I had the rare privilege of serving in a traditional apprenticeship to become a journeyman machinist over thirty years ago. The apprenticeship lasted four years with another two tacked on before you attained class A status. In reality we learned the basics in fairly short order and much of the apprenticeship was about learning how to work up to a “journeyman pace”. I’m always amazed reading the historical price books for period furniture makers. You can use the prices to calculate how long it was expected to build a dresser or desk. It seems impossibly fast, until I think about the journeyman I’ve seen in a piecework environment. These guys could run rings around you without breaking a sweat. At first glance it didn’t appear that way as they always seemed to be nibbling on sardines and smoking cigars. A trained eye would notice their engine lathe was always peeling a hot stream of steel chips in the air while planning out their next three or four moves in advance. An apprentice wouldn’t think of trying to impress one of these old buzzards. Every job we struggled to learn, they had done a thousand times. They could show you six ways to make any cut. The only smart thing to do was shut up and listen. This kind of schooling goes far back in our history. It served the trades and the arts well as it transfers not only knowledge but hard won experience.
Sadly, true apprenticeships have all but disappeared, but pieces of it can still be experienced. Masters like Al Breed offer classes where you can immerse yourself for a few days or a week. It’s a unique treat to soak up knowledge from someone of Al’s caliber who has built and handled scores of great furniture pieces. Opportunities like these can be even more beneficial as the group dynamics in a small class setting multiplies the potential learning. And they are just plain fun.
I’d encourage you to sign up for a woodworking class somewhere this year and give your skills and thinking a boost. If you would like to stretch your design skills, I’m offering workshops both at Marc Adams this June and Port Townsend out on the west coast in August.
By the way, if you make it up to Al Breed’s school in South Berwick Maine, make sure you pack a lunch and spend an afternoon at the Hamilton house just down the road. It’s one of the finest examples of colonial architecture in New England situated on a gorgeous landscape.
George R. Walker