running joke is that a Carpenter needs to cut within 1/4″ to be correct. A Woodworker needs to cut close enough to fill the void with putty. A Craftsman’s tolerance is as close as the wood itself will allow. That means there really are no gaps to fill.

Coffee Table I Made For Myself
coffee 2
And The Grain….


In the Latino community, everyone who works with wood is a Carpenter. This is not a derogatory word in their culture. Carpenter is a title of status, respected, and nomenclature worthy of aspiration. Of course, Craftsman does not exist in their vocabulary because they have so few words relative to the English language, but Master does. So, we have Master Carpenters in our shop. Many of you know Javier, a multi-generational Craftsman.

Shop 4
Master Carpenter Javier


The real problem with my buddy Rob’s outlook is that in the USA, we tend to look down on most people known as Carpenters, generally disgusted with the quality of home construction, renovations, exterior decks, most of the time poking fun at it really. In fact, this outlook is nothing more than a lesson in economics. Often, consumers are not willing to pay a Carpenter the amount of money it would take to get a job done right, like in the day when your grand parents built a home. Building materials are harvested too green (early), twisting and bowing. Finding someone who knows how to correct this, and will take the time to get a wall as straight as possible, is hard to find. These individuals still exist, but they tend to be very busy, being afforded a station in life by someone else, with the money and time to do the job right, maintaining a reverence for the work itself.

David J. Brown Construction is one of the few Master Carpenters left. I have a friend, Jon, who did a major expansion/renovation on his home. The project took a year, actually two with the planning and punch list. I watched Dave Brown’s first hand work blending an 80 year old floor with a new one. Seamless. Really nice work. Patient. And Jon paid dearly for the attention, but he is delighted.

I looked up a series of words. Carpenter is one who builds or repairs wooden structures. An Artisan is one who is skilled at a craft. A Craftsman is one who does something with great skill and expertise. A Master is one who is highly skilled at something. These definitions seem to me to be perfectly correct after thinking about it for a day or two.

I remember the day I became a Craftsman. It was a Tuesday. I had been working a lot of hours at the shop over the past few months, struggling to keep the team on schedule and also keep the company profitable and my boss happy. I took a long weekend. When I came to work that Tuesday, somehow everything clicked. Everything was suddenly “easy”. I knew exactly what to do and how to do it. I had broken some imaginary barrier. It literally was like a light switch getting turned on. I had 12,000 hours into the craft.

The House I Built, Modern Arts and Crafts


I also remember when I became a Master Craftsman. It was less of a light switch, and more like a free fall into darkness, trusting the parachute would open (sort of like cave diving, which I would love to do). The change began when I started losing my vision (to getting old), when I stopped trying to measure and sand with the absolute precision I was used to (.005). I closed my eyes and simply “felt” my way through the projects. It sounds ridiculous now, but the products on the back end after my failed vision were better than before. Intuition and instinct had gotten hold of me, and I stopped fighting it.

fezz sergio
Me with two future Masters, Fezz and Sergio


I love talking to customers who are masters in their own crafts. I meet some of the most interesting and accomplished people. I feel very fortunate and blessed to be surrounded by such a diversity of individuals. I get a lot of satisfaction in my personal life by these exchanges, and it is these exchanges that keep me terribly interested and passionate about what I do. In most of the meetings I have, I have become the expert. It was only in recent years that I realized people wanted to hear ME speak of MY craft. People who can explain profoundly complicated subjects with precision and simply are the ones who are the real masters. Greg Gloor taught me that. Thanks Greg.

I leave this blog post with something I came across years ago. This matrix diagram explains it all for me. Oh, and Rob, you were once and always will be a craftsman. Go ahead and correct those people. I love you, man.

Mark Gatterdam

correct passion


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