Apprentice Up

I've always thought that apprenticeships were a good thing. But what does the word mean in this day and age? The ideas of a 'traditional' apprenticeship are pretty much dead in the Western first world. Classic apprenticeships basically ended with the guild systems hundreds of years ago. But you can still find a few of them today in the tattoo and pottery worlds to name a few. When I was learning I got paid for it. I think there is a difference between a job and an apprenticeship, but I can't quite put my finger on it. Do they attract different types of people? Folks that desire to gain something a little deeper than a paycheck maybe? I'm not sure. I do know that when I was hired in the boat shop 20 years ago, I was paid a very small amount. This was to insure I was a certain type of person. The type that wanted the job real bad. Boats and boat building attracted all kinds of wannabes, dreamers and yahoos. My boss knew this, so he posted the job at something like 2-3 dollars an hour. This was a way of protecting himself from the trouble of dealing with folks who were more in love with the idea than the work. I'm not sure how well his strategy worked, but I did take the job. 

I just finished up a making stint with apprentice Tom Bartlett, who worked with me for over four months. As a way of reflecting on that experience, I'll share a little backstory and some of my usual ramblings.

In the past I've always been open to the idea of having folks come and learn from me. For years I had an open door policy. Even though I never actively advertised for it, folks came asking on a regular basis. They liked what I was doing, wanted to help and learn a little in doing so. This worked fairly well for years. At that time I was homesteading with my ex-wife April. We always had things to do around our home in addition to the many tasks related to the craft business. Pounding ash splint for April's basketry was a fail safe project for folks to help with. I also had a band saw and asked folks to make spoon blanks with it. It was a simple enough task without much oversight or instruction. All they needed to do was split and rough hew the billets then take them to the saw with template in hand. I had garbage bags filled with blanks stuffed in the freezer, all ready to carve.

The idea to get some help in exchange for labor was a good thing. However, the skill of the people helping limited just how much help they could do. Setting someone to sharpening and tuning up all my teaching knives was not an option. In quick time not only would my knives be farther away from sharp, my water stones would be messed up as well. In no way would a short term labor exchange like this work without me also getting the short end of the stick. But I did want to figure out a way in which it could work, both short and long term. 

I ended up developing a work-trade option. This allowed folks to come and work off the price of a one-on-one workshop. It also meant that the work could be unrelated to craft. The common projects were splitting firewood or again, pounding ash splint. With this arrangement I got some help with my day to day chores. This freed me up to spend more time doing business/craft work. This in turn helped me make more stuff, which paid the bills.

After a while, I grew hungry to teach about more in depth subjects like fine tuning knife skills or sharing my process of refining a design. To do this I needed more time than just a few days. I started offering 5-day workshops at places like North House Folk School and Port Townsend School of Woodworking. This year I've also added the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship. Increasing the duration of my classes beyond the normal 2 to 2.5 days was really nice. It took the pressure off folks to complete their projects and it gave me more time to go in depth about the skills I wanted to share. I now had ample time to address subjects like sharpening, painting and decorating. I had more time to spend with each student. And I didn't have to cut short my wild tangents on various essential subjects like art and craft, zen, parenting, good music and movies— things that are part of our very real and very human experience.

This extra time to talk revealed that working with our hands has a way of bringing us together. It has a way of knocking down our personal walls. When this happens its a little easier to hear each other's points of view, even if those ideas are opposed to our own. Finding common ground in this day and age seems harder and harder, so it's worth the extra effort to plan for it in my workshops.

And yet, the 5-day workshop still didn't get to the deeper levels I wanted to address. I hoped that working with someone for even longer would go to that place. In the last 3 years I've had 3 'apprentices'. Two of the apprenticeships lasted for about a month each and the latest one lasted 4 months. The shorter 2 were more experimental. I've learned quite a bit from these experiences—and on the whole it has been positive.

There is one negative experience I have to mention and I believe it happened because I was too open and naive, too trusting with the information I was sharing. That information continues to be distorted from it's truth and used in ongoing attempts to defame me both publicly and privately by one of my past apprentices. This has been a really difficult thing to deal with because I've grown very cautious about what, how and with whom I share my knowledge with. I guess it comes with the territory. I partly question myself for wanting to bring it up here, but I feel the need to acknowledge it so I can move on. Ok, I'm done.

The four months working with Tom was a really great experience. I was able to use our time together to increase my production and at the same time offer quality skill building opportunities for him. This is what I have been craving. It's hard to get into the details with someone because many of them are minute. These subtleties are revealed through making the same designs over and over. When you have a pile of these objects, all intended to be the same, you can then compare them to each other. This is when you can see the difference between the ok, the good and hopefully great. I recently went to listen to the world renowned designer Ingregard Råmon speak about her work. She talked about working within millimeters and that the difference between good and great is sometimes very small changes in form. She also did not use ornamentation at all. Pure form. When I heard all of this I was filled with confidence. I was in the right place in regards to how I see my own work and what I was sharing with Tom.

Through the help with my production of bowls, spoons and both birch bark and turned boxes Tom's technical skills increased many times over. Tom was also really receptive to feedback which I think was key to his rapid improvement. He understood what I meant on the first day when I discussed that we will be critical of designs and ideas, but not each other personally. This was very important to understand because critique is often misunderstood and taken for a judgement of one's own person. We are not our thoughts and we are definitely not the things we make. After the daily work of helping with my production I challenged Tom to make one bowl or cup a day. Some times I prodded him to make the most perfect bowl he could. Some days it was to make the smoothest finish possible and then make it smoother. These things need to happen over time if they are to be lasting. He rose to the challenge every time with such a great attitude.

We also had a few critique sessions of my work. After every run we would set out all my work and find the best and worst. We would explore the whys both objectively and subjectively and then move on. When his time was coming to an end we did the same with his work. I believe that giving and receiving critique is so very important to being a good craftsperson—back to the idea that we are not what we make. We also spent time discussing the behind the scenes part of running a business. Because Tom is already running a fairly successful craft business we had a lot to share with each other. I really appreciated Tom's honesty and perspective.

In the end, even though I subjected him to too much sludge metal and other weird music that I listen to, he enjoyed his time with me. I can't wait to see what he will be making in a year's time after it all settles in. But you don't have to take my word for it. You can read about every day he worked with me on his blog here. 

I'm still left with questions.

Is there a need for apprenticeships today? Are they really just paid employees called apprentices? How do we teach folks about the business side of things in the craft world? Those skills are arguably just as important as the hand work. How do we share or pass on our skills with others on the deeper levels? and also when? after a few years or ten, twenty? Any thoughts? Please share them.

I'll be offering up the position (minimally paid) again in the fall. If you're interested check it out here. But it's not as simple as just asking questions via email. If you think you'd like to learn from me send me the info requested and we'll go from there.