Craftmanship Know-How

Hi there,

I’m a carpenter and computer scientist at the same time, working for > 20 years in Open Source. I currently see that much of the knowledge in craft trades - which I consider a central part of cultural heritage - will vanish over the next 2 generations.

What I head for is a suitable way of explicitely “licensing” know-how and making it public as open, just like the BSD 2 clause licence, to prevent unfriendly protagonists from monopolizing formerly openly communicated craft techniques.

Would your Open Know-How approach align in any way to this goal?

A second, very close topic is the distribution of designs for furniture, intended to be built by small craft companies (one man/woman or few employees, not necessarily industry or large series manufacturers). I’m looking for a kind of Open Furniture License, which enables people to use designs freely - however with the obligation to name the original designer and with an exclusion of any liability.

Since you state “global design, local manufacturing” in your mission statement, I assume there are already solutions to this question within your group. Am I right?

Thank you very much,


@max_w, @mak3r-nathan and @julianstirling I imagine you all would have a lot to offer on this!

In the meantime @MarSch , take a look at some of the ways in which OKH has been used as a schema for open projects, such as the AEF photovoltaic system project on Appropedia’s site:

Under project data, you can download the OKH manifest file (.yml), which will provide a little more context RE: how licensing is considered for projects.

Hi @MarSch!

I really feel this feeling about cultural heritage of craft. For many key crafts I think that they are on the verge of extinction, let alone two generations away.

I am not sure what country you are in. Often there are organisations which are generally country specific that try to protect crafts. For example, in the UK SPAB is one organisation that springs to mind that not only protects ancient buildings, but funds fellowships to teach these key craft skills to new generations. One thing they really support is millwriting, a dying art these days. But a great excuse for me to share a photo of me replacing a bearing cap in the centre of a huge waterwheel:

Craft is always best taught as an apprenticeship and mentoring, but there are also great books for preserving knowledge with this perhaps being my favourite:

There are also some fantastic websites for explaining tools and there uses. I am a big fan of Wonkee Donkee Tools, who are a tool selling company, but have vast quantities of information on the history of tools, the types of tools and their usages. For example they have about 80 or so pages on types of files and how to use them

I am not sure that anyone can explicitly license traditional craft. Copyright licenses text or images, so copyright can protect your writings on a craft. The actual skills them self are intangible and cannot be copyrighted. They are also so old there is no way they could be patented. I think from a point of avoiding monopolisation I think traditional craft has the “benefit” that it tends to be slower than mass production, and hence it is not a target for monopolists.

Rather than complicating life with new licenses I would say that any writings on craft can easily be distributed under a CC-BY license. This license assures that the author of the documentation is credited when the work is directly copied, but otherwise has very few restrictions that stop it being widely shared.

Again, I think in hardware we are being quite cautious to avoid the license proliferation that has been such a headache within the software world. Rather than Open Furniture License, a generic open hardware license can achieve the same thing, without having to be specific to furniture. For example the CERN Strongly Reciprocal Open Hardware License, if applied t a furniture design would allow anyone to replicate it, even for profit. But if building the hardware with a modified design then the design modifications must be shared.

I think this design protects your goals in two ways:

  1. Firstly allowing anyone to build it without needing to ask permission is in general what you want. There is concern about large companies mass producing it. However, if you design furniture with traditional joinery methods, then this design cannot be mass produced (unless someone trained whole teams of traditional carpenters, and that is a victory all around!)
  2. If a large company did like your design, but wanted to modify it for mass production, they are allowed to do so; however, under the reciprocal license they must share these modifications. This significantly reduces the likelihood of them converting the design to mass production, because as they have to share the design they can’t monopolise it.

Overall, traditional crafts are only going to survive if we invest time in their preservation, and we invest in buying traditionally made items. I think open licenses can help us make sure information is available to the people who want to learn. But the general decline of craft skills can’t be solved with licensing, it needs to be solved with funding.


@MarSch very interesting topic.

I suggest to start with the economics and everything will follow.

I’m looking for a kind of Open Furniture License, which enables people to use designs freely - however with the obligation to name the original designer and with an exclusion of any liability.

