Frank Buschmann is the type of person that makes the question “Where are you from?” irrelevant. He has lived in South Africa, Nigeria, Germany, The Netherlands, Spain… yet passport stamps are clearly not the goal.
In the professional space, he has also gone through various stages. Each of those made sense as part of an evolution. Nowadays Frank is a woodworker with a level of quality and attention to detail beyond almost anything I have seen before.
This new instalment of Finura features the summary of a long conversation with this seasoned craftsman.
An empowering context
Frank was born into a family of doers.
Crafts and making stuff were all around, as well as a taste for adventure. His father was, at different stages, designer and maker of precision tooling, merchant seaman and truck driver.
Can you imagine what a mind-broadening influence that was?
The development of a guiding principle
Frank has always strived to bring a change for the better in others.
In the beginning of his career he studied woodworking. This starting point allowed him to develop skills, and to enter the field of industrial design in a practical manner.
Design is regarded as a good discipline to foster transformation, but Frank missed that in the practice he found back in the 1990s.
His stab at this situation focused on promoting an honest dialogue between designers and society through new approaches to exhibitions. These included multi-sensorial stimulation of visitors and proactive appreciation of the contents.
In a later stage he worked for cultural institutions, bringing together design and arts, and striving to bring people into the decision-making of such organisations.
Neither of those approaches fulfilled Frank’s expectations.
The results were temporary and weak, if anything.
The mission was not being accomplished.
It was then that his path took a turn.
He turned to himself.
Q. Exhibitions and development projects for institutions were not completely effective. What was your resolution for creating a sustained and positive influence on others?
A. I realised that the change I was after should start at the individual level. Behaving with integrity, being true to myself, to others and to the job being done. Of course, this approach has a smaller footprint than any mass-oriented activity, but in exchange you can dive far deeper. The fact is you cannot take responsibility for making people better beings, but you can do that with yourself. And then hope to involve others with your example.
This epiphany allowed Frank to re-focus.
He would set up a workshop and return to woodworking. Small-scale. With little or no machines getting in the way between him and the raw materials.
He would put all his energy into working to the highest possible standard. Searching for perfection in the job being done, in the materials and in how they are treated.
Operations in Woodworks Buschmann Bella started in 2013.
Now that you are in context, sit back and watch this video.
One could be mistaken in thinking Frank’s latest project would be self contained. Theoretically, given a place, tools and materials, it would only need manpower.
His quest is extremely sensitive to the environment it takes place in.
Q. You are based in Madrid. Is it a good place for this project to take root?
A. Living in a metropolis, in a market economy, within a capitalist paradigm, means being subject to high fixed costs, stress, competitiveness…
Big cities make it impossible to work to the highest standard and detail one can achieve.
They expel such approach.
They push you into cutting corners and into trade-off solutions.
So no. Big cities are not a good place for integrity and bringing the best out of people.
They do not allow for it.
Q. So you seem to be planning a move…
A. Yes. We are moving to a Galician town pretty soon. This is the next logical step in my project. It will allow to go deeper into my job.
On wood and integrity
There are many advantages in being based in Spain. However, the degree of development of the wood industry is not one of them.
As opposed to other places, you cannot buy a whole tree. You buy planks, which are disintegrated parts of a tree.
This is bad in two ways.
At a higher level, there’s the spiritual loss of a natural cohesion. Planks and boards are raffled together and handed over pre-shaped.
And then there’s a sad, lower-level restriction. It is far harder to achieve nice effects with paired pieces, such as book-matched panels.
With the continuous practise of almost any craft, tools become an extension of the body.
Countless repetitions of any gesture, day in day out, make the user extremely sensitive to performance. You notice the forces being exerted, the positions, speeds and accelerations of the tool and your limbs.
This general idea allows for some smaller thoughts.
Awareness and developing skills
You can relate performance with different parameters such as the level of maintenance, the quality of the material being used, the weather, you own emotional states, etc.
A search for excellence makes it essential to learn to learn. The more your practice learning, the more sensitive you become to subtle details and phenomena. You become more efficient at learning skills and developing them.
However, in order for this to happen you must embrace discomfort and uncertainty.
Frank has an example for this: Handsaws.
European handsaws are made so the cutting action happens as you push. They are good for harder woods.
Conversely, Japanese handsaws do the cutting as you pull, and are great for softer types of wood.
The latter are far harder to use for any untrained user.
They are very thin and feel too loose in the hand. It is difficult to follow a straight line, and this can be a humbling experience that may be unbearable to some people.
