📚 3 Key Take-Aways

  • For a craftsman, making is a lifelong project of self-construction and self determination.
  • The words we used to describe our aesthetic goals also described the person we sought to grow into through the practice of craftsmanship.
  • Commerce is an effective tool to enable communication with society at large.

🧑‍🤝‍🧑 Who Should Read It?

  • Craftspersons, Artisans, and Artists
  • Anyone who creates “things”

📜 Top 3 Quotes

  • Furniture, after all, is more than an object of contemplation; it is a prescription for the life to be lived around it.
  • I thought having one’s craft together would mean having one’s life together. Today, I know better. Spiritual enlightenment is not on the table.
  • Communicating about process, design, and aesthetics forced me to translate the tacit knowledge of hand and eye into the conscious realm of language, a realm where it became accessible to rational investigation.

📜 Actions from this book

  • Compile my design and share it with other designer and ask for feedback.
  • Publish my reviewed designs online.

📚 Books mentioned

Author Title Link
Robert Pirsig Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Richard Sennett The Craftsman
Matthew Crawford Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work
Esther Pasztory Thinking with Things: Toward a New Vision of Art
Charles Taylor Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity
Peter Senge The Fifth Discipline Field Book
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention
Carl Gustav Jung Modern Man in Search of a Soul
Viktor Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning
Lewis Hyde The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World

📝 Highlights


  • we practice contemporary craft as a process of self-transformation
  • Why this should be so and what its ramifications are, also for understanding our own humanity, is the subject of this book.
  • individuality as an illusion, the formation of identity as a full-time project, and thought as a phenomenon independent of language.
  • creative effort is a process of challenging embedded narratives of belief in order to think the world into being for oneself, and work involved in doing so provides wellspring of spiritual fulfilment.

chapter 1 A Shared Hunger

  • I thought having one’s craft together would mean having one’s life together. Today, I know better. Spiritual enlightenment is not on the table.
  • What lures them is the hope of finding a deeper meaning by learning to make things well with their own hands.
  • three well-regarded authors who have already offered extracts of craft as antidotes to the spiritual deficiencies of modern life.
    • Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, was presented as a meditation on the subject of quality.
      • If you choose to ride a motorcycle, then being able to repair a fouled spark plug becomes a moral imperative.
    • Richard Sennett, in The Craftsman, where he asks what the process of making things reveals to us about ourselves.
    • Shop Class as Soulcraft, author Matthew Crawford argues that our educational system and our occupational structures are deformed by a prejudice against manual labor.
  • Looking at antiques with a skilled eye, quality has always been tailored to the cost constraints of time and materials.
  • what Pirsig, Sennett, and Crawford are asking is not where quality has gone, but how we can cultivate the aspiration for quality in today’s world.

chapter 2 Hammering Out a Vocation

  • Unfortunately, to my young eyes, the helpers didn’t appear to be particularly happy or fulfilled themselves. There had to be more to life.
  • The phrase “Physician, heal thyself!” came to mind, and it occurred to me that I should find out how to live my own life well before I presumed to help others.
  • “Together we went traveling, as we received the call / His destination India, and I had none at all.”


  • In taking a job as a carpenter I was challenging elements of a story I had inherited from my parents and their parents before them about who I was and how the world worked.
  • The process of rewriting the story by which I found my place in the world was simultaneously both personal and generational.

Carl Borchert

  • major icon of my life: Carl and Karen’s clothesline. Two cross-barred, gray-weathered posts rise out of the grass, with lines of sash cord strung between.
  • set in the mown meadow between house and wood, that clothesline possessed a simple, functional beauty that bespoke an entire way of life.

The Carpenter’s Life

  • My father, visiting, said that my newly muscled fingers looked like swollen sausages. My hands had indeed changed, and I had newfound confidence in them.

First Epiphany

  • While my friends would talk and listen to music at a bar, I’d sit there sketching chairs on napkins.
  • I gave little thought to practicalities such as income. I simply inhabited my passion.

chapter 3 The Seductive Ideology of Craft

  • That Christmas of 1974, my first woodworking books – brought me deeper into the conversation of furniture making.
  • But more profoundly, my hands began to discover the nature of tools and materials for themselves.
  • conversation of object making has coursed through the emergence and decline of civilizations.
  • we are an object-making species.