So attribution seems to be important for you. The question is why? Is this a potential solution to an economic problem? For some people this is just ego-driven, in which case there is no economic dimension to it. For others, attribution may bring economic opportunities, i.e. drive people back to the origin and they can ask for help, you can gain something from these interactions.

Khow-how is tacit knowledge that cannot be formalized. There are recipes, documents that instruct how to do things, even documents explaining how to perform certain tasks in detail, but in the end having a recipe doesn’t grantee a good cake. Working with materials requires in-depth knowledge and sometimes we just feel that the thing is right, we see it, we hear it, we piece together a multitude of indices, we adapt, we go with the gut feeling. I’ve argued in a post, some time ago, that despite all the fuss about the knowledge economy (commodified knowledge as IP) we are moving into a know-how economy. In other words, information, knowledge, designs, become abundant and cheap. What’s scarce is know-how. This means that it becomes more and more difficult to extract value from knowledge (especially today with the advent of AI). But since know-how lives under your skin, you can always ask someone for a reward in exchange of your help, which saves time and materials. So I cannot understand the meaning of the following

What I head for is a suitable way of explicitly “licensing” know-how

So back to the economics, attribution drives people to you, so you have an opportunity to consult and help (leverage your know how), which can help you make a living. Share alike propagates that attribution, as people are able to trace future versions back to you.

But licensing is not everything. You also need to establish yourself as a good craftsman, build a brand in traditional terms. Moreover, you need to build a network, a social media presence, a social sphere, through which you can propagate your new designs and thorough which new opportunities are funnelled back to you. This can be enough to sustain yourself. Many craftsman operate at this level.
You can go up one level and network with other craftsmen, build a coalition and merge your social spheres. This is what is happening today in social media, where you have people like Joe Rogan, Tacker Carlson, Jordan Petterson, Russel Brand and others doing podcasts together, referencing each others, leveraging each others audience, forming a coalition of new media that is able to offer quantity and diversity of content.
You can go even one level higher, building synergistic relations between all these craftspeople, establishing roles, build diversity, enlarge the offering, thus becoming a more powerful attractor. Now you need to build some infrastructure to support all this, to provide visibility, discoverability, etc. That’s what Amazon has done for merchandise, you can now find everything you’re looking for on their platform.
This can be structured even further, if you all agree on using the same standards in design and methods, so that together you build an ecosystem of interoperable artifacts. Now you start to generate network effects and some type of lock-in dynamics. This requires higher coordination and for this you need to build some governance. At the level, the scale effects are not negligible and you don’t need to worry about licensing anymore.
Then you can diversify even further and include in your network local manufacturers, who see the value in your network of designers and craftsman, and can offer local fabrication capacity, while relying on the network to bring business. This is a repetitive game, a symbiotic relationship and these local manufacturers will buy their place in your ecosystem, i.e. kick back some of their profits into the design network to sustain their pipeline of products.

This is a step-by-step path to build an ecosystem that can become increasingly innovative and productive.
You can start within a niche, where it is easier to grow. You can stop at any level or continuing building.
One of your strengths will be diversity, multiculturalism, if your network is global.

Based on this economic development strategy you can reformulate your licensing and IP needs.

The growth path exposed above is a hybrid model, a collaborative p2p relying on the financial system and the market. There are new models that bypass the market and rely much less on monetary currency, but that’s still too exotic for most of mortals. You can also take a look at this list of open business patterns that we’ve adapted from a traditional source, hybrid models that is.

Hi Julian,

thanks a lot for your comprehensive reply. I realize that I’m opening quite a large box here, but I think its worth the step.

Until now, I’ve been assuming a relatively common perspective on the topic from a professional craftsman point of view. However I see that this really might be heavily depending on the preconditions and as such, also on the country and it’s craft culture as well as the craft education and representational system for craft professions there.

I’m a third generation carpenter in southern Germany, working nearly 30 years as a woodworker, growing up within and covering the whole range between traditional manual woodworking and automated CNC manufacturing.

