This I Believe: I Believe In Handcrafting

Jun 7, 2018

Essayist Jim Byrnes blowing glass.

I believe in making things by hand.

I’m a glassblower. I trained as a scientific glassblower, and I made laboratory glassware for 30 years. Now I make decorative ornaments using the same material and skill set. The act of turning raw materials into a final product, whether for scientific research or decorative whimsy, is something I find personally rewarding. It’s uplifting to say, “I made that.”

Items made by hand have character--a character shared with their maker. Each person’s unique style comes through, making their work recognizable from that of others. The fewer tools used, the greater this relationship between an item and its maker will be. With handcrafting, I believe the process is as important as the result. It has more to do with exercising and celebrating skill than it does with efficiency. Of course knowledge guides the process, but even in this, things can be kept simple, intuitive as in good home cooking: a splash of this and a dab of that. These judgments make things personal. It isn’t just good; it’s just like mom used to make.

When making things by hand, fine hand skills and intuitive judgment develop hand in hand (pardon the pun) as a result of practice and repetition. After you’ve executed some technique a hundred times, you’ve probably become fairly proficient at it. But when you’ve done it a thousand times, something changes. Muscle memory takes over and things start to become automatic, making the difficult look deceptively simple. I experienced this as an apprentice, and when I demonstrate my work today, people often comment that I make it look easy. But what they see is really the result of repetition.

As more tools and production aids are added to the process, that individual relationship between an item and its maker will begin to decrease. But while modern manufacturing and automation might seem to be at odds with handcrafting, I personally don’t think so. These systems create the bulk of consumer products, freeing the craftsman to focus on more novel work. As a glass blower, I get to make beautiful ornaments full time. I’m sure glad I don’t have to make all the light bulbs and beer bottles!

Today the novelty of handcrafting is a big part of its value. People don’t buy my work because they need it. They buy my work because it brings them pleasure and, for many, a big part of that pleasure comes from knowing it was handmade. And so craftsmanship becomes a point of pride. When you tell someone you’re a craftsman, they might not know exactly what you do, but they know something meaningful about you. I consider myself fortunate to be able to spend so much of my time working with my hands.

I believe in handcrafting.

Jim Byrnes is a glassblower who lives and works in the Bellefonte area. His business is James F. Byrnes Blown Glass.