Acting with honesty, in a case like this, requires being humble, accepting one’s limitations, and beginning the fuzzy process of mastering a new type of tool.
The fast way should always be the last way.
By doing so, the craftsman will travel along a steep, demanding learning curve, and will see how his motor skills evolve, adapting to a new feedback system.
It is hard. Painful. Uncertain and annoying. But the reward is great.
In fact, many people argue you should try to find the difficult path, and deliberately follow it, since it is guaranteed it will make you learn and grow.
The industry’s approach to this situation is radically different. Something silly such as…
(Read with corporate marketing director voice)
Let’s make guides, so any user will be able to do flawless cuts from day one.
This solution is really sad.
It inhibits the possibility of facing a problem in its pure form.
Your action is intervened, your self-confidence falls and you become a little more dependent on others’ help.
It is patronising. And prosthetic.
On awareness and maintenance
The body of the craftsman receives and processes information about how the tool behaves in response to what he does. He can, thus, adjust his action in order to reach the desired working.
As the intimacy with the tool increases, it is possible to tell when it needs a little tuning in order to maintain the performance.
A good example of this is wood planes.
Traditional British planes are made of metal.
German planes are wooden. There are basic models and also more advanced, modern ones.
Depending on their origin, be that Germany, Great Britain, Japan… planes can be adjusted in different ways. However, all of them rely on the same element: A sharp blade.
Following the same approach described earlier, when Frank’s time came to do maintenance jobs with his planes, there was only one possible way to go.
That was learning to sharpen blades.
He sharpened for days. Weeks. Months.
He sharpened his blades till their cutting edges were perfect.
Without guides. By hand.
Sharpening is, in theory, some type of instrumental activity.
Without a purpose of its own.
It is meant to help keep the performance of a cutting tool.
However, if you dig into it, sharpening, or any maintenance activity for that matter, can become a solid discipline of its own. It can grow into something so spiritual you can easily get lost into it. A job focused solely on restoring and keeping things in good working order.
The search for perfection
Meet the Shakers.
This movement was founded in the 18th century, and leaving aside their religious essence, many consider them forefathers of many modern trends.
They are also one of Frank’s sources of inspiration, basically for two reasons.
Reason #1: Values
Shakers strived for perfection in their work. Their integrity, frugality and cleanliness were well-known. One of their leader’s best known saying was:
Do your work as though you had a thousand years to live and as if you were to die tomorrow.
They also believed that knowledge that is useful for humanity should be free (does that sound familiar nowadays?), that hand-made products allowed for a finesse out of the reach of mass-produced, that sustainability was a key issue in production…
Their quality standards were off the charts.
Reason #2: Design
Shakers ran a variety of businesses within their communities, and created goods that were simple, durable and functional. In other words, well designed by modern standards. By producing pieces the way Shakers did, Frank rids himself of the load of creating and focuses on the building processes.
Q. You are in a quest for perfection, but we are all part of a system. How do you deal with the messy parts of our reality?
A. I believe in life as a process in which you are constantly finding challenges, becoming aware of your limitations and overcoming them. I can understand that some things might not be made up to the highest possible standard.
I can excuse the mediocre work of someone who did not know enough. Insufficient training or experience is not a problem of attitude, and can be easily corrected.
However, I cannot possibly excuse sloppy work that is performed consciously. Too little love put into one’s work is unforgivable.
Q. What do you consider inspirational from this stand point?
A. In the japanese culture good work is related with honour. When a woodworker makes a mistake he is expected to excuse himself and, on top of that, the wrong is not righted. It stays as a testimony of imperfection.
Q. You invest a tremendous amount of energy in any of your creations. How do you feel when you see them go?
A. I do not have a problem with that. I am usually aware of things I can do better the next time, and I also feel that things come and go. After each creation there will be a new one.
A rationale for finesse
Q. Why do you work the way you do?
A. A job like this requires freeing yourself from restrictions, barriers and burdens in general. I work this way because I can. I am free, just like any other craftsman, and I do not owe myself to a client or a boss, to deadlines or specifications imposed by others.
#1 Some people learn to understand the importance of details. Others are disciplined and careful because they are told to be so. In the Finura league, Frank can only be described as a natural.
#2 Frank shares some traits with other crafts masters:
- High sensitivity to detail and precision. Which leads to subtlety.
- Critical reflection, particularly upon one’s own work. Which leads to humility.
- Responsibility and awareness of one’s own capabilities. Leading to high demand from oneself.