The German system with respect to craft trades is quite a traditional and special one - in the positive sense. I understand that most craft people outside central Europe might not be familiar with it. For this reason, I think I have to provide some more background in the next couple of days to make my points a bit clearer.



Hi Tiberius,

thanks for your reply. My impression is that your view on economics being the primary driver that directs everything else is too narrow.

I think I need to reply piece by piece, as these are multiple topics at once which can’t be kept apart otherwise:

My perspective (and the one of virtually every craftsman and artist I know) on professional designs and plans is that as a joiner, carpenter, architect, designer or artist in general, original work requires attribution at least. Everything else would be just Public Domain.

In a conventional licensing contract with a manufacturer, attribution as well as licensing fees are central when selling/producing items after a given design. These schemes exists for a very long time, so there seems no pressure for change.

The very motivation of posting to your forum though was the idea of providing the given designs for free, while keeping the attribution to the author. Since in those cases there is no control about who’s reproducing it and with which method, I consider a liability exemption for the designer mandatory.

That should already be quite sufficient to establish an open pool of professionally designed craft products:

  • Keep the design free for anybody, even for large series commercial production
  • Give attribution to the designer
  • Don’t jeopardise the designer with liability


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I’m not sure if you understood my intention. I do not have any commercial interest whatsoever. This is not important to me.

Attribution is necessary for actual designs, but not for knowledge.

“Licensing” knowledge is not intended as a way to claim knowledge, but to declare it free forever by publishing know-how with an explicit and jurisdictional public domain license.

I know actual patents which are based on prior art in woodworking, however they have been granted nevertheless. You would have to prove this prior art, but you usually cannot.

The reason is that a large part of traditional knowledge (and with traditional I refer to timespans beyond a couple of hundred years) is in the brains of professional furniture restorers and carpenters/joiners, who passed it on. It’s pre-internet knowlegde, its inside images, old furniture itself and if its inside books, its often not available in English.

Only publication can prevent this knowledge from being claimed by somebody. If there were a proper license for text, images and videos, it could be the basis of a kind of open craft library.

If the CC-BY license is the proper way to go for knowledge publication, that might already do the deed.


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Hi Julian,

I’d like to get back to the before mentioned topic. It’s going to be a lengthy one. But it’s the only way to convey a better understanding what I mean (and what not):

I see that in most countries, vocational training is mostly a private matter. In my opinion, this is the main reason for divergent ideas about craft traditions and the average/normal skills and knowledge of a trained person.

I also know that the system in Germany is different. It is not private one, but directed by public organisations, taking care of consistent knowledge, skills and standards.

While it’s fine the way it is elsewhere, it’s not a secret that countries all over the world try to employ the German craft training scheme, since it has many advantages.

The scheme any craft apprenticeship is structured, is called the dual system:

In a common case, young people come out of school and apply for an apprenticeship in a certified company. These are virtually all craft trade companies in Germany, as you aren’t allowed to run a workshop at all without being through this training yourself.

The dual system exists for > 50 years now and guarantees vocational training in the skilled crafts sector and a consistent level of qualification across all companies in this trade.

An apprenticeship usually ends after 3 years with the qualification of a journeyman. As a journeyman, you can’t run your own business, but you can work as a qualified craftsman in your trade.

If you want to run an own business, you have to qualify as a master. There are different ways (fulltime, dual). In any way there is another education timespan followed by an exam, written and practical, which demands about the same level of knowledge over whole Germany and is not particularly easy to obtain.

These exams (both journeyman and master) are compiled by the guilds (Innungen) which are - contrary to their antique name - modern organisations taking care of a particular craft profession, its skill requirements, knowledge leven and the needs and requirements of the members themselves, usually with an office in every larger city.

The guilds are closely connected to the craft chambers (Handwerkskammer), which is a network over the whole country, with a seat in every administrative district.

So pretty well organised, with a consistently high level of skill and knowledge of every single professional working in these professions.

But the issue is a different one:

Even though “carpenter” or “joiner” will be the name of the profession in the future, these professions change tremendously.