The Axioms of Craft

  • Industrial Revolution, craft was given new meaning by the founders of the emerging Arts and Crafts Movement. Foremost among them were John Ruskin (1819-1900) and William Morris (1834-1896).
  • for my generation of craftsmen, the theories of Ruskin and Morris were pivotal, whether or not we had ever heard mention of their names.

chapter 4 Live from New York

  • first step would be to make the transition from wanting to become a craftsman to actually being one.

Frederick, Maryland

  • I was becoming aware that a good life was not some Shangri-La waiting to be stumbled upon. One constructed it from the materials at hand.

Frederick Again

  • By the end of the year in Frederick I had made the transition from wanting to be a furniture maker to thinking of myself as a furniture maker.

New York

  • I liked being self-employed, working hard to meet my personal standards, and trusting in the skill and strength of my hands.
  • My furniture provided a source of satisfaction and pride, but I wasn’t so attached to the objects I had made as to mind selling them.
  • Customers were not just buying desks and coffee tables, which they could have found more readily at furniture stores.
  • Customers were buying desks and tables that had been designed and built by a single individual who did so with passion and integrity.

If I Only Had a Year

  • I was carrying rents on both my apartment and my workshop and the constant financial struggle made me wistful for the college days
  • Further tests determined that I had stage IIIB Hodgkin’s, which translated into a 55 percent chance of surviving for five years, with chemotherapy.
  • I was relieved to finally know what I had to deal with and calm at the possibility of fading away.
  • My attachment to life began to recover following that first terrible two-week ordeal of chemotherapy, as the fevers and sweats abated and my red blood count started to climb.
  • What I wanted, in every fiber of my being, was the privilege of bringing just one more piece of beautiful furniture into the world.

chapter 5 Heart, Head, and Hand

  • harsh light of cancer threw my priorities into sharp relief, clear that furniture making had become my vocation in both the practical and spiritual senses of the word – not just a trade, but also a calling.
  • I was constructing an identity and a life that, given the chance, I was eager to explore.
  • English ceramicist Bernard Leach wrote: “A potter is one of the few people left who uses his natural faculties of heart, head and hand in balance – the whole man.
  • Through personal experience, acquaintance with hundreds of other craftspeople, and interaction with thousands of students, I have witnessed the pleasure and empowerment that skilled craft-work offers.
  • There is a deep centeredness in trusting one’s hands, mind, and imagination to work as a single, well-tuned instrument, a centeredness that touches upon the very essence of fulfillment.


  • Csikszentmihalyi theorizes that the intrinsic pleasure of creative work derives from a mental phenomenon he calls flow, which I described earlier as a “dance of making.”
  • He identifies nine main elements that characterize it:
    1. There are clear goals every step of the way.
    2. There is immediate feedback to one’s actions.
    3. There is a balance between challenges and skills.
    4. Action and awareness are merged.
    5. Distractions are excluded from consciousness.
    6. There is no worry of failure.
    7. Self-consciousness disappears.
    8. The sense of time becomes distorted.
    9. The activity is autotelic, i.e., it becomes an end in itself.
  • two minor quibbles with this list
    • In my experience, the possibility of failure is always present in the workshop
    • flow mixes generative conditions, the first three elements, with descriptive conditions, the final six.

Grounding the Narrative

  • The craftsman is forced to come to terms with the physical properties of materials, the mechanical properties of tools, and the real capacity and limits of his own dexterity, discipline, and imagination.
  • By necessity it reconciles the desire to interpret the world in ways that are emotionally gratifying with the countervailing need for accurate information to facilitate effective decision making
  • the holistic quality of craft lies not only in engaging the whole person, but also in harmonizing his understanding of himself in the world.

chapter 6 Thinking With Things

  • my underlying brief was actually to arrive at a vision of how life could and should be lived.
  • Discovery is the process of coming up with new ideas and implementing them, decision by decision.
  • Embodiment is the way in which the constructed desk cast my decisions in concrete
  • Communication is what happens when the desk registers on the consciousness of a respondent.


