A PhD in Craftsmanship

A thousand years ago, the Norsemen taught the West how to “think outside of the box”, and they’re doing it again.

The University of Gothenburg (Sweden) has developed a Doctoral Program in “Kulturvard”, the conservation of traditional craftmanship.  The requirement for entry into this program is that the candidate be a highly experienced journeymen craftsman and capable (and willing) of spending twenty hours a week involved in “academic rigor”.  My friend, Roald Renmælmo is nearing the award of his PhD in Traditional Craftsmanship.  Roald is an expert, journeyman carpenter who has spent the last ten years in traditional log house construction.  If you follow Roald’s blogs, hyvelbenk.wordpress.com and skottbenk.wordpress.com, you already know that he is not only an expert craftsman but a seasoned investigator of historic woodworking processes, as well (as are his colleagues who commiserate with him on the blogs).

Just a few days ago, Roald informed me that one of his colleagues, Ulrik Hjort Lassen, will be the first to be awarded his PhD from the program in just a few weeks.  Lassen’s Doctoral Thesis is concerned with the process of marking  joinery used in traditional, heavy timber construction.  In the United States, we would categorize this as timber framing.  But in Europe, heavy timber framing is associated with commercial and institutional buildings (churches and cathedrals), as well as residential and agricultural buildings.  Roald said that I might view Lassen’s thesis, if I was interested.  Of course, my first love is carpentry, heavy carpentry.  Even though I have been involved with the joinery side of things for many years, I still think of myself as a carpenter, first, last and foremost.  So when I was presented with the opportunity to see the first Doctoral Thesis put together by someone with a true background in craft, as opposed to engineering or architecture, I accepted it gladly.  And, I was well rewarded.

Lassen has paid his dues.  He has spent more than a decade honing his craft with traditional carpentry organizations like the Fellowship of Carpenters, Les Compagnons and more.  He draws on the work of people like Mazzerolle.  His presentation of historic methods is first rate.  But what truly stands out is his ability to take a very difficult subject and present it in a way that is understandable.  One only has look at the work of Mazzerolle and you are immediately taken with the man’s genius.  That said, Mazzerolle’s graphic projections are not the most easily understood.  Now, I am certainly not an expert framer.  But I do know a little something about joinery layout and marking.  And, I must say that Lassen’s work is some of the best that I have seen.

You can judge for yourself.  Lassen’s Thesis is written in English and the PDF can be downloaded (free of charge) by simply going here:


If you have any interest in the “essence” of what it is to be a carpenter, you will be well rewarded by perusing this work.  Unless I miss my guess, Lassen’s thesis will stand on it’s own merit in both the craft and academic communities, for a long while.

A program like this is long overdue in the U.S.  Hopefully, someone will get the message.

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One Comment on “A PhD in Craftsmanship”

  1. tsuresuregusa Says:

    I think this is really something important.

    I’m a physicist, and more a more I’m convinced that it’s not the positive content of science per se, or the formalisation of it, which changed the world so much 300 years ago. It has to do more with the method of science and its inherent democratic framework which made it so important.

    It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from, if your method is sound and you get some result, eventually they become part of the institutional knowledge.

    Craftsmanship on the other hand worked under such secretive and protectionism framework, that it’s globalisation became much more difficult and almost disappeared with modernity. If you don’t have the luck of know someone who already works with wood, it’s very difficult to get into it. There are just far too many implicit things that you need to learn first hand.

    (And that’s why we still in science have the institution of the phd, you need to spend 4 years, hopefully far away from home, learning first hand with a “master” how the craft of research is done, like a good old compagnon.)

    Hopefully we are ad portas of a new Copernican revolution, this time in craftsmanship. By making the knowledge we produce freely available for all to read and criticise, we create the conditions for an unprecedented development to occur, following the path once opened by the ones like Diderot and Roubo.

    Please tell your friend that if he is thinking of opening a research group, I would be pleased to join as a post-doc 🙂

    I’m really looking forward to read the thesis.


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