Friday, January 27, 2012

Is "Handmade" Really Better?

I've thought a lot about this question over the years. It's a question that comes up quite often concerning musical instruments, but I think you can apply the logic behind it to just about any handmade item.

We always hear about how handmade means better quality, as though several people working on an a guitar (for instance) cannot possibly produce something on the same quality level as what one person working on his own can produce. I guess the logic behind this says that one person working on his or her own, and not under the supervision of a company, nor the constraints of a time-clock, will be able to take the time to do a job right. And for some reason, the people who perpetuate this viewpoint seem to take it almost for granted that a person working solo will be wonderfully gifted and be able to work magic into their creations. Thus, they can charge top dollar for them too. I say hooey!

Since I know a little about guitars I'll take those as my example. I've personally come across many poor sounding, and poorly crafted, handmade guitars with glue drips hanging on the inside and imperfections in the finish on the outside, not to mention poorly executed joints and worse. I've also seen my fair share of people running all kinds of small businesses who work alone and do shoddy work from accountants to house painters. Working solo never made anyone a magician.

Big musical instrument manufacturers can, and often do, make instruments that not only rival, but may surpass, handmade instruments, and do it for a third of the price. Think about this a moment. A luthier building acoustic guitars on his own can only produce six to ten guitars per year on average according to most I've seen interviewed. Some will take on one apprentice, maybe a son, and double production. (People still tend to think of this as handmade though.) Any of them will tell you that it takes a long time to get good at it. Just learning to apply a finish properly takes nearly a year of experience. But these guys have to do it all—everything from carving out curved bridges to doing fretboard inlays and scalloping internal braces. How good could you possibly get at doing everything that goes into the crafting of a guitar, or much of anything else, if you only do a half dozen of them in a year's time?

On the other hand, mass produced instruments are made by people who typically specialize in some aspect of their job. One guy may do nothing but make bridges all day, every day, year in and year out. Another guy may do nothing but make tops. Let's say both of these guys make six per day, five days per week, and have been doing this for five years each. That's roughly 6,500 bridges and tops in five years. Wouldn't you think they'd be incredibly good at making bridges and tops compared to someone who only makes six of each in five years time? Further, workmen who are well-supervised are forced to do good work. But a guy working on his own may do shoddy work in any given area and not think twice about it since he answers to no one.

In my estimation, a product that comes from a well-supervised production line by experienced workmen should generally be higher quality—not worse. Just seems like good horse sense to me.


  1. You sound more and more like Plato every day!

    It really all comes down to cost. Whether hand made or factory, quality takes time and that means money. Comparing a quality, expensive hand made product to a cheaply made factory product and the hand made wins out every time. Flip it around and the factory wins.

    Since I know construction I'll use that as an example. While it's true that a framing carpenter that does nothing but framing can become incredibly fast and efficient at nailing together framing materials it doesn't necessarily follow that he will become an excellent craftsman. To become a craftsman a carpenter needs to understand the entire process of construction. It doesn't do any good to have a guy that can nail together a perfectly straight and plumb wall if he doesn't understand the needs of the trades that are following him. And believe me, there's plenty of guys out there that fit this description.

    Now, if I were to build a house in a factory the actual knowledge of the guy nailing boards together wouldn't be that important. All he'd have to master is his station. In fact, he wouldn't have to be a carpenter at all.

    Now, in the stick built world the guy that can frame well but hasn't taken the time to learn the rest of his trade will most likely not work very long. At least that was always true up until the great building boom of the last 20 years or so. A lot of guys stayed working that shouldn't have just because the need for bodies was so high. Historically though, that hasn't been the case.

    I think that the hand built world tends to force the cream to the top while the factory world makes it possible for the average guy to stay employed. Does the factory guy have the same skills as the truly talented hand builder? No? Is he better at a specific function? Perhaps, depending on how much he really has to do to create his product. If the machine does most of the work he's just a guy servicing a device.

    I'm thinking that the best of both worlds would be to automate the majority of the process and then let the truly highly skilled craftsmen do the final finish work. Whether building custom cabinets or a fine instrument, there's really no substitute for human skills in the end.

    And that's where the cost factor comes in. Most companies would automate every aspect and minimize the human component. They may turn out a good product but I'll bet that they can never match the quality of the product that is finished and fine tuned by hand.

  2. I certainly don't disagree with any of that. My post wasn't meant to downplay the role of the handmade product so much as it was to throw light on just how good something factory made can be when crafted by people with a good work ethic and plenty of experience. You're right, it often does come down to cost, and all things being equal, a factory made item and a handmade item can be of equal quality, but because the factory made item can be made in much larger numbers, it can often be manufactured for much less money.

    It just kills me to see some kid try to pester his parents into spending 3 to 4 thousand dollars on a guitar or banjo because he's got it in his head that you have to spend that much on a handmade instrument if you're going to have something worthwhile when I know darn well there are plenty of $1,000 guitars (and used ones for less) that are every bit as good in every aspect. And almost all big instrument makers have a master craftsman who inspects every instrument before it's boxed and will indeed send it back down the line if he sees anything that needs to be addressed. Of course some are more conscientious than others, and just as you say the cream will rise to the top in the handmade world, the same is true of factory manufacturers. Taylor is a great example in the guitar world. They mass produce high quality instruments that will rival anything handmade out there, and will surpass most. But again, I'm not knocking the handmade stuff so much as I am praising stuff that's mass produced in high quality at a cheap price, because the mass produced stuff often gets a bum rap.

  3. Yep, I agree. I'd rather have a factory built quality product than a hand built piece of crap. Especially at a lower cost.

    That's the future in home building. And the finished product will be better, if you're willing to spend the money. There'll always be cheap double wide's but there's also going to be extremely well built factory luxury homes. The difference in cost will be mostly in the finish materials and finish labor. The basic structure is pretty much the basic structure. In the end I would expect that the efficiency on the front end will still knock the final cost down by 10-15 percent. And more guys will be out of work. And fewer people will be able to afford the house. And I don't know how we're going to get out of that ugly reality of the machine age. You only need so many service workers. If we aren't using people to build things...well, I just don't know.

  4. "What more machines are there now? Strange, wild-looking mad-like machines, as the Scotch would call them, are growling and snapping, and clinking and clattering over our fields, so that it seems to an old boy as if all the sweet poetic twilight of things were vanishing from the country....If there had been a steam-engine to plough my father's fields, how could we have ridden home on its back in the evening?" ~ George MacDonald from his novel--Ranald Bannerman's Boyhood, 1871.