Workmanship of Risk

Something I’ve heard mentioned a number of times over the past couple of years is the phrase “workmanship of risk”, which is a reference to David Pye’s book “The Nature and Art of Workmanship”.  I haven’t read the book, but I found some excerpts online that I read.  It’s an interesting line of thought, if a bit more scholarly than the usual stuff I read.  I’ve just ordered the book from Amazon and am looking forward to exploring these ideas more.


There were a couple of bits that caught my interest.  First, and I think this is generally a topic of interest for woodworkers, is putting a definition around craftsmanship and “hand made” versus “machine made”.  Instead of trying to specify the kind of tool used to build something as its level of craftsmanship, he talks about the risk to the outcome.  Manufactured goods, like your average flat-packed Ikea table, have no risk to the outcome.  The design and outcome are completely fixed and dependent on automated mechanical processes.  Whereas with “hand made” or “workmanship of risk” the outcome is at some level of risk throughout the process of being built.  This second idea of risk resonates particularly with me.

When I’m building something I’m focussed on each detail.  I expect that everyone is like that, but I tend to be particularly hard on myself.  I also don’t mean to say that I do a great job on every detail, and some I royally screw up.  Again, I’m sure I’m not alone in that, although I have to say mistakes, even ones easily corrected, really throw me for a loop.  This makes thinking about the processes, meaning and value of the exercise worth examining for me.  The following is the opening paragraph from page 20 of his book.

If I must ascribe a meaning to the word craftsmanship, I shall say as a first approximation that it means simply workmanship using any kind of technique or apparatus, in which the quality of the result is not predetermined, but depends on the judgement, dexterity, and care which the maker exercises as he works. The essential idea is that the quality of the result is continually at risk during the process of making; and so I shall this kind of workmanship, “The workmanship of risk”: an uncouth phrase, but at least descriptive. … With the workmanship of risk we may contrast the workmanship of certainty, always to be found in quantity production, and found in its pure state in full automation. In workmanship of this sort the quality of the result is exactly predetermined before a single salable thing is made.

Workmanship, especially within the scope of Pye’s definition, makes sense to me and can be something that can bring great joy on a good day.  It’s a concept that is a core value for me, and some days is acutely elusive.  I doubt I’m alone in that feeling, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.


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4 thoughts on “Workmanship of Risk

  1. Paul K. Murphy

    A friend of mine has often mentioned these concepts. He read the book, and when we talked about woodwork, the ideas from the book were always on the table. Because of that, I’m familiar with the idea. Thanks for the reminder, I should read the book.

  2. It’s an excellent book, one which I should really pick up again. He has a long chapter in which he carefully dismantles John Ruskin’s ideas about workmanship and creativity – ideas which really shaped the Arts and Crafts movement in the 19th century, but which desperately needed an overhaul.

  3. I really enjoyed reading that book, probably twenty years ago. I think I got it from the library. Every once in awhile I think about buying a copy to read again and keep on the shelf. I enjoyed his discussions on quality.

    If I remember correctly, he suggested that there was always a place for ‘workmanship of certainty’ (ripping stock, etc.). The two really go together.

  4. That’s funny. I just ordered this book as well, yesterday in fact.

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