October 16, 2017

The Craftsman by Dave Chun

It is 2:00 am and I am awake, staring at the dark ceiling of our bedroom. My gym bag and bike gear are staged in our guest bathroom. My goal is to stealthily go about my business and not awaken my wife. If this happens, she will not be able to go back to sleep and it pains me to draw her into my mania.  Some insane mechanism has been driving me to forgo sleep the last 4 weeks. I am on a project and I am consumed. The only relief is to go to my shop.  

Paddle projects do not consume me like this. I know the steps and nuances of the build as I have repeated the process numerous times over the years. This has not always been the case. In 2001, I worked 120 days straight, twelve, sometimes fourteen hours a day or more, attempting to mold my first Hybrid outrigger paddle. I failed more than I succeeded. The pervasive self-doubt eroded my confidence. At my lowest point, after yet another unsuccessful attempt, the paddle part hopelessly adhered to the mold, I remember thinking, "The only thing I've got going for myself is a high tolerance for failure."  

The project that currently consumes me is a shovel. Not just any shovel, but a light-weight, multi-piece, pack-friendly, carbon fiber avalanche shovel. It is a complex project because while the goal is to design the shovel to be as light and compact as possible, if it fails during an avalanche rescue someone's skiing partner or loved one may die.  

Developing the avalanche shovel, I am using the same process I use to design a new paddle. Which is based on the process used to write a research paper.  

1) Define the problem or need 

2) Research and gather information including the user experience

3) Narrow and define the functional parameters  

4) Outline a plan of action 

5) Build prototype models and prototype mold tooling 

6) Field test 

7) Refine the model and tooling 

8) Field test 

9) Mold production tooling 

10) Product test by the "talent" 

11) Pray I got it right 

Working with me on the shovel is my young friend Tosch Roy. Tosch and I started the project two winters ago and we are currently mired somewhere between steps 5 and 6 - prototype testing. My failure tolerance is being tested as we are 3 molds and 7 test shovels into our exploration.  

Tosch and his sister Zoe are the "talent" on our team as I am not trained in avalanche safety and rescue. To be perfectly transparent, I suck at skiing. The talent has the most critical role in the development of this product. Unlike skiing at a resort where the ski patrol will give you a ride down the hill if you buckle a knee, in the backcountry, Zoe and Tosch are on their own. Any routine task or calamity they encounter on their adventures needs to be addressed with the equipment they carry and the skills they have honed through a lifetime in the mountains. Their task, find out what is wrong with the shovel. 

Working alone in the quiet of the morning, I ask myself why I am spending so many hours on a project which likely will not translate into sales or profit. I have come to understand that my investment in the shovel is related to the nature of my relationship with Tosch. I am insecure about the continued relevance of my craftsman lifestyle. We live in a time when hand skills are becoming less of a necessity to create products. Consultants, 3D printers or an army of overseas workers can create a "brand" or "designer" with no experience required. The upside is creativity has never been more accessible. The downside is the devaluation of the craftsman as a relic of the past.  

Tosch is interested in my craftsman life. I want to remain relevant. We seek what the other has. Age and experience have accorded me wisdom, but it is wisdom from a phasing generation. As much as Tosch needs me as a mentor, I need him to keep me connected and inspired. I have no illusions Tosch will continue in my footsteps. I work in a world of carcinogenic toxic chemicals. I would never wish this on someone I care for. What I do want to pass on is the joy of imagining what can be, and possibly, to build something every once in a while with his hands. It would be meaningful for me, if just for a little while longer, people can find admiration for a worker with calluses on their hands. 





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