Workmanship: Definition, Standards & Example

Instructor: Benjamin Truitt

Benjamin has a Bachelors in philosophy and a Master's in humanities.

Workmanship is a disputed definition that refers to the skill and quality of a product based on a design. Workmanship is measured by the skill of the workperson, the quality of the materials, and the craft involved in their use.

Definition of Workmanship

You come home from a great shopping trip and have bought an amazing desk! Well, actually a box with a picture of a desk and a bunch of wood and screws inside, not actually a desk. You sit down and after 3-4 agonizing hours of confusing directions, you have a desk that looks...nothing like the picture. Instead of an elegant executive workstation, you have a wobbly table that seems as though the dog might knock it over. How do we explain the difference between the picture and the product? Is it bad design? It is possible that the reason for this difference is that the product assembled is the result of bad workmanship.

Workmanship is a disputed concept, as we will see, that defines how well or poorly a plan in architecture, sculpture, or design is executed. In order to understand what workmanship is, we will look at some examples of good workmanship and bad workmanship.

What defines workmanship is not a settled concept and there are actually a lot of different views on how to define what workmanship is. Woodworker and author David Pye defines workmanship as 'the quality of the execution of a design'. The closer to the design the final product is in terms of look, quality of material, and quality of construction, the better its workmanship. Pye argues that workmanship is any part of a final product that cannot be abstracted. The chair you are sitting on can be drawn, diagrammed into parts, and described on paper, but the actual chair itself is the result of the workmanship that made it more than any of those things.

Howard Risatti, an art critic and writer, disagrees with Pye. For Risatti, workmanship describes the skill and ability that is displayed by the engineer, sculptor, or worker to build the home, chair, or sculpture. Risatti thinks that workmanship is only a quality of a product that is made 'by hand,' and cannot be judged when something is made by a machine. In thinking about workmanship as handmade, Risatti disputes Pye's views that workmanship is a matter of the quality of the product. Pye sees machine-constructed products as perfected workmanship.

The argument between Risatti and Pye shows that workmanship is sometimes defined by the process of how a thing is built (skill) versus the outcome of the construction process (quality). This argument is similar to the dispute over whether a singer is 'better' if he or she uses autotune to sing their song. There are merits to both sides of this argument and it's up to you to decide what you believe matters in looking at how something is made.

Standards and Examples

In the example of the desk we have a clear example of what poor workmanship looks like. The desk designer never intended for the model to be arranged in that fashion and the assembler who put it together was not careful and skilled in how they assembled the design.

Florence Dome Concept Design
Florence Dome Concept Design

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