  • Furniture, after all, is more than an object of contemplation; it is a prescription for the life to be lived around it.
  • single piece of furniture articulates a point of view about life on many levels.
    • First, as an aesthetic whole, it positions itself within a thick cultural narrative of style and meaning.
    • Second, as an aggregation of physical details, this desk conveys a hundred distinct impressions, all of which evoke meaning.
    • Third, as a manifestation of craftsmanship, the desk is at odds with our society’s rampant consumerism.


  • In small part, it is a glow of satisfaction at having brought so pleasing an object into being. Mostly, though, it is the visual aesthetic of the table that affects me
  • The vision it expresses is my own, but I have voiced it in a vocabulary that Alan Peters explored throughout a lifetime of design and construction.
  • The table is not just a static record of the moment of its making. It is a thought marker for a complex, evolving ideal, both personal and societal.


  • When I am making furniture, I think with things; when I am writing, I think with words.
  • Likewise, both coffee table and manuscript embody questions I asked and the answers at which I arrived during their creation.
  • Anything I create becomes a doorway through which others can access my ideas and concerns, if they care to.
  • As a general rule, the more closely a respondent shares a maker’s cultural orientation, the more accurate his reading of an object or text will be.
  • it is because a person’s worldview uniquely informs what he notices and how he interprets it. As a result, an important measure of any maker’s success is the transparency of his creation. How accurately and comprehensively does the object convey his interests and intuitions?
  • Reading text is a linear progression where one idea follows another
  • a craft object is a collage in which many pieces and levels of information are read in relationship to each other in the present

The Meaning of Objects

  • the meanings that respondents project onto an object often have nothing whatsoever to do with the maker’s intentions.
  • A person who has time to retrieve only one object from a burning house is more likely to stumble out of the smoke clutching a parent’s wedding ring or a family Bible passed down through generations than his most expensive piece of electronic equipment.
  • to maintain the stories that constitute one’s understanding of oneself in the world is a constant struggle, not just because memory is frail, but because the world around us swarms with contrary facts and alternative viewpoints.
  • We need all the help we can get, especially when it comes to narratives that are ours alone or that we share with only a few other people.

The Object as Emissary

  • For a craftsman, making is a lifelong project of self-construction and self determination.
  • We think with materials and objects at least as much as we think with words, perhaps far more. They are conduits through which we construct our selves and our world.

chapter 7 Exercising My Voice

  • Without the distraction of wanting, I became alive to the moment, and the moment was incomparable.

Finding My Voice

  • I had been sketching furniture designs that would advance my skills and please me visually. Now I began sketching to find an aesthetic of my own.
  • He suggested that I consider the appearance of the negative spaces between and around the solid components of a piece of furniture.
  • shortly thereafter a chair appeared under the tip of my pencil that was different than anything I’d designed before. It was mine alone and it pleased me.


  • I had fled the community in which I grew up in order to forge my own identity. Now I discovered that my hometown gave context to my journey in a way no other place could.
  • that wanting, that character, was now tempered with the knowledge of my own impermanence.

Anderson Ranch

  • I finally found myself among my own species.
  • ad hoc community of people who were fully engaged with the creative process, people for whom work was a means of exploring identity and constructing original narratives, people for whom life and work were inseparable.


  • Communicating about process, design, and aesthetics forced me to translate the tacit knowledge of hand and eye into the conscious realm of language, a realm where it became accessible to rational investigation.
  • By way of teaching, I began to engage in woodworking as a science as well as an art.
  • the desire to work alone and apart is self-defeating.
  • isn’t enough time in a week to put in sufficient billable hours at the bench and still do all the other work that a successful business requires
  • working in isolation doesn’t foster the substantial engagement with community it takes to cultivate a local market for custom-made furniture.


