Tales from the Workshop - A tête-à-tête with the Carpenters of Phantom Hands

The Carpentry unit at Phantom Hands. Our carpenters prefer to sit on the floor, in the traditional way, and use not just their hands, but also their feet to provide support to the piece they are working on.

By

Parni Ray

Date

29.10.2021

Phantom Hands’ thirty-member strong carpentry team consists largely of carpenters from traditional woodworking communities. A good number of them have been working with wood since childhood. Working at Phantom Hands has, however, pushed all of them beyond their comfort zones. Besides compelling them to work with solid, high quality wood (a far cry from the material most of them are used to), it has also made them abide by stringent quality standards and collaborate with designers they often don’t share a language with. Taking each of these challenges head on, the carpentry team has re-edited a range of famous mid-century furniture pieces and crafted several contemporary collections.

A chat with the carpenters of Phantom Hands about carpentry, community, learning by making, and the future of wood crafting.

Sravan Kumar, working on the x+l 02 Room Divider, a product in which each piece of wood making up the screen has to be shaped and sanded by hand. Sravan was one of the earliest carpenters to join the Phantom Hands team.

He was nineteen when he left home, Sravan Kumar told me as he settled into his chair. It has been a decade since.

We were in the packing department at the Phantom Hands (PH) workshop. The neatly labeled cardboard boxes around us contained approved versions of the same chairs we were sitting on. Ours were ‘rejects’, Sravan said. He is from Jodhpur in Rajasthan, approximately 2000 km away from Bangalore, where he now lived and worked. Being away from home was no longer difficult, he told me. Moving from one place to another was not an 'occupational hazard’, but one of the attributes of his occupation, Sravan thought.

Like most young men of the Suthar community, Sravan had started working with wood at an early age. Twelve? Thirteen? He couldn’t recall exactly. In a few years, he was deemed old enough to start earning so his father fixed him up with a contractor he knew in Gujarat. Sravan packed up and left. Since then, he has worked as a carpenter across West India – a year in Surat, six months in Goa, another few in a small town in Karnataka. All before landing at PH in 2016.

The organic contours of the Tangāli Bench are shaped by hand. Often two or three carpenters work simultaneously on a single piece.

Others from his hometown joined him here soon after. This was typical, sort of an unspoken pact, he told me. "My people travel in search of work. When one of us lands a good stint somewhere, we call our cousins and relatives to form a team. We work, live and eat together as long as the project lasts. Then we go our own ways, and when we find a job again, we try to involve each other." This keeps food on the plate for the whole community, but it's also a canny professional move, he insisted, because no one crafts wood the way that Suthars do.

The Suthars (or Sutradhars) are a craft community traditionally associated with carpentry. Alongside the Lohars (blacksmiths), Mistris (builders) and other technical crafts groups, they are believed to be the descendents of the Hindu deity 'Vishwakarma' - the divine draftsman of the universe. Though scattered across the country, the Suthars are largely concentrated in the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat. Their making skills are transferred generationally, and famously exemplified by the fantastic doors and windows of the forts in Rajasthan. Despite their longstanding status as craftspeople, however, the Suthars remain a socially and educationally disadvantaged group. The Indian government classifies them as an OBC or Other Backward Class (Caste) in acknowledgment.

Mortise and tenon joinery in action.

Learning by making

Our words kept getting drowned by the rumble of the large truck that had pulled up next to us. The packing staff apologised as they loaded the large square boxes onto it. Like Sravan, they were in their grey PH t-shirts, I noticed.

Yes, things were very different when he first got here, Sravan was saying raising his voice. He was among the first carpenters recruited. The workshop was far from its current form. He gestured to the corner where he - and the two team members he had brought with him - worked on the first chairs. "As the only carpenters at the time, we figured out a lot about how we could make the chairs on our own." It wasn’t easy, he said, almost everything at PH was unlike anywhere they had worked before. The most crucial difference was a fundamental one – wood.

