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The Day of Apprenticing Continues

In 2007 I met John Winter and he came to my house over a number of days to build his workbench with his dad. His dad is a paediatrician and was working at the hospital in the town near where I live.DSC_0118 John came into the castle workshop at 18 for a year to apprentice and learn woodworking and he’s now a man of 21. He’s a fine craftsman. His work is exemplary as is his passion for knowing woodworking. I sit often at my bench and watch him as he works and I see the birth of a skilled and knowledgeable woodworker. Beyond that he’s become a close friend to me and others he works with, a capable furniture maker and an excellent and knowledgeable teacher. His future is now ready to unfold in his own workshop in Patagonia and before the year ends he’ll start new things no one knows anything about yet.

DSC_0113I have enjoyed having John here and I am certain that is obvious, but what made him different to say apprentices I trained years back? When I first took an apprentice it was to help him become what he had no knowledge of but had always wanted to be. His dream was to become a furniture maker and that’s what he became. Stephen was not the easiest apprentice trainee. Probably because he was older and more set in the ways he wanted to do things. As soon as he learned anything from me he thought everything originated from him and as soon as he learned enough he left and started his own business. I was still glad that he was able to start on his own and that he at least worked with me long enough to learn furniture making and indeed he too became more than competent and I taught him all he needed to become the furniture maker he’d dreamed of becoming.

You see, on the one hand it’s been good from time to time to see someone grow away from you for the wrong reasons, but all the better to see someone come to maturity and grow into their place of ultimate responsibility with you and away from you. On the one hand there is often disharmony and then on the other perfect peace. John and Phil have both brought peace into my otherwise high self-demand life. When they come into the workshop I feel settled at them both being with me. I hope that they feel the same way I do.

DSC_0021As we worked on the class today there was for me a peace throughout the day. The students are from Israel and Brazil, from the USA came three more and then another from Belgium. The rest are from the UK. It’s been very peaceful and even though I apply substantial pressure I feel for the one thing I value the most and that is peace and understanding. I think we all feel the same way about learning a craft; that it’s high self-demand that makes it work. No one really ever stops until I call a launch break. Hot coffee is always welcome but no one stops to chat until a phase or step is completed. This maximising of intense training has borne good fruit in that boxes dovetailed all fit and fit well. For most of them these boxes are their very first. Who knows, perhaps they will become furniture makers too, in their own right of course.


  1. Joe Bouza on 16 November 2014 at 10:53 pm

    Keep up the “Great Work” Paul,…the world is much in need of the positive energy you supply by giving and teaching the craft to so many.

    • Paul Sellers on 16 November 2014 at 11:07 pm

      I will, Joe. Too much yet to do and so little time to do it. I’ve only been bored in airports and never at work in 30 years now.

      • gblogswild on 17 November 2014 at 1:04 am

        Wish I could say the same.. about work. The airport part is easy.

        There aren’t enough teachers, not enough shops, not enough young people looking for something better to do than burying themselves in some plastic device these days – and not enough shop owners anymore willing to take on a student like you’ve done. I could only wish I’d found an apprenticeship like that. Even for as short a time! Apprenticeship is all but dead in trades, it’s all about college and computers and CNC and high volume production now. But if I see an opportunity for my daughter to apprentice, I’ll urge her with both hands to do it. I’d even offer it as an alternative to college. There’s no better way in my opinion to develop a skill than immersion in it, and there is no degree that offers a substitute (without the debt, even!) to the confidence that’s gained only by doing.

        • JohnC on 17 November 2014 at 1:29 pm

          I disagree about apprenticeships are dead. In the US Electrical, plumbing and sheet metal workers all require a 5 year apprenticeships, union jobs of course. Some of the other trades are usually 4 years with only 2 years of classroom. Non union tradesman also serve somewhat of an apprenticeship although it depends on who you work for because few will take the time to teach because ultimately time is money, this goes for the union shops also. So, on reflection, maybe you are somewhat correct in a manner of thinking.

