Should we keep the secrets?

When I was about fifteen, my grandfather arranged for me to help out a young cabinet maker friend of his during the summer.  I was working with him on the installation of some kitchen cabinetry that he had just built when the home owner asked me a few questions about our methods.  I, of course, was thrilled that an adult would ask me to share my knowledge.  So, I pulled myself up to full height, puffed out my chest and proceeded to tell him everything that I knew about installing cabinetry.

In short order, the young cabinet maker asked me if I would accompany him outside, on the pretext of bringing in some material.  He led me to the far side of the truck and began speaking to me in quiet but very earnest language.  He explained to me that he had a wife and children that he supported by his work as a tradesman.  And, what made him a tradesman was that the knowledge he possessed was not universally known, it was not public, it was secret.  Keeping trade secrets guaranteed that a craftsman engaged in trade would be able to make a reasonably profitable and secure living.  If the secrets were shared with everyone, and anyone could figure out how to do the work, we would no longer be needed.

This would not be the last time that my youthful enthusiasm would earn me a “talking-to”.

Over the course of my lifetime, the secrets of our craft have been revealed by commercial interests and the media to the broad public.  Large manufacturers and retailers have convinced home owners and hobbyists that “anyone” can do everything carpenters and cabinet makers do, they simply have to “follow the easy directions”.  Unfortunately, one of the major results of this phenomenon is that it has become harder and harder to make a decent living by working at the craft.  And the status that carpenters and cabinet makers once enjoyed in their communities has been significantly diminished.  Another, perhaps unforeseen, result has been the “dumbing down” of much of our craft knowledge.  Steel, manufactured masonry and plastics have displaced much of what would have been considered to be “carpenter’s work”.  Only a handful of people across the globe are still capable of practicing the craft as it was practiced at it’s zenith.

So, what’s a body to do?  Do we resurrect the arcane knowledge of the past?  Do we pledge ourselves, anew, to secrecy?  The reality is that if the arcane  is to be saved, it will probably only be done by bringing it fully into the public arena, where it can be appreciated by the many, rather than by just the few.  I am reminded that the “Middle Ages” was characterized by the nearly complete loss of the art and knowledge of “the classical past” and this was, in large part, due to most of this knowledge being guarded a small and very secretive group of scholars and scribes.  It laid buried for nearly a millennium, until wide public interest resurrected it.

Still, I remember my grandfather and his fellows telling me that we are brothers because of the secrets we share.  These are the secrets that give us status and security.  Now, I blog about what I was raised to keep secret.  It is a conundrum…


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5 Comments on “Should we keep the secrets?”

  1. Jason Says:

    Very interesting! I read a blog by a well known furniture maker about making a living with woodwork. He said to compete with all the cabinet makers we have to up the game and sell high-end stuff. I gather he means the stuff that neither industry nor DIYers can build. One because it can’t be mass produced; the other because they lack the skill.

  2. Everything comes at a cost. Openly sharing information of a trade or skill may do a great job of educating the public but it lessons the value of the individuals knowledge. This assures the knowledge survives, then again it lessons the value of the trades person. It truly is the seaking of equallibrium. I have started the if you want to know the answer to that question it comes at a price. If your willing to pay it I’ll tell ya, I have paid a price for the knowledge I have and all others should pay as well. if not have a nice day.

  3. Jack Plane Says:

    Alexander Pope’s (now) proverb ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ holds as true today as ever.

    Nowadays few people want to learn a topic in any great depth; they pick through books and the internet for morsels of information and add them to their repository which, due to their lack of immersive comprehension of the subject, they dumb down to their level of understanding.

    Though not a trained woodworker, I would be happy to share my knowledge of skills such as cutting dovetails (“happy” might be an over statement, but you get my drift). After all, I’d only be passing on (my interpretation) of widely understood techniques.

    However, when it comes to techniques or recipes that I have personally developed over many decades and which still have unique earning potential; I will not relinquish those secrets readily. Many secrets are best kept secret.

    Having said that, I have kept an eye open for an apprentice with whom I would be prepared to divulge my learning, though sadly, in the past twenty years I have not met an individual who exhibited the combined degrees of intellect, dedication and resources required.

    Furtive minds will take great advantage of secrets, but secrets alone are often useless to plain minds without written instructions. As I approach the end of my usefulness, I realise it would be a waste of years of work and discovery if at least some of what I have learned is not passed on. How that transpires remains to be seen.

    • D.B. Laney Says:

      It’s good to hear from you, Jack. I trust all is well with you and yours.

      It does seem that there are many who would like to know “a secret” just because it is “a secret”. Most fail to realize that the value of a secret is not the secret itself, but what you do with it. While I still meet many folks who are genuinely interested in the craft, there are only a handful who can or will make the investment of energy and time required “for the secrets to be revealed” to them. But they’re are still a few who will make the sacrifices required to gain the knowledge, and all good things to them. Their road is made all the more difficult as we live in an age of “instant everything” (and superficial doses, if you please). But they’re out there and, thankfully, some of them are interested in what old curmudgeons, like you and I, have to share.

      Why just last week, someone came up to me and said, “I’ve finally realized that I can’t achieve a museum quality finish with two coats of quick drying urethane. See! It’s working!

      Keep setting the table, my friend. There are those who would be nourished.

  4. Barry Crowe Says:

    I share information freely. An opportunity to educate another is a privilege. I do believe there are trade secrets that should be kept secret by the proprietor. This, I don’t think, is was one of those situations. To me, this was an opportunity to create goodwill and thereby ensuring repeat business. People are not dumb, and if a customer senses you are withholding information to keep you necessary to him or her, everyone will then lose something.

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