Craft trades currently seem to undergo the same fundamental change that agriculture went through in the last 20 years. Industrial approaches to them as well as rationalisation are displacing techniques and knowledge that were previously taken for granted. With the disappearance of people who practised and learned their profession before the 1990s, a large part of knowledge is likely to vanish.

Of course there are many comprehensive books about crafts like woodworking. But there is much more knowledge that’s not in books and you won’t find except when looking into really old furniture or talking to elderly journeymen.

What I’m after is a clear idea under what license such knowledge could be safely published in digital realms, in order to be retained as a public heritage.


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This is a fascinating conversation, thanks for sharing. I can definately see a role for the digital commons for conserving and communicating craft heritage, although as for the exact mechanism for licencing and organisational structures I’m probably not the qualified one to suggest a solution. The guilds model is an ancient one, but one that can still teach us something today and from your description of how it works in Germany one that has evolved into a modern, practicable and working system.

My background as a designer, who dabbles with open source furniture, I probably come from a different perspective on the process. One that is more top down in thinking, rather than bottom up. Which is exactly why having structures in place to stop people like me taking over is a good idea, to preserve vernacular and heritage craft.

One consideration I think is might be missing from the conversation is a sense of place and cultural context. Open source is a great way for sharing globally, but it seems to me craft trades are rooted in locality, landscape, the materials available in that area, or even a religious context like stain-glass windows or islamic art. This would need to be navigated very carfully, ensuring that the conenction to the local, potential sybolism, storytelling and cultural references of different crafts are not stripped down to mere technical process.

I’ll need to have a jolly good think before I have something more useful and concrete to add, but lets keep this conversation up and I’d like to see how I can help.


So If I understand correctly, your intention for the use of a license is a defensive one, to block the capture of a design or practice by commercial interests. So your intention is to preserve and grow the commons with no personal economic interest.

I was mislead by your second question, which does have an economic dimension, since it speaks about manufacturing:

A second, very close topic is the distribution of designs for furniture, intended to be built by small craft companies (one man/woman or few employees, not necessarily industry or large series manufacturers). I’m looking for a kind of Open Furniture License, which enables people to use designs freely - however with the obligation to name the original designer and with an exclusion of any liability.

Since you state “global design, local manufacturing” in your mission statement, I assume there are already solutions to this question within your group. Am I right?

I see in the German craft apprenticeship model two things:

  1. learning, acquiring the skills
  2. a system of credentials, trust

Based on your account, this is organized as a guild in Germany, a higher level organizational structure that can enforce some standards for the practice.

Do you think that the organizational structure around crafts is outdated?

In my opinion, the open source culture + DIY, is somewhat at odds with the traditional craftsmanship culture. The former promotes democratization of making, the later is more focused on preserving the craftsman practice and make it economically sustainable. The open culture also proposes new credential and trust mechanisms. I understand that the same way that academia is threatened by the open culture / digital technology, professional guilds are also threatened.

I understand now that you’re primarily interested in protecting old designs and practices, I am just putting that into a larger perspective because the answers to your question may differ based on the paradigm you subscribe to.

If you place yourself in the p2p paradigm, the open culture, open hardware, I’d say that the patent system is rapidly becoming irrelevant. Why would one develop defensive mechanisms for a system that is collapsing on its own? What becomes important in this context is to surface all these old designs and ways of making things, i.e. digitize them, make them searchable, accessible to the public, and perhaps put them into an immutable database, save them like NFTs on a blockchain. Then if someone wants to do the patent troll with you, you can just point to the record. If the record is properly done, with historical references, books and pictures, they will think twice before engaging in legal litigation. What I am getting at here is that we don’t need to be proactively defensive, we don’t need to spend energy for it. The same action of making them accessible as digital records, if done with web3, serves as a passive defence mechanism.

From what I understand, the Open Know-How approach help you format that information that you can later store on a decentralized database and timestamp on a blockchain.

There is still some remanent of this in the UK. The traditional guilds are largely ceremonial/charitable now as far as I know. But we do have training that is run through “City & Guilds” that is accredited and needed for some professions. I am sure there are many technical differences between the UK and German system both in how it is run, and when it is compulsory.

