Gresham’s Law and Windsor Chairmaking, Part II

This post is a continuation of the previous.  If you have not read that one, you may want to begin with it, and then read this.  Mike Dunbar.           

 We are beginning to see Gresham’s Law in application in Windsor chairmaking, yet again.  The Windsor Institute created a market for chairmaking tools that did not exist previously.  We teach hundreds of woodworkers ever year, and they all need to tool up for class.  Our tool list directs them to the tool providers we have fostered.   However, this steady demand has begun to attract tool makers and tool catalogs that want to cash in on what has been created here.  Because I have written previously about spoke shaves, let me use that tool to describe what is beginning to happen. 

            Dave Wachnicki of Dave’s Shaves makes the finest spoke shaves available.  The appearance of his tools is as beautiful as their performance.  He makes a shave that is truly praiseworthy.  This did not happen by accident. As I described in the December 6 post, Dave worked here, and in the process  he  learned a whole lot about spoke shaves.  He then went out on his own and developed his own tool, developing his own suppliers.  He also developed his own line of different shaves for different purposes.  An example is his compass shaves, shaves with round soles for working concave curves.

             Dave brought back the classic wooden spoke shave through a whole lot of hard work.  Now, wooden spoke shaves are being made by new makers who want a piece of the action Dave created through his efforts.  They are making wooden spoke shaves and marketing them either on their own, or through catalogs.  Unlike Dave, who is himself a tool user (Remember, he learned about shaves by using them to make Windsor chairs.)  these new entries are made by people who do not have Dave’s knowledge and experience.  Their products are not as good because they did not learn all the intricacies that make a good shave. 

            How does Gresham’s Law work in this case?  Unsuspecting chairmakers who also do not have the knowledge necessary to distinguish between a high quality shave like Dave’s and a lesser quality shave, will price shop.  They see that a shave sold in a catalog is less expensive than a similar shave on Dave’s website.  They buy the catalog shave, and Dave does not get the sale.  If this happens enough, Dave is eventually forced to close up shop because he is not selling enough spoke shaves to provide him with a livelihood.  The good tool has been drive out of production, leaving in its place a lesser quality tool. 

             The process then repeats itself.  Someone else comes along who wants to elbow his way into an established market.  This guy makes an even less expensive shave of even lower quality than the one that did in Dave.  Because unsuspecting and unknowledgeable chairmakers continue to price shop, this worse shave now drives out the lesser quality that drove out Dave.  This process will repeat itself until all that remains is something that looks like a spoke shave, but doesn’t work.

              Is this possible?  Yes.  Remember the “wooden spoke shave” I wrote about in that December 6 posting, and that Woodcraft was selling when I began teaching?  When Susanna and I founded The Institute and started working with toolmakers, I side stepped the effects of Gresham’s Law by developing a line of tools all over again from scratch.   However, like mold and rot, those effects are still there. They are too powerful, and beyond my ability to withstand.  I predict a time will come in the not too distant future when the only wooden spoke shave available is once again a piece of junk that will not work. If these same forces roll over  our other quality toolmakers like Crown Plane and Woodjoy, where is chairmaking going to be in a couple of decades?

             The effect of Gresham’s Law on chairmaking tool quality reminds me of Ernest Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.  The old fisherman hooks a huge fish and at great sacrifice, struggles day and night to reel it in.  He lashes it to his boat and heads back to Havana harbor where he hopes to  sell the fish and reap the bounty of his work.  However, the huge fish begins to attract sharks. The sharks feed on the fish, still lashed to the old man’s boat.  He finally makes it to

Havana, but by the time he arrives the scavengers have picked the fish clean.  In other words, those (the sharks) who played no role in landing the fish fed themselves from the old man’s efforts, and in the process ended up destroying all value in the great fish.  The Institute created a  market (the great fish) that is attracting lower quality tools makers (the sharks) who want to feed.  The risk is they will end up destroying the results of all my efforts to provide quality tools.

