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The Place for Trades in a 3D Printed World

Conserving trades and traditional skills in Myanmar

I've been trying to put the idea of a place for trades in a 3D printed world together in my head, which is a terrible place to try to organize things. The work my wife Laura and I have been doing in Myanmar has really brought some interesting aspects of being a tradesperson in the 21st century to light. In particular the concept of just how many people in the building trades today are tradespeople and how many are simply assemblers or installers. Our work in the culture of Mandalay has shed new light on the difference.

The roll of tradespeople in Myanmar is significantly different than here in the United States. Here many tradespeople work in a conservation related field or doing work that many clients relate to as “craft.” There, tradespeople have worked in a very suppressed environment for over a century where the market for their work is not related in any way to conservation, because conservation isn’t even a part of their culture. But the more we have been exposed to it, the more we realize that what has been conserved are the trades themselves.

In the West, the work of the tradesperson was strongly influenced by the Industrial Revolution, but it had next to no affect on how work was done by hand in much of the Far East until well over a century later. In much of the country of Myanmar it still has had little to no affect. In the rural parts of the country, which is pretty much everywhere, the oxcart is a common form of transporting goods and far and away the most common forms of buildings are built with bamboo, palm leaves and sun dried adobe brick, often plastered with a lime render.

Traditional carpenters tools in Myanmar. The holes in the log are for chains that the elephants use to skid the logs out of the forest.

Traditional carpenters tools in Myanmar. The holes in the log are for chains that the elephants use to skid the logs out of the forest.

The result of this is the creativity of the common tradesperson I mentioned in my last blog. They are natural problem solvers, which every tradesperson I know understands that is what being one is all about. The difference is that they are all that way. The masons, plasterers, blacksmiths, bamboo scaffolders, wicker furniture weavers, palm frond roofers, and a myriad of other hand trades, all do their work using simple hand tools, basic natural materials and good old fashioned ingenuity. Clearly there are people like that today in the Western World, but I’m sure we are in the minority.

Before I paint a picture that is completely from another age, I have to say that in Mandalay we do also see multistory buildings, concrete pump trucks, steel scaffolding and gasoline and diesel powered vehicles and construction equipment, but we also see truckloads of wide-eyed young people brought in from the countryside, piled in the backs of dump trucks being delivered to those job sites where they work with tools they are unfamiliar with, no safety equipment, and living accommodations that amount to camping in the building they are working on and using a thrown together privy at the back of the job site.

So when you work as a tradesperson in a world where your tools fit in a canvas bag and the work you do is based solely on the knowledge you have gained from your father or uncle, if you’re lucky, or by figuring it out as you go, the most important tool you have is your own creativity. If you want to build something using rough sawn lumber or timber, probably milled at the yard where you buy it, you decide what it is supposed to be, and you set about making it. This may sound a lot like what every other tradesperson does everywhere in the world, but there is a subtle and important difference. 

Your understanding of gauging your work is part of how you think.

One of the most important parts of doing the work in timber that we do, in my professional opinion, is knowing how to gauge your work. When we lay out a tenon or a mortice, we use a marking gauge with fixed pins and an adjustable sliding head block. When I showed one to our lead carpenter in Mandalay, he had no idea what it was. But when it was time for him to lay out pieces of wood for the barricades we asked him to build, he picked up a hunk of scrap wood, fashioned it into a stepped shape and drove a nail through it at exactly the right point to mark the tenons. When the job was done, the tool went in the scrap pile and a new one would be made the next time it was needed.

This basic knowledge of understanding how to attain repeatability through the use of gauges is not common knowledge in the Western World today because so much of what goes into building involves standardization, which has become the modern world’s equivalent. Instead of working with rough sawn materials of random sizes, todays carpenters use standardized building components like 2x4s or I-joists. If you order the materials to build the walls of a house, the studs come precut to a standard length. The need to gauge has been slowly eliminated from the world of modern construction.

I’m sure everyone reading this blog has seen pre-manufactured trusses being used to put roofs, with no usable attic inside, on McMansions being built in some new ritzy development, but how many carpenters on that job site would be able to build that roof from a stack of rough cut lumber. I am confident most of the carpenters you meet in Myanmar could. And what is sad is that it is getting worse instead of better.

Traditional Myanmar Log Skidders

Traditional Myanmar Log Skidders

Today we drive down the roads in our towns and cities and we can’t avoid seeing buildings that are built for many forms of marketing. From the Golden Arches to the megalithic WalMarts, our world is filled with marketecture, and those eyesores are assembled instead of built from scratch. The components of these atrocities are fabricated in factories, and if you think those factories aren’t working on installing giant 3D printers to replace their assembly line workers, you’re not paying attention.

Sadly, we are heading directly into a world where less that is being installed on our landscape merits conservation instead of more. We have seen the near extinction of the traditional tradesperson, and when everything we see appears along the street is purpose-built to be temporary, that extinction becomes meaningless. Hopefully we can legislate recycling in lieu of conservation, so these insults to our heritage can at least be ground up and fed back into the 3D printers that are spitting out tomorrow’s Dick’s Sporting Goods and Starbucks, but where do tradespeople fit into that tomorrow?

Truthfully, I wish we still lived in a world like Myanmar, where knowing how to work with your hands is still commonplace and tradespeople are still valued. Sadly, I know that will never be true, and even more sadly, as Myanmar moves on into the modern mix of democracy and capitalism, tradespeople will begin to be less important as their revolution invites in “progress.” But for now, it’s quite enjoyable to work among people in Mandalay who are quite happy working hard and solving problems. What it has taught me is that conservation actually is a part of their culture, but it the conservation of building, not buildings.

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