It was one of those “Don’t you dare, come any closer” situations. It was an after-the-show dinner at a restaurant set on a pier. I had a coffee cup in my hand, and the one breathing beery fumes at me was inhaling the sixth beer. I was being told in no uncertain terms that the new robot-carver his company was selling would cause an upheaval in the industry. I couldn’t essay a single observation into this one-way conversation. To the salesman, it was profits. To me, as a nautical carver, it foretold the end of a good part of my business. Their carving device was just a router on guides. While the quarterboard carved by this Frankenstein Monster was not as pretty as one of mine, it was good enough to steal a significant amount of business.
The non-stop blather began to rankle, and soon I forcibly pushed into the conversation. Finally, when the salesman realized that I was a carver, he hollered, “perfect! buy a unit, finish the lettering by hand and have the best of both worlds.” I really should not have been shocked. Other carvers routed lettering and finished by hand.
I maintained that I could be halfway done with the carving by the time the router was set up. You tend to get fast at what you do a lot of, and in those days, I did a lot of lettering. It wasn’t that I opposed using industrial tools in my trade. I used bandsaws, table saws, jointers, and planers every week. I prepped stock with them, but I didn’t use them to make my product.
Within a handful of years, the salesman proved to have been accurate in his forecast; computer-driven production was like an octopus driving tentacles into almost every area of my business. As a result, I transformed my business, and I am still at work on that transformation. For example, I’m working on combining traditional carving with work done by the laser that I couldn’t do before.
When something transformative happens in your trade, craft, or industry, you have choices: retire, join the new wave, or be adaptive. For example, boatyards no longer use pitsaws to cut planking from logs, but quality boats still get built. Likewise, few shops hand saw, joint and plane every bit of wood, but quality cabinet work is still done. I’ve written about this before. The challenge is to look at the tool as a tool, not as an end in itself.
Carving has been a niche trade for many years now. The changes in it are only shadows of the changes happening elsewhere. It seems that every industry, business, and craft is being challenged by technological change.
Craftspeople and artists have an advantage in that they tend to be sole proprietors. Thus, they are not subject to the whims of a group of investors who may decide tomorrow to automate the entire operation. In addition, they have learned to pivot as the market desires for products change, something at which their cousins in the corporate world frequently fail. This ability to pivot, not to be comfortable with any status quo, makes the small operator light on their feet. A new tool is not a business killer; it’s an opportunity.
As William Butler Yates said: “Do not wait to strike until the iron is hot but make it hot by striking.”