              Another manifestation of this insidious process is  tool companies that have dedicated  pages in their catalogs  to “chairmaking tools.”  The tools they offer always include the usual suspects, such as  the German made gutter adz and scorp that have plagued me for 28 years.  As a marketing ploy some of these catalogs even describe some of their tools as “chairmaker tested.”  Having tried some of these tools myself, I can bluntly state that any chairmaker who tested and then approved them, was not worthy of being called a chairmaker.  Other times, these catalogs  insinuate that these tools are favored by chairmakers with hogwash such as,  “Windsor chairmakers use this tool to ….”  Beware of such baloney!  The guy in the marketing department who wrote it hasn’t a clue.

             Here is another example.  From time to time, we see in class a metal bodied, low angled spoke shave, that one catalog company has developed.   We recommend against it, as its metal body is far more prone to chatter than a wooden body.  As a result, this tool is very hard to use satisfactorily.  Not having tangs, its cutter is a pain to lap flat when sharpening.  Still, the spoke shave is cheaper than a Dave’s Shave and unknowledgeable guys who  price shop still end up buying them.  Remember, each time a quality source (Dave Wachnicki) is undermined by a lesser quality source (low angled, metal bodied spoke shave), the odds of the quality source’s long term survival is reduced. 

             Gresham’s Law also attacks Windsor chairmaking in another  way.  As it threatens tool quality, so it threatens the quality of instruction.  In my two- part post August 30 and September 6 “Why an Institute?”  I explain our commitment to excellence, and the effort we put into our teaching methods, our buildings and our equipment.  This amounts to a substantial investment in time and money, and it creates a significant overhead.  In our public relations activities we have raised Windsor chairmaking from an obscure activity to part of mainstream woodworking.  I once wrote in the old Chronicles that “When I began, most woodworkers didn’t know what a Windsor chair was.  Now, most do not think themselves  woodworkers until they have made a Windsor chair.”

             All the interest and enthusiasm for Windsors we   created by our efforts was bound to attract imitators who would want to cash in on our work.  Like quality tools makers, we too have to deal with sharks seeking to feed on what they did not create.  The risk to quality instruction is  that little garage-based operations, or classes at local woodworking stores will  pop up around the country, and eventually debase the level of excellence we have established.  After all, someone who has been making chairs for a short while is not going to teach with the same ability as someone who has been doing it for 37 years.  A large facility designed and built specifically for  Windsor chairmaking will contribute to a higher level of instruction than will a make-do classroom where someone was teaching scroll saw last weekend, and someone will be teaching router techniques next weekend.

               The process I just described then continues.  A guy who was taught by someone with limited experience teaches someone else.  Unable to distinguish between bad instruction and good, would-be chairmakers will price shop, choosing to learn from a local guy of limited experience rather than traveling to The Institute. You can see Gresham’s Law at work with bad instruction driving out good.  Enough guys teaching in their garages and eventually, the critical mass – the number of students The Institute needs every year to keep its doors open – would be lost.

              This is the reason why I am so protective of our designs and teaching methods.  Specifically to maintain the quality of Windsor chairmaking instruction,  I do not allow others to teach what we have developed here.  I am aware that bad drives out good, and my love for and commitment to Windsor chairmaking, makes me very protective of it.

             Please do not misunderstand this discussion of  Gresham’s Law in tools and instruction.  I am a free marketeer.  However, the benefit of competition and a free market is they create better products at the best price.   The computer I am writing on is light years better than the old floppy disk Xerox I purchased in 1980.  A car built today has far more features than my first car. A new car’s motor is twice as efficient, and can go 150,000 miles without being rebuilt.  My concern here has been with market failures.  Failures are  occasions when Gresham’s Law kicks in and a bad product drives out a good one, in this case quality tools and quality of instruction.

               How do we prevent this?  Recall what the Lord of the Flies, the bloody sow’s head mounted on a stake, said to the boy Simon in William Golding’s book of the same name. “You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go. Why things are what they are.”   Pogo expressed it more succinctly  as  “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

              We can prevent Gresham’s Law from robbing us of quality in Windsor chairmaking by first refusing to contribute to any degradation.    Quite simply don’t buy anything (tools or instruction) that undermines quality.  Next, chairmakers who have so committed must educate themselves so they know quality and where to find it.  If we choose otherwise, in a matter of years Gresham’s Law will drive out   all that is good in modern Windsor chairmaking.  We will have done it to ourselves. 

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