However, I think there is a bigger difference which is how we see craft culturally. The UK (as well as the US and I am sure a number of other countries) have gone into a mentality at school level that academic qualifications are far superior to apprenticeships and other craft qualifications. Schools are ranked on the percentage that go onto university, students are told that anything except university is a failure. Universities themselves shy away from including practical skills in the curriculum. When I last applied for a research fellowship at a university (for developing locally manufacturable robust scientific instruments) I was advised to remove the section of my CV that talked about my workshop experience and proficiency with knee mills and lathes because “It makes you sound like just a technician”. The same people wonder why British engineering and manufacturing sectors are struggling, why our craft skills are dying… I think we do need to learn from Germany, but I would focus on how Germany encourages, promotes, and values practical skills, not necessarily on the exact manner the training is administered.

Anyway we are a little off topic from the point about licenses.

I think when it comes to licenses and Intellectual Property (IP) it is often very poorly understood as to what is being is being licensed. Bearing in mind that I am not a lawyer, I think the following is a very brief overview of IP, and why it shouldn’t be a worry. I touched on this in my last post but here is a bit more detail.

There are three main types of IP:

These are the brand and logo that you put on a product. This stops you adding the Gucci logo to a wallet you sewed yourself.

These protect inventions. How different companies define inventions is very in depth and confusing. Originally it was (I think) inventions of new physical objects. Linkages for steam engines, clutch mechanisms for cars, etc. The scope of patents has massively expanded especially in the USA where design patents cover the shapes of objects, businesses can patent their business practices, and software can be patented.

The key point is that you are patenting your own invention. And that the patent has a limited lifetime. I think it varies by country but it is generally about 20 years. To get a patent you (at least in theory) need to demonstrate that there is no “prior art”, i.e. that you invented this yourself and it is new.

In general I would say that I am pretty sure that the skills and methods of in craft would not be patentable. But either way anything that you demonstrate publicly is not patentable by others in the future, and anything that was patented wont be after 20 years. So if we are talking about traditional techniques, traditional patterns, or patterns of your own creation, there should be no worries about patent infringement, or people patenting the idea later.


Copyright is generally the big one in the open source world. Copyright is the protection given to an original author to give them rights on how it is copied (it lasts bloody ages). This stops someone selling or sharing photocopies of books, reusing photographs without permission, selling bootleg CDs and DVDs (or whatever people use these days).

The important thing is you can’t copyright and or a skill you are writing about, just the text and images that you have created. So this stops you sharing existing course materials (even if modified). It stops you using, scanning, tracing, the diagrams in existing course materials. But it certainly does not stop you using the knowledge you got from those sources to make your own photos and diagrams, from writing your own descriptions, from drawing up your own design plans for traditional furniture.

Once you have made your own work, when you release it, you automatically get copyright without applying so the onus is on you to tell people how they can use it. Or it is assumed you have reserved all rights and they can’t distribute it without your permission.

I would strongly advised using versions of the creative commons licenses (though steering away from the “no-derivatives” and “no-commercial” versions, as they massively restrict the ability for others to use the work). If you are doing designs for hardware as I said the CERN license might be of interest.

The important thing is be very very very wary of any suggestion of creating a new license. Free and Open Source Software pioneered open licenses, and in everyone’s enthusiasm to perfect these licenses 100s have been created. Understanding which licenses are compatible with which, which software can work together, etc is a huge legal problem that absorbs way yo much time, money, and effort. When it comes to the copyright licenses for hardware and creative works the community has been much better at limiting the creation of new licenses. No licenses is perfect, but five imperfect licenses are manageable; 500 imperfect licenses (even if a few are slightly less imperfect) is a disaster.

All things considered, I would advocate for worrying less about the legal world and push on with creating training materials and accessible designs. CC-BY is the obvious BSD-equivalent. If you really want to cover the physical product made from a design then the CERN hardware licenses are worth looking into:

Notice that the hardware section on explicitly mentions furniture*:

*Note that I was involved with adding the Hardware section to GitHub’s, I don’t think I wrote that sentence though!

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