Do You Have An Endangered Craft?

It is probably fair to say that as Hackaday readers, you will all be people with the ability to make things. Some of you can make incredible things, as your writers we are in constant awe of the projects that pass through our hands. But even if you feel that your skills in the maker department aren’t particularly elite, you’ll have a propensity for work in this direction or you wouldn’t be here.

Most of the craft we feature involves technologies that are still very modern indeed to the majority of the population. We for example know that the first 3D printers were built decades ago and that we take them for granted on our benches, but to the Man In The Street they are still right up there with flying cars and time-travelling police telephone boxes.

We use 3D printers and microcontrollers because they are the tools of our age, but how different might our crafts have been if we’d been born a few centuries ago? Apprenticed to a master craftsman as teenagers, we (well, at least you boys!) would have learned  a single craft to a high level of expertise, making by hand the day-to-day products of life in those times.

The Industrial Revolution brought mechanisation and mass production, and today very few of the products you use will be hand-made. There may still be a few craftsmen with the skills to produce them by hand, but in the face of the mass-produced alternative there is little business for them and they are in inevitable decline. In an effort to do something about this and save what skills remain, the Heritage Crafts Association in the UK has published a list of dying crafts, that you can view either alphabetically, or by category of risk.

It’s a list with a British flavour as you might expect from the organisation behind it, after all for example hand stitched cricket balls are not in high demand in the Americas. But it serves also as a catalogue of some fascinating crafts, as well as plenty that will undoubtedly be of interest to Hackaday readers. Making hand-made planes, saws, or spades, for example, or at least where this is being written, coracle making.

As your Hackaday scribe this is close to home, a blacksmith carrying on her father’s business can’t earn enough to live in Southern England while an electronic engineer and technical journalist can. Eventually there will be one less blacksmith plying the craft, and though his tools and some of his skills will live on here, the business will not. Take a look at the list of crafts, do any of you have them? Or do you know of any craftspeople who have any of the skills listed, that the HCA might not know about? Let us know in the comments.

Treadle lathe image: Patrick-Emil Zörner (Paddy) [CC BY-SA 2.0].

62 thoughts on “Do You Have An Endangered Craft?

  1. lapidary, the art of cutting gemstones, is dying. Of course nobody is going to stop cutting diamonds and rubies and the other precious stones for wedding rings and such, but there is a rich culture of craft with regard to semiprecious genstomes like agates. Many of these stones have rich, unique patterns that can be exploited by a skilled craftsman to make stones, particularly cabochons (rounded top as opposed to faceted) with beautiful patterns and colors. And most of the people who really knew how to do that are retirement age nowadays. As things are going the whole craft, which dates back at least 500 years, is going to be lost in another generation.

    My wife and I do a little work, and by little I mean very little; we mostly invested in and resold rough back when there were a lot more people doing it, and we still have rough we work once in awhile, but we’re total amateurs compared to some of the people we’ve worked with. Some of our most beautiful specimens were made in trade by brilliant craftsmen who took the rough we sent them, turned half of it into finished stuff for us in trade, and kept the rest for their own purposes. And at least three of the guys who did some of the best work like that for us have died.

    We have some of the machines — many of them acquired at estate sales — but not really the time or energy to develop that much skill. (And I’m no spring chicken myself, got a spiffy new stent for my 50th birthday a few years ago). Actual lapidarists (as opposed to jewelers) are a vanishing breed at the increasingly misnamed gem and mineral shows, where it has become almost impossible to find minerals that aren’t finished precious gemstones.

      1. Have you looked for 4×5 or 8×10 sheet film recently? :) One of my degrees is a fine art degree in photography. I specialized in large format photography and now the very rare box of sheet film costs enough to pay off the national debt. The $100,000 degree and around $25,000 in equipment is now worthless. On the plus side, my wife stores “stuff” in what was once my dream darkroom.

        1. sheet film is fairly easy to get, i don’t know what you find expensive though nor what you find an acceptable film, i always worked a lot in the various ilford lines and they still produce fresh sheet film in various sizes at around a dollar a sheet for 4×5 , there are even proper modern large format cameras.

          there has been kind of a resurgence, glass plate photography and various daguerreotypes have also gained in popularity.

    1. 404’s for me also.
      Tried them with a couple of browsers.
      Could be that his server is only setup for some countries only. (I’m in the UK)
      Or his server is in the cloud has drifted away.

