Schooled

Newport Table by Al Breed, Photo by Lie-Nielsen Toolworks

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.

Hamilton house, photo by author

 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

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About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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5 Responses to Schooled

  1. Tico Vogt says:

    My dream is to take a private week long course with chair maker Peter Galbert and to take a course with Al Breed. Years ago I spent a week at Country Workshops studying Carving Swedish woodenware.

    I’ve always felt conflicted about apprenticeships. That would never have been my entry point into woodworking, but, as a craftsman, I am very spotty in my skills and bemoan the areas that I’ve never had adequate background in.

    My wife and I lived for a year in Kittery, Maine, the next town south of South Berwick, and she has written about it’s native author Sarah Orne Jewitt. We drove by the Hamilton house often and it is, indeed, a fantastic piece of architecture.

  2. Tico Vogt says:

    Pardon me, her name is spelled Jewett.

  3. Rob Baynes says:

    Mr. Walker,
    Thank you for your great blog articles, I always learn something new from you.
    The North Bennett St. school in Boston has a great traditional WW program. It is offered in many formats that are tailored to career woodworkers and tinkerers like myself. http://www.nbss.org

    • teenagewoodworker says:

      don’t forget the North Bennet Street School. They Still teach a classical intensive two year woodworking program along with many others.

  4. Chloe See says:

    Slightly off the subject perhaps, but a plea for you to think about the ethics of buying things like designer clothes. Please try and consider, for example, the materials the item is made with, the conditions of the employees where they’re manufactured and the ethics of retailers. Oh, and try to share instead of throwing away. Thanks!!!!

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