  • When I gave up custom furniture making to try my hand at freelance design, and then took a job at Anderson Ranch, I was not abandoning my life career brief. I was killing some darlings in the light of experience.
  • I had realized during my six years in Philadelphia that financial success mattered, and that I wasn’t likely to attain it on the particular path I had chosen.

chapter 8 The Inward Migration of Truth

  • For my generation, craft was an opportunity to be self-employed, self-expressive, self-sufficient, and self-actualized – the telling word being self.
  • Homer, man’s highest aspiration was to achieve recognition in politics and war.
  • Aristotle, a person became fully human only by gazing toward eternal truths
  • medieval Christian, life’s goal was to achieve salvation within God’s cosmic order.
  • Much as the Arts and Crafts Movement had initiated an important new current in the conversation of object making, the ascendancy of individualism represented a tectonic shift in the conversation of selfhood.

The Genesis of Studio Craft

  • As the pool of craftspeople increased, it provided a fertile environment for the progenitors to influence; it also became a community large enough to embody a shared narrative in which their achievements mattered.
  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi theorizes that creative success requires the interaction of three factors: a creative individual, a field, and a domain.
  • “The creative person has internalized a system, has become fluent in the knowledge within a field, so that he has a framework available for editing and evaluating his own ideas, for deciding which ones to go ahead with. He is, in this sense, a product or extension of the domain.
  • Artists are products of their social environments. What they choose to portray, often betrays what matters most to them.
  • Consciously or not, they invoke the place where truth resides at their cultural moment.
  • the poles to which our compasses were oriented had already been determined by the sweep of history.

chapter 9 Second Epiphany

  • His arrival had a foreordained quality, as if I’d held my breath for the ten years since Bear Boy’s death, just waiting for Chester to walk onstage. For the next thirteen years he would be a companion of Homeric stature.
  • In doing so, I began to discover the extent to which words shape events
  • I was amazed at how readily writing rekindled long-forgotten memories
  • Still, the upside of living and working in an artists’ community far outweighed any downside.
  • Prolonged exposure to alternative narratives about life and art, work and meaning caused me to question and revise my own chart of the world.
  • In highlighting our differences, our shared life at the ranch also underlined our commonalities.

Second Epiphany

  • My own values became clear when I eventually realized that the words I used to describe my aesthetic goals as a furniture maker – integrity, simplicity, and grace – also described the person I sought to grow into through the practice of craftsmanship.
  • that the primary motive for doing creative work is self-transformation

Toward a Philosophy of Art

  • None of us enter our studios because the world desperately requires another painting or symphony or chair.
  • The simple truth is that people who engage in creative practice go into the studio first and foremost because they expect to emerge from the other end of the creative gauntlet as different people.

chapter 10 Mapping a Craftsman’s Mind

  • troubled moment in Mexico would be pivotal to my eventual understanding of why we make things and why creativity matters
  • To borrow a term from psychologist Peter Senge, such invisible frameworks might be described as mental maps
  • Their constituent parts – the ideas, beliefs, facts, data, impressions, and suppositions that we carry around in our heads – he calls mental models.
  • Every person on the planet navigates his life according to a singular, fluid, highly complex mental map that determines his goals, strategies, and tactics, his ideas of selfhood and truth, and his normative and aberrational behaviors – not his drives, necessarily, but how he interprets and chooses to act upon them.
  • your words and actions cannot help but leave a physical imprint on my mind, which in turn may affect my thoughts and actions in ways that are likely to impact still other people’s neurons in the future. Ideas and beliefs are hopelessly contagious.


  • In theory, my need to accurately understand the world means that I should have readily recalibrated my views to the facts at hand. In practice, my established ideas and beliefs remain remarkably stubborn.

Design and Decision Making

  • Design begins with two things: the intention to create and a problem to be solved.
  • The actual design process consists of methodologies and practical skills for clarifying the brief, generating ideas, and then testing and refining those ideas with an economy of time and effort.
  • The trickiest skill to cultivate in a hesitant student is the ability to hear his own aesthetic response to the visual ideas he is generating.
  • A common mistake among inexperienced furniture makers is to move straight from an exciting initial sketch to building a finished piece, without intermediary testing and refining through a considered design process.
  • The more diligence we put into making our mental maps accurate, the greater the likelihood that these decisions will produce the outcomes we seek, and that the outcomes we seek will be truly beneficial.
  • Context is the larger scheme of things to which we orient ourselves, including our need to understand our origins.
  • Belonging is inclusion within a social order, whether it is a relationship with a lover, membership in a family, or allegiance to a nation.
  • Order is trust in the predictability of events in the physical and social worlds, and a resulting sense of control.
  • Meaning is the feeling that our thoughts and actions make a moral difference in a larger plan.
  • Hierarchy is knowing one’s place in a pecking order.
  • Respect is seeing oneself positively ensconced in the narratives of others.
  • The unfortunate fact is that mental maps serve more than one master.

