A View from Here

Bill's Sisson's weekly Trade Only blog

Out of sight, out of mind, right? Think again

Question: When wiring or plumbing is buried away out of sight of the customer, say behind a panel or under the cabin sole, does it still have to look good or be aesthetically pleasing? Isn’t that the place you save a few bucks by saying the hell with the presentation? Who’s going see it? Who’s going to know?

I’ve been reading the biography of Steve Jobs, and in Chapter 11 you learn that the Apple co-founder was adamant that the aesthetic be carried all the way through the product, deep into its innards, whether the work was visible to the consumer or not.

That lesson of “passionate craftsmanship” was one that he learned from his father. Jobs believed that just as a talented woodworker making a chest of drawers wouldn’t finish off the back with a piece of plywood because it faced a wall, so, too, should the computer engineer avoid designing an ugly printed circuit board simply because it will be hidden from view. Out of sight does not mean out of mind — not in Jobs’ world. And not in the world of craftsmen.

“For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through,” Jobs told biographer Walter Isaacson.

Computers and iPads and smart phones are one thing. But what about boats?

“I find it just as important, especially when you’re talking about boats and cars,” says Frank Kehr, who manages a fleet of vintage race cars by day and rehabs boats in his spare time. “Overall product quality is reflected by the smallest part of it.”

Aesthetics are important not just in and of themselves, Kehr says, but also for what they say about overall quality, functionality and reliability.

“A craftsmanship approach to things is a way of life,” says Kehr, who also writes technical stories for Trade Only’s sister magazine, Soundings. “You view everything the same way.” Big and small, visible or not. You take the time to make it look good; you take the time to make it work right.

“Most of what we do is not visible,” Kehr says of his work on Ferraris, where tolerances are measured in thousands of an inch and mistakes on the track can put life and limb at risk. “You may not know the tolerances of mated components until you’re going 140.”

This wiring by Kehr is not easily visible, but it was done with a certain elegance nonetheless.

On boats, systems and components that aren’t easily accessible should be designed and installed properly — made as bulletproof as possible — because it can be difficult to confirm their ongoing integrity, says Kehr, an avid boater and a magician with a wrench, a welding torch or a milling machine. Too often, they’re not.

“Not everybody understands true quality and craftsmanship, and it needs to be shown to them and explained,” he says. Dealers and builders should spend more time educating consumers about the quality and workmanship that is not readily visible in their products rather than focusing just on bells and whistles, he notes.

“I think the person who does that is going to capture the market,” Kehr says.

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