Embracing Digital Technologies for Physical Tool Making to Enhance Makers’ Agency

  • Karen-Ann Dicken

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Tool making is recognised as an essential aspect of being human and plays a significant role in shaping society and culture. The development of tool making has derived from a complex mixture of both cognitive and cultural evolution (Stout, 2011:1). Within the last twenty years, new digital technologies such as 3D printing, laser sintering and CNC milling machines have become readily available and affordable. Our society has seen a significant change and advancement in production methods that has moved us into the next industrial revolution. Traditional toolmaking, craft and previous design movements are well recognised, however, the implications of using these newer digital technologies to create physical tooling for handcraft process and the impact on makers is under researched, particularly in the field of jewellery and silversmithing. Manufacturing traditional tools can be costly and time consuming for individual craft makers to outsource from specialist tool makers. However, with digital technologies and fabrication becoming widely available and accessible, this has opened up new opportunities for makers.

Exploring agency within craft making provides a lens through which to explore tool making using digital technologies. The traditional view of agency that has been outlined by the social sciences focuses on human consciousness, however, there are far more actions involved in craft making and from taking this human centred viewpoint we risk missing important elements of agency such as tools and material as critical elements which also have agency (Malfouris in Knappett and Malfouris, 2008:ix). This research therefore outlines the different types of agencies involved in making and the implications of them.

Adopting a tool making approach to digital technologies ensures agency and control of the making process remains with the maker. The impact of creating physical tools from the digital has allowed makers to create new and unique craft objects which still contain the mark of the maker, through embracing digital technologies not as a direct production method, but through creating physical tooling and integrating with handcraft techniques.

This PhD documents and analyses examples from jewellery & metal design practitioners who are creating tooling for hand-crafted objects using Computer Aided Design and digital technologies and sets out the benefits of this approach. Whilst this research focuses primarily on jewellery design, examples of other craft disciplines such as ceramics and glass are also explored.

This research establishes the agency involved in contemporary practice between makers, tools, materials and digital technologies. Through a practice-based investigation and interviews of the ways contemporary craft makers are enhancing their agency whilst integrating digital technologies and traditional hand fabrication through tool making.

Analysing the agency involved in making has identified the importance of agentive drift and reduced sensory actions. Agentive drift is the communication and passing of agency between agents including the maker, tool and material. It is this jumping of agency that determines movement and decision making (Leitch in Bruhn et al. 2013:171). Reduced sensory action is where agency is happening during a technique; however, one or more of the human senses is reduced or restricted.

In summary, digital fabrication technologies have created new opportunities in tool making for craft that enables the maker to enhance their agency within the making process. The presence of agentive drift and reduced sensory action is therefore presented as an important dimension within contemporary practice that has not previously been described or acknowledged.
Date of Award2023
Original languageEnglish
SponsorsEngineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
SupervisorSandra Wilson (Supervisor) & Chris Lim (Supervisor)


  • Digital Technologies
  • Digital Manufacture
  • Tool Making
  • Handcraft
  • Computer Aided Design
  • Agency
  • Agentive Drift
  • Reduced Sensory Action
  • Jewellery
  • Silversmithing,
  • Aesthetics

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