chapter 11 A Miracle at the Heart of the Ordinary

  • As I destroyed expensive billets of clear white oak on the lathe through my own incapacity, one after another
  • Yet my will was one hundred percent engaged. It was the stuff of meaning and fulfilment.

The Origination of Meaning

  • ordinary mental effort of sustaining our personal narratives can be difficult and deeply exhausting, however much it may take place out of conscious sight.
  • ordinary path of least resistance is to construct our mental maps with off-the-shelf beliefs for which our societal environment supplies ready confirmation Immersing the mind in received narratives keeps it comfortably occupied, eyes averted from an indifferent (and ultimately deadly) universe
  • creative practice is a way to proactively challenge and refine one’s beliefs on an ongoing basis.
  • creative work is an experiment through which the maker seeks new ways to envision human potential, using himself as the laboratory.
  • through creative practice we are investigating existential questions such as “Who can I become?” and “How should I live?”

The Origination of Fulfilment

  • I find happiness greatly overrated by those who present it as life’s ultimate goal.
  • Fulfilment, seems to be self-generated through the exercise of our own creative capacities.
  • when I am creatively engaged I have a sense of purpose and fulfilment that makes happiness seems like a bauble.
  • the most godlike aspect that both camps recognize in mankind is the ability to create, to forge order out of chaos, to shape oneself and the world in new and, hopefully, better ways.
  • theologian Paul Tillich meant when he said, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith,”
  • Mankind’s defining characteristic is the construction of narratives that explain who we are and how the world works.
  • These mental maps do not only frame our experience of reality; they actually shape reality, because they guide us as we interact with the world.

chapter 12 Creating a School

  • In thinking about location, I identified three critical factors
    • I thought that being in a destination resort such as Aspen would be critical to attracting summer workshop participants.
    • real estate had to be inexpensive, since I had almost no capital.
    • I personally preferred to live in a relatively rural area and be near the ocean, since I loved to sail
  • All of the disparate threads of my working, creative life – furniture making, teaching, writing, and administration – would fuse into building a school. The placid stream had resumed its rush to the sea.


  • If the school that I advertised didn’t open, who was going to believe me the second time around?


  • If one reason for our strong enrolment had been the marketing provided by the publication of my first book, another had been lack of competition.
  • Whenever I had thought I was doing something original, lots of other people seemed to have had the same idea at the same time. That was another reason to keep my foot on the accelerator.
  • weighing two options. Financial security, a happier wife, and a forty hour-a-week job? Or financial risk, emotional uncertainty, and life consuming work?
  • With Kully’s generous safety net in place, I signed the lease on the blueberry barn and published the course catalog.
  • Two years later I would gratefully return his money, untouched and with accrued interest.
  • I began to understand the extent to which people constitute a school, not handsome buildings and expensive equipment.
  • Part of the financing came from ten alumni who lent me $5000 apiece for three years and took free workshops in place of interest. Part came from Kully, who stepped up to the plate once again.


  • I carried plenty of debt, but was earning a decent living by woodworkers’ standards.
  • None of this was good for my marriage, and Sarah and I were divorced.
  • The work was all-consuming and had severe costs, but I found the rewards commensurate.
  • Cancer at forty-six was significantly different than cancer at twenty-seven.
  • It was so unusual for someone to get Hodgkin’s disease again after nineteen years in remission that they had no statistics or studies to draw upon.
  • When I found out how slim my chances were, one thing was instantly clear. If I wanted the school to survive, it was time to turn it into a non-profit.
  • Over the next two months, ten intrepid souls agreed to form a founding board of directors.
  • Less than a year later, in January 1999 the new nonprofit legally acquired the school.
  • following six months of chemotherapy and extensive exploratory surgery, I was declared in remission once again.