  2. The closest I have to a dying craft is programming in LSL – the scripting language used in SecondLife to bring interactivity to the world. It’s being dropped in Sansar (the theoretical SL2 that has zero in-world building tools) in favor of Javascript or C# I believe. I mean SL isn’t going away, but it’s not going anywhere either, if you get my drift.

  3. OK, so maybe not quite so dead, but definitely dying— I can blow neon tubes. Nowadays, there is maybe 1 or 2 artisans left per decent sized city still working the craft, and they don’t stay busy doing it full time. I learned it as an apprentice in the early 80’s. 1000 or more hours of practice to be able to make a halfway decent curve on a somewhat consistent basis. 1000’s more to truly master it. I absolutely love LEDs and most of my work is done with them nowawadays. (LEDs now dominate signs, the traditional realm of neon.) But there is nothing that quite replicates the glow of real neon tubes.

  4. It’s certainly true that certain trades are dying from lack of demand. But making woodworking tools such as planes is not disappearing so much as it’s limited to people who do woodworking. There was a long period when woodworkers, machinists and blacksmiths made their own tools as and when needed. Then mass manufacture stopped the practice. Now it’s coming back to a limited degree. In part because once items become hard to source it’s more time efficient to simply make them.

    Two hundred years ago a machinist would begin to setup shop by constructing a lathe. Making patterns, a cupola and then casting and finishing the lathe. Gingery but with cast iron and a lot bigger.

    One of the interesting things about the modern era is that things that once required a specialist now require only the purchase of suitable materials and a modest amount of ability. The big change has been transportation. Oil made transport very cheap. When that ends things will go the other way. The important question is will the knowledge still exist among enough people to avoid reinventing it all.

    According to Jared Diamond, the inhabitants of the Chatham Islands lost knowledge of simple things like sewing and fish hooks after they were isolated from the Australian mainland by the Pleistocene rise in sea level. They lived in very small groups without sufficient people to retain all the knowledge that they started out with.

  5. X2 on the meat cutter.

    I am. It in the trade and I myself am a hack–but the little I know and I’m working to refine every fall during hunting season was learned from a retiring meat cutter.

    Watching that guy work a knife and a steel is amazing!

  6. I am a knife maker, not only my trade is endangered, it is now being shunned by money transfer mobs such as Paypal and Square (in Australia). Lately a knifemaker friend of mine has his account freezed for selling handmade custom knives and getting paid through Square. The excuse? Apparently hand made knives are a “high risk category and the legal people at the company want nothing to do with chef knife or hunting knife sale.

    1. I didn’t know those vendors did that, what bologna. Sounds like they’re jumping on the demonitization bandwagon. I hadn’t realized it was endangered either. The US knife/EDC community seems to have a good number of custom knife makers.

  7. I’m a software developer by day, hardly an endangered craft.
    By night I work for my wife at our poster shop, turning out 14×22 carnival posters; printed on 100 year old machines with hand set type. In recent years the industry has been given new life, but it’s always a struggle to compete with modern processes.

  8. My Father is Numesmatic and our family had once a Mintery in what is now Poland. So hes on all this big Medival Folkfestivals showing of how coins were made, each year with more recreated tools and skills.

    I see if i can get a few nice pictures and explanations frm the old man.

  9. Jenny– dump your envy of males. Women have always have attributed to the financial well being to a family. Like how the males where the apprentices to their fathers; the females where apprentices to their mothers, mothers who produced foods, cloth, and clothing items sold outside the household. Given how long relatively cheap petroleum has been available I have to doubt that few readers of hackaday have a craft that contribute substantially to their livelihood, unless they are producing luxury items that have an over all low production volume.

    1. No envy of males, you’ve not met me :)

      As it happens, it my family craft, blacksmithing, women did play a very active role. They traditionally made nails. There’s a story associated with the Bible that a woman made the nails for the Crucifiction, and thus in illuminated Mediaeval bibles you’ll see pictures of women in full Mediaeval garb with wimple and all working at forges. I’ve considered doing it myself at recreation festivals, but never got round to it.

      Also because of the association with the crucifiction, the lady smiths in illuminations are always depicted as crone-like. :)

  10. My mother has been struggling for years to find people who can spin yarn from natural fibers. The trade is still very much alive among tribal people, particularly those that live in colder regions, but they are difficult to reach. She was over joyed when a friend managed to get a full skein of llama yarn. Still, the craft is becoming less and less common; mass produced cotton and artificial materials easily out compete it.