"In most parts of India, carpenters like us work with plywood. Sometimes, we get to make a wooden table, a door or a window here and there, but rarely do we get to work with solid teak of the quality we have here," he confessed. Wood takes time to get a hang of, he told me as we slid out of the packing area and into the well-lit narrow alcove where the timber was laid out for seasoning. I admired the grains of the long pieces of planks as Sravan explained how long it would be before these would be put to use. No, he and the other carpenters didn’t go to acquire wood from the mills, he told me, as there were others who looked after that. That process needs people who spoke the local language and he was still learning, he said with a guilty smile.

Making the x+l Trestle table top, by gluing veneer onto plywood and then making a precise teak beading all around the edges without causing the veneer to chip dent - a process that only our most skilled carpenters get right.

The workshop was a fertile place for sharpening language skills, I thought. The staff spoke a variety – Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, English, and Hindi. Even the five furniture designers PH currently works with are multilingual. But not all of them share a language with Sravan and his team. It had been an issue at the very beginning, he confesses. Much like most of his team members and PHs’ first designers, Sravan speaks ‘little English’, so verbal exchanges with them were ‘not always smooth’. But gestures often speak more than words, he pointed out, and it didn't take them long to devise a physical vocabulary of their own.

"Besides, they work with drawings, which has a tongue of its own," Sravan said.

Old hands, new tricks

Sravan had been introduced to technical drawings during his early days while working under a contractor in Gujarat. But not everyone in his team - or community - feels at home with it. Drafting is not common among Suthars who have a low literacy rate, Sravan suggests. Using technical drawings is also often indicative of a form of organised training which craftsmen like him, who are trained via familial apprenticeships, do not typically receive, he said.

As a community proud of its generational knowledge, opting for institutional training is not common among Sravan’s people, but several well-known organisations have been known to train woodworkers in India. These include the Indian Technical Institute, the National Institute of Open Schooling, training centers under the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Climate Change, and the National Skills Development Corporation of India. A few new private institutions focused on vocational skills, such as the Bharatiya Skill Development University in Jaipur, have also started providing similar training.

Rituals are an important part of the culture that our carpenters inherit from their communities. Any new tool or machine that comes into the workshop has to undergo a prayer ceremony before it is used.

Among PHs’ twenty-member carpentry team, only one – Achintya Sutradhar - has a diploma in furniture-making. We are introduced in the evening over tea. He is from the Birbhum district of West Bengal, and as a new recruit, still hesitant in the workshop setting. We thus spend a while vacillating over where we could sit for a chat and the language we should use (we settle on Bengali). It has been over two decades since he finished his course at Viswa Bharati University, Santiniketan, he told me when we finally sat down in the meal area. Since then, he has worked as a craftsman in Sriniketan and then as a draughtsman and site supervisor for various companies in Bangalore. He joined PH as a carpenter less than six months ago, after being rendered without a job by Covid for several months.

"I specialised in joinery, anthropometry, furniture anatomy drafting," he explained. But it had been years since he had built things with his own hands. This meant he had to re-learn much. It also meant that he made mistakes, repeatedly, he told me while sounding a little dejected.

Mistakes were not unknown at the PH workshop, others made them too. But his errors occurred mainly because he wasn’t accustomed to the stringent standards by which work is judged here, he said. "A few centimeters here and there were never considered a problem in any of the places I have worked at before. But here, items get rejected if they differ from the template even by a couple of millimeters. It is completely unlike what I have seen through my decade and a half long career."

Safety equipment is mandatory for all machine usage in our workshop and carefully monitored by our supervisors; something that was challenge for us to enforce as carpenters from traditional woodworking communities in India have a sense of 'que sera sera' and bravado about using machines without proper safety equipment. Overcoming this mindset has been one of our biggest challenges.

