It’s Christmas Eve. Lots of good little girls and boys will have trouble sleeping tonight, listening for the sound of Santa making his rounds, hoping he didn’t forget that one special present.
Meanwhile, at the North Pole, the elves have been working tirelessly in Santa’s Workshop. Now they can finally put down their tools and take a well-deserved break, enjoy a little bit of Elven Grog, perhaps with a Red Bull chaser. After all, the boss is out tonight — making home deliveries. The traditions of the holiday season and Christmas in particular, always seems to evoke a strong feeling of nostalgia for an earlier, simpler time — a time when many of the gifts exchanged were made by hand, not only by Elves in the North Pole, but by skilled American craftsman.
So this week we would like to take some time to give thanks to the Great American Craftsmen out there and honor the work they do. For many of these artisans, their work is a lifelong journey dedicated to perfecting their craft while carrying on the traditions of hand-made-in-America craftsmanship. One caveat: when we say hand-crafted, we’re not talking about trendy hand-crafted triple no whip lattes at Starbucks, that’s kind of ridiculous. And moreover, as much as we love Steam Punk Victorian-era cosplay fantasies, that’s a story for another time.
We Know We’re Not Alone in Our Appreciation of Hand-Crafted American Goods
Here at Formaspace, we know many of our customers share our appreciation of high-quality, hand-made products. So when we were researching the backgrounds of some of America’s leading artisans, we came across Tadd Myers, a photographer from Dallas. He’s made a name for himself with a self-published book of exquisite photography, called Portraits of the American Craftsman. Here’s Tadd’s TED talk at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where he discusses his extraordinary five-year journey, traveling around the USA to document American craftsmen and their beautiful hand-crafted products, from baseball gloves to boots, custom knives to cutlery:
Custom Coach Building in Weatherford, Texas
If you want a re-creation of Santa’s sleigh, we’d recommend you to Jimmy Wilson, a second-generation custom coach builder. His father, Jay Brown, got the business off the ground back in 1965, after he’d restored a few coaches that appeared in his daughter’s trick horse riding act. Brown focused on creating new, hand-made stagecoaches. Their best seller is based on the classic Concord Stagecoach, first introduced by New Hampshire-based Abbott Downing Co. back in 1827.
Despite reluctantly offering a fiberglass option for the coach body skin (which admittedly is easier to maintain than all wood exterior paneling), Jay Brown was a real stickler for originality. You’ve probably seen Brown’s stagecoaches on television commercials and in feature films. Jay Brown ran the business until 2011, when he passed on; his son Jimmy Wilson continues the hand-built stagecoach tradition today under the name J Wilson Stagecoaches.
Handmade Horses Riding Round the Midway, Sculpted by Hand in Mansfield, Ohio
Maybe you didn’t have the opportunity to ride a horse when you were younger, but there’s a good chance that you may have ridden a wooden horse on a carousel. Nostalgia for the old carousels we rode in our childhood is very strong; today wooden horses and other carved merry-go-round animals bring in top dollar at antiques and collectibles auctions. But if you want a new carousel — built in the handmade tradition of the famous 19th century carousel manufacturers like Gustav Dentzel, of Philadelphia’s Dentzel Carousel Co., or Charles Loof and Charles Carmel of Coney Island — where do you go? The answer is Mansfield, Ohio — where they have not one but two carousel manufacturers! How did this happen? It’s a delightful story. Back in the 1980s, civic leaders in Mansfield wanted to revitalize a rundown part of town; they decided what they needed was an old-fashioned carousel to serve as the anchor or focal point of their newly created historic district.
Despite much derision by the good citizens of Mansfield, The Carrousel District (with two R’s) was born. Art Richie and Dan Jones of Carousel Works got the contract to build the merry-go-round, and eventually move their operations from Connecticut to Mansfield, Ohio in the process. Since then, a second company, Carousel Magic, has also opened up in Mansfield. As for the citizen naysayers in Mansfield, Ohio who laughed at the idea that a carousel would revive the town’s rundown Victorian neighborhood, they didn’t have much horse-sense. The neighborhood revitalization project has been a resounding success.
Make Your Own Kind of Music with America’s Best Handmade Instruments
If you are a lover of fine musical instruments, there are even more reasons you’ll want to add Tadd Myer’s book, Portraits of the American Craftsman, to your collection. Myers takes us on a musical journey, from New York CIty’s famous Steinway & Sons, founded in 1853, who take nearly a year to create each of their hand-built pianos, to deep in the heart of Cajun Country, where Acadian Accordians in Eunice, Louisiana handcrafts those sweet squeeze-boxes playing at the Fais do-do, to Ovilla, Texas (south of Dallas) where Chuck Lee builds bespoke banjos for a handful of lucky musicians.
Building violins by hand is another American cottage industry unto itself. Each step of the way, the violin maker must, pardon the pun, harmonize the sum of the violin’s parts: the shape of the instrument, the type of wood, the kind of glue, the thickness of the parts, the tightness of the joinery and the strings — in order to create outstanding sound from an instrument that’s also enjoyable for the musician to play.
The bar for creating outstanding violins is set high. Not only are contemporary violin makers like Anne Cole and Howard Needham compared with the old Masters like Andrea Amati and Antonio Stradivari, they also have to stand up to the work of Italian-born Sergio Peresson, an American violin maker with a legacy of more than 400 violins who passed away in 1991.
Keep Track of the Time with Handmade Watches, Made in Detroit, USA
In what may be a watchmaking marketing coup or failure — pardon the pun but only time will tell — the former chairman of mass-market consumer watchmaker Fossil, Tom Kartsotis, re-booted the defunct Shinola shoe-polish brand in 2011 as a brand new company that makes high-quality, upmarket wrist watches that showcase the brand value of, wait for it, Detroit.
What’s the attraction? Maybe it’s a core American value to root for the underdog, the little guy. And so far it seems to be working. It’s been reported that Shinola was on track to deliver 170,000 watches in 2014, assembled by a Detroit work force of 320. Shinola has aggressive plans to expand into a broad lifestyle brand, which to date now includes leather goods and hand-made bicycles. Viva Detroit!
What About the Craftsman in You? Is It Time for You to Set up Your Own American Workshop?
We can help. Whether you consider yourself a go-getting take-no-prisoners entrepreneur, a passionate artist in pursuit of your own personal vision, or a hands-on artisan wanting to connect with time-honored craft traditions, we want to hear from you. We want to tell you about our own exceptional, custom-made workbenches and tables. Our Formaspace furniture can transform your workspace overnight into an organized, productive place to work. Many of our Formaspace customers who kit out their own work spaces choose workbenches and tables made with top quality maple counter tops. We buy our maple counter tops directly from John Boos Maple — you may recognize the John Boos name from cooking shows televised on the Food Network.
Contacting Us Over the Holidays
Formaspace will be closed over the holidays so that we can be with our friends and family — but we still want to hear from you. If you have a project cooking, you can use our online form to request a free quote. We will return here next week on the last day of the year with a preview of all the industry events taking place next year as we present our Formaspace 2015 Calendar of Industry Events. In the meantime, we wish you all a safe and joyous holiday.