    1. Drop spindles aren’t expensive or hard to learn.
      Granted you’re not going to produce fine thread on your first go but after a few pounds of yarn you’d probably get pretty consistent results.
      Try finding a medieval or renaissance festival in your area. They frequently have demo’s set up.

  11. My secret addiction is making pottery. Although it’s accepted as a art-form in some circles, my joy is making common items that have a uncommon attraction. This does tend to place my work outside of the main stream “art gallery’s” fare, but the admirers of my work know why they buy it.

    Hand made pottery just has a unique feel and appearance that the commonly available service ware that fill the cabinets of most kitchens. Each piece of hand made pottery has a certain undefined energy that is imparted to the raw clay by the artisan’s hands that cannot be reproduced by industrial production methods.

    Over the past 12 years as a working craftsman, I’ve worked to spread my craft by teaching classes for all ages and experience from pre-school to senior citizens. I’ve also mentored a series of apprentices who desire to follow this road and have watched as several of these have established their own careers in the field.

    Is this craft really endangered? I’m really afraid that it is except for the isolated artisan’s laboring away in small studios across our country. To all of them, I dedicate this post. You are the future of our craft.

  12. I have been blowing glass for the last ten years or so. Currently making the stems are for my wedding. It probably isn’t quite a dying craft. I could never do it as my job (aerospace engineer) but it sure is a lovely heat transfer equation.

  13. amateur radio certainly seems like a dying craft. almost all of the operators I tend to meet are at LEAST 40 years older than i am, and its hard to get people out for volunteer events and the like. people just aren’t getting licensed at the rate they once were, at least in southern California where I am.

  14. I took up lace making several years ago. Tatting with both needles and shuttles, various styles of bobbin lace, even tried netting so I could supply my own ground fabric for needle lace. The reason it faded is that machines could make bobbin lace faster than a person; I could spend an hour making a book mark, or a day making a pocket square or cuffs for a shirt, but someone can find vintage lace at an antique store for $10 and cut it into the samd pieces.

    And I’m also a photographer. 35mm, medium format, digital, I love them all. Have my own “dark-room in a bag” for developing film, and know several places to do prints til I get a bigger apartment. I don’t know what the person above was complaining about 4×6 film; I can get paper in that size for a modest amount. It isn’t clear, you won’t get slides from it; but every old photographer I’ve read about didn’t have cellulose 4×6 film in their medium or large format cameras.

    1. I also thought tatting was a dying craft,
      in my family my mother brought it with her to the grave. But it still seems like people are still doing this around the planet.
      A quick search found me both cheap plastic spools from China and nice handcrafted ones from Russia.
      It probably is kind of like knitting, if you are in the wrong demograpich, you probably do not know anybody still doing it.
      Otherwise, well for tatting, it was less popular and practical than knitting, no surprise there if it still is less common.

      Thanks Jenny for mentioning this particular list; I will take up tatting as soon as I can lay my hands on a proper spool.

      1. If you need any links or pointers, I have a ton bookmarked.

        The interesting thing I found is that so many lace makers are stuck thinking of lace as something flat. Being a math geek, a 3D surface is just a 2D one shortened or lengthened on one edge till it curls; a 3D solid could be a 2D surface folded infinite times. So a flat flower petal could be shortened by a stitch on each side to curve, then added to some others to make a full flower and not just the flat image of a flower.

  15. I was horrified to see Joinery and Jewellery making on the list.

    On the other hand I remember when there were only six thatchers practising in the UK (ironically during the ‘reign’ of Margaret Thatcher). I see that is also listed.

  16. The basic trades. In my case flooring installation. Every idiot thinks they can install a carpet with a knee kicker and nails. Modern carpets are all made of plastic. Power stretchers, seam sealers, and knowledge are the only way to install. As for “hard surface” floors, seeing DIY failures with cheap “liquidator” floors just makes me laugh and cry. An little extra money spent at a “Mom & Pop” store would have saved them money AND not sullied the reputation of these floor.

    Bottom line: We need MOTIVATED young people to train in flooring. plumbing, electrical, etc. I capitalize motivated because I have tried to train “kids” who didn’t even know how to sweep a floor or run a vacuum! Stop coddling your kids and make them do some house work or you will be paying a fortune for the basic trades you count on now!

  17. Leatherworking. Still a beginner, but slowly working on getting better at it. Making things out of leather isn’t all that difficult, but leather carving (i.e. carving designs into leather is very challenging).

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