Quality checks occur at every stage of making at the PH workshop, he pointed out. "It starts with a moisture check for the wood. Later, once the work is divided amongst the team and the joints are made, there is a check. Then the holing for the caning is checked for uniformity and distance…" Each part of every furniture built at the workshop is made using templates. "Still, mistakes can happen at any stage. A few millimeters off and the piece has to be reworked, or rejected." Often an otherwise perfect, fully finished piece will show a crack right before being packed - "Imagine that, all that work, wasted. But there is only that much control you can exert on wood and almost none on the appearance of cracks," he described in horror.

Designers Kyoko Inoda and Nils Sveje interacting with carpenter Mangilal. Even without a common spoken language, communication has never been a problem between our designers and carpenters.

A Good Carpenter Never Blames his Tools

Some pieces are harder than others, Sravan said when I asked him (‘like everything in the Mungaru Collection’), and yes, mistakes happened. But he was no longer afraid of them. "Being a carpenter is not easy," he told me after a brief pause, "there are so many other fears to contend with."

I wasn’t sure what he meant, so I took a shot in the dark, "Injuries and respiratory trouble?"

He shook his head and laughed. "I mean there is no hope for a stable future as a carpenter, there is little room for growth, earnings are low and jobs sporadic. Everything you earn, you end up spending while you wait for a new job. Take my uncle and dad for instance, both in their 60’s, have worked for over four decades and still can’t retire because they have nothing." He is among the handful in his 200 member extended family who have a permanent salaried job, he said.

It is because of this that the younger members of the Suthar community today aspire to become architects and engineers. "They don’t see carpentry as a dignified profession, as there is no financial stability and esteem attached to it," he said bitterly. This is perhaps why even institutionally trained carpenters like Achintya prefer moving to ancillary roles, I thought. He doesn’t know if the making tradition of the Suthars will last, he said simply when I asked. "But I know that carpentry will."

Nagender is from our first carpentry apprentice batch. We started a program to take in young people who don't necessarily come from traditional woodworking communities, but are deeply interested in and want to learn the trade.

Day after proved busy. Sravan was in a hurry to get his work done because he was leaving for home next week. (‘It’s Holi!’ he announced with a grin.)

He was in the middle of finishing up a chair and told me he could chat while he put in the last touches. I wanted to know more about the future he imagined for his community. Did Sravan have kids? Would he want them to join his trade? "Yes," he said unhesitatingly. "I think there is integrity and honesty in making and I will always tell my kid so." He wants to introduce his daughter to woodworking in a few years, when she came of age, he told me without lifting his head. I watched as he carefully brushed away the dust from the arms of the chair he had been working on. Soon, it would join a lineup heading to the packing section and then be shipped to a home far away. I looked at the large well-lit carpentry workshop. Among the men with their heads down, hard at work with their tools, I was the only woman.

Once done, Sravan showed me around the workshop like a house proud parent. He pointed to the templates hung on the wall, the neat workstations on the floor, and the machines. "The hand - it gets tired, but the machines don’t," he said as he showed me how the latter worked. A majority of the work that happens in the workshop is by hand. But the few machines that were introduced to the process over time are helpful, he admitted. They aid the making process, and make banal activities like cutting and leveling quicker and easier. It can be a monotonous job, Sravan tells me, making the same things over and over again. Time is not your friend when much of your work is repeating your actions.

What does he prefer working with, hands or machines, I asked. But the question confused him. "The machines also need the hand," he said, showing me. I let it pass.

It was getting late. Sravan bid me a quick goodbye and made his way back to his workstation. It was a tidy little space, surrounded by the stations of his team members. They cracked a joke and shared a laugh as he got back to the grind.

The sound of their hammers and chisels carried through the walls.

Handcrafted Modernism, a Short Video on Craft+Design at Phantom Hands

With footage and interviews filmed between 2019 and 2021, this short film offers a glimpse into the process of co-creation between designer and artisan at Phantom Hands.

Read Essay