  • As long as I was the only administrative employee and the only year-round faculty member, the school was hostage to my personal knowledge and network of relationships. We needed year-round faculty and staff to implant the culture of the school in multiple positions so that I became replaceable, and for this we had to grow.


  • When people ask if I regret giving up ownership of the school, I tell them it was the best decision I ever made.
  • A school is a community, pure and simple. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the time and commitment that volunteers give to advancing its mission without personal recompense.

Creative Practice within an Institution

  • The questions I ask as a maker are personal, whereas as an administrator they are other-directed.
  • Creating and maintaining a successful institution turns out to be a process of social engineering.
  • So I not only try to attach other people to my vision, I also try to adjust my vision to the ideas and needs of other people.
  • The truth is that a commercial company, or for that matter, any organization, is nothing but an idea. All institutions are no more than a mental construct to which people are drawn in pursuit of a common purpose; a conceptual embodiment of a very old, very powerful idea called community . . . Healthy organizations are a mental concept of relationship to which people are drawn by hope, vision, values, and meaning, and liberty to cooperatively pursue them.

chapter 13 The Creative Cycle

  • three different contexts in which one can participate in a creative field.
    • when you explore new ideas by making things yourself
    • interact with the ideas of others through a direct response to the objects they have created
    • engage with someone’s creation at a remove, through language and images etc
  • They describe the evolution of ideas in every field of endeavor
    • experience and experimentation, an Individual edits, amplifies, and amends the socially prescribed narratives with which he conceptualizes his world.
    • as others are exposed to his revised beliefs through the objects, words, or actions that embody them, their own narratives are altered to a greater or lesser extent.
    • if the new narrative elements are of sufficient interest, they spread to a wider audience through language and images and so become embedded in the culture, where they serve as springboards for the creative output of future individuals.

Craft in the Marketplace

  • much of commerce takes place through representation
  • rarely a point in time at which a craft object occupies a vacuum of artistic purity, free of someone’s wants and needs.
  • Just as makers create to construct meaning and identity for themselves, and buyers purchase to bolster their personal narratives, so vendors shape their own identities through the exercise of taste and the conduct of business.
  • commerce enables the maker to communicate with society at large
  • Craft objects and manufactured products objectify complexly layered sets of ideas about how the world is constituted and how we think we should live in it.
  • others manage to maintain their creative passions while earning an acceptable living.
  • pressure to sell has imposed the discipline of relevance on it.
  • commerce is our most effective mass-distribution system for the material expression of ideas.

The Power of Language

  • the academic’s grist is a verbal and pictorial account of other people’s thoughts and actions, as opposed to direct physical exploration of the material world.

The Cycle of Craft

  • Gustav Jung beautifully put it: “What is essential in a work of art is that it should rise far above the realm of personal life and speak from the spirit and heart of the poet as man to the spirit and heart of mankind.

chapter 14 A Good Life

  • As a writer, I have come to see that language is much like wood: a medium through which I think.
  • But I have also come to recognize that language and thought are actually two separate things.
  • our beliefs determine how we personally experience the world – determine reality as we perceive it.
  • our beliefs shape the actuality of the world
  • “Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them. In other words, man is ultimately self-determining. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment”
  • I am so inextricably connected to everyone else, so simultaneously particle and wave, that to even try to live a good life is to participate deeply and meaningfully in the shared life of humanity.
  • We each seek the path that works for us.

Having Your Life Together

  • Meals are the celebratory milestones of my day.
  • My delight in food, though, has roots that burrow into deepest childhood.
  • People who are creatively engaged are not necessarily happier, more fully realized human beings than the rest of us.
  • To master a craft is not to achieve a state of enlightenment, despite my youthful expectation to the contrary.
  • Creative practice simply makes our lives richer in meaning and fulfilment than they might be otherwise.
  • My father sang a song to me, and then we would sing it together:
    • The bear went over the mountain (repeated three times).
    • And what do you think he saw? He saw another mountain (repeated three times).
    • And what do you think he did? The bear went over the mountain . . .
  • Finding creative passion that governs your life may be a curse as well as a blessing, but I would not trade it for anything else I know.