The word “craft” is thrown around a lot these days. It’s used to describe everything from clothing to beer to iced coffee. It carries with it the connotation of excellence. True skill. When a true craftsperson makes a beer, or a pair of pants, or even a cup of coffee, they do so with the obligation of perfection.
In a world filled with fast fashion and disposable Tupperware, it’s increasingly rare to find any product that was actually made by an honest-to-God artisan. That’s because learning a craft is something that can only be done under the direction of a master craftsman and, as you can imagine, the profitability of being a master craftsman is dismally low in a world that values quick savings over “price per use.”
And yet… when you see the work of someone who has studied — dedicating their lives to a forgotten trade — it’s sure to leave you in awe. With that in mind, we’re taking a look at five trades that could go extinct in the next five years if the master craftsmen who perpetuate them are unable to pass on their tremendous skills.
Blacksmithing // Jymm Hoffman
No, blacksmiths aren’t relegated to fantasy novels and renaissance fairs. They’re real, and before the industrial age made them all but obsolete, blacksmiths were an integral part of the world economy. Whenever you needed to have metal repaired, or fashioned, or worked with in any way, you called a blacksmith. It’s the kind of craft that can’t be learned from reading a book or watching an instructional video. It’s something that has to be taught by a master blacksmith. Like many ancient crafts, it is a skill that relies as much on nuance and intuition as it does math and metal.
But thanks to modern technology and industrial standards, traditional blacksmithing is slowly going the way of the buffalo. Finding a craftsman who can shape metal with a fire, an anvil, and a hammer isn’t easy, but if you’re in Pittsburgh, you can always give Jymm Hoffman a call.
Hoffman is one of just a handful of working blacksmiths left on the planet and, like many in his field, he works primarily with museum-quality recreations (think old-time cannons and bayonets). However, he’s also regularly sought after for his ability to create high-quality cooking utensils, tools, and lighting fixtures.
Hoffman is the perfect example of what makes blacksmithing such a unique and respectable vocation. Whenever he creates a product, it’s one that will last forever and serve a definitive purpose. Sure, the industrial revolution may have made the production of these items quicker and cheaper, but it has done so at the cost of quality and — let’s face it — heart.
That’s right, the trade of making denim is endangered. Sure, there are manufacturers and mills that pump out soulless jeans and jackets that anyone can buy in literally any clothing store in just about every city on the face of the planet. But, as is always the case, denim is a textile that has a long history of extreme craftsmanship.
Surprisingly, there is currently only one operating craft denim workshop in all of Great Britain: The Hiut Denim Company. Located in the small town of Cardigan, Hiut was founded to restore the once-lost industry of denim manufacturing that — for more than thirty years — provided more than 10% of Cardigan’s citizens with a paying job.
Of course, there’s a reason why the denim trade is in danger of losing its master craftsmen. Jeans made in a factory are cheap, at least relatively so, ranging anywhere from fifty, to thirty, to even just fifteen dollars, depending on the manufacturer. You’re not going to find those prices when you shop at Hiut (or at any craft denim shop, really) because the amount of work and expertise that goes into each pair of denim jeans is simply unmatched. Hiut even goes so far as to describe purchasing their product as “making an investment,” not just in the product itself, but in the craftsmen who perfected it.
Neon Glass Bending
Neon signs are an iconic staple in the American landscape and a perfect example of what happens when practicality meets artistry. They are instantly recognizable, attention-grabbing, colorful, and illuminating, but without the tireless work of highly skilled glass benders, neon signs wouldn’t exist.
A neon glass bender is a craftsman who bends and twists molten glass to make functioning neon signs. It’s a craft that requires extreme dedication, knowledge, and skill — particularly because bending glass has to be done at the perfect temperature, hot enough to bend, but cold enough not to melt.
One of America’s most prolific neon glass benders is Ryan Eastlyn, an artisan who is currently fighting to prevent neon glass bending from going extinct. Like many master crafts, glass bending is something that can only be taught by a master craftsman. If Eastlyn, for example, were never to pass on his skill to another person, then his skill could very likely disappear forever.
Sadly, the demand for skilled glass benders has plummeted in recent years, due in part to the advent of LEDs and cheaper, more economical lighting options. Today, the majority of neon glass benders work to create custom signs for storefronts. It’s work that is difficult and often produced without much fanfare, even though every neon sign is a legitimate work of art. Imagine a future without the warm hum of neon signs. It’s not a very bright future at all.
You’re likely asking yourself “what the hell is a cooper?” That’s because part of the problem with being a cooper is that no one knows what a cooper is. In short, a cooper is someone who makes and repairs casks and barrels. Sure, it might not look like a master craft at first glance, but imagine the difficulty in making a waterproof, curved container out of hard, straight wood planks.
And then take a moment to imagine all of the things that are “barrel aged,” or “cask aged,” and you’ll quickly realize that coopers serve an irreplaceable function in the production of the world’s finest drink: beer.
Quite horrifically, there are so few coopers left in the world that, last year, only one was registered in all of England. His name is Alastair Simms and, thankfully, he has been searching high and low for an apprentice. Of course, Simms hasn’t had much luck finding anyone to accept the call, mainly because the wooden casks and barrels that he hand-makes for beer and cider require a high level of physically demanding concentration. It should come as no surprise that the apprenticeship takes four years to complete.
It could be argued that a machine could be designed to make wood barrels, or that an assembly line could be created that would produce a greater output of barrels than someone like Simms would ever be able to produce on their own, but as with all industrialized crafts, it would do so by sacrificing a certain magic. No matter what, a beer that’s aged in a handmade barrel will always taste better on some level. There’s more human in it.
It might be hard to believe, but the short-lived furniture that you buy at Ikea is not made by hand. It is, for the most part, made from compressed particle board that’s been shaped together by massive industrial machines. Anyone who has ever bought a bed, or a table, or even a lamp from Ikea will tell you that after one year, it falls apart.
And that’s because there’s no shorthand for craftsmanship, especially when it comes to carpentry. Oddly enough, one of the few shops out there currently fighting to keep classic carpentry techniques alive is owned by Ron Swanson-er-I-mean-Nick Offerman.
Nick Offerman’s shop, lovingly known as Offerman Woodshop, is actually a collective of woodworkers and craftsmen. Their specialties include artisanal items made exclusively by hand, supporting traditional joinery and wood that is collected from fallen trees in northern California. Items in the Offerman Woodshop online store include key chains, whiskey coasters, meat paddles, mustache combs, tables, and yes, canoes.
These items will cost far, far more than doppelgängers made from lesser materials, but in the end, you’re paying for quality, handmade goods — not processed, breakable crap.