          I am not sure it has not always been this way, as far as time is money and money is time. Going back in time I am sure there were many tradesman that used and abused apprentices and taught them only as much as they had to, just as in todays trade work. I’d like to know if I am right or wrong, because I have given this a great deal of thought over the years.

          • Paul Sellers on 17 November 2014 at 3:05 pm

            I think there are people serving bona fide apprenticeships with some companies but in my view I find apprentices learn so much more when they serve an apprenticeship outside of what has been normalised through education and government controls. In almost all cases i think it’s better to find someone you trust and not look to colleges and educators for oversight and training otherwise you jump through too many hops to satisfy irrelevant training in areas you don’t need. If you are deficient in math and English because you were a rebel or you just didn’t get it because you were essentially undeveloped then go to college evening courses and make up for what you missed. To find someone who really can give them true craftsmanship training and mentoring through one on one relational training will always be best. That’s not to say that there are not many instructors in colleges that really care and can do it, but that they are often hamstrung by a rigid system that cannot flex or will not allow for the individual needs of the trainee apprenticing. But then the problem lies with craftsmen like myself who must sacrifice productive time to teach the craft to apprentices. It is a rare thing for any apprentice to enhance the craftsman’s endeavour to be productive until a couple of years have passed and they themselves become productive. in times past many craftsmen had an apprentices shared between them – the ratio usually being around 1-6. This then meant productive men covered the cost of the apprentice and he got his training. This ratio will never return, it’s impossible, especially in crafts as opposed to trades. Trades such as electricians and plumbers tend now towards replacement mechanics and service business. They no longer fabricate the parts but bolt on bought in components and so it has become more a mechanics occupation and cannot be compared to say blacksmithing or spinning and weaving or furniture making and luthiery. I think that this creates a distinction but the very different worlds and therefor it’s not an apples for apples comparison. Unions have in the past ensured training continues and so too working men’s schools that held classes in the evenings to educate those unprivileged with education. The changing face then changed the industry. The problem with unions was the power they once had and the lack of humility that brought with it. This led to their undoing and so there was no counterforce to those holding the purse strings and those dependent on them. Imbalances are woven all the way through the industrialising of people and so today we suffer under the financial dominance of bankers and politicians who talk in terms of people as units, discuss local apprenticing strategies and getting the workforce back to work on all of the continents yet never really do a lick of real work themselves. And so the continuing saga of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer goes on, with consumerism slap bang in the centre of every individual’s life.

  2. John C on 17 November 2014 at 1:14 pm

    Unfortunately in this day and age serving an apprenticeship is not viewed as equal to a college education, at least in my time in the trades I don’t believe it has. Not that it matters if a person is doing it for the passion of learning a trade instead of just doing something for the all mighty dollar. I have been in many conversations over the years about education beyond high school and when I mentioned going through an apprenticeship I usually received a blank stare back and an “Oh I see”. It seems that there are quite a few “highly educated people” that know very little.

    Einstein said “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education” I have nothing against a college education, I am pushing my kids in that direction, if they want to work in the trades afterwards it could only help them. At the very least they will have options.

  3. Salko Safic on 17 November 2014 at 2:13 pm

    He also said that “Technology will bring about a generation of derelicts.” I’ll probably never get the opportunity to join atleast 1 class let alone shake Paul’s hand at the very least, but I spend everyday implementing what he taught me through his videos and I cannot find the words to express my gratitude forr that.

  4. gav on 17 November 2014 at 2:39 pm

    The phrase ” Knowledge is power” springs to mind. I picked up two rosewood handled sliding bevels, a Stanley spokeshave and a coping saw amongst a pile of dirty and rusted tools/ironmongery at a market for $15 AUS . My wife commented that it all looked like a pile of rusty rubbish-which a lot of it was. You have opened a path to a much broader spectrum than mere material wealth Paul. I see so many things possible with the discarded and damaged tools I come across, the only battle I face is with how much time I can commit to them. In some ways, saving these tools is a self imposed obligation, nothing lasts forever but the value that can be derived from something already present through the right application of knowledge is a powerful thing indeed. The passing on of this knowledge and tools is a force to be reckoned with.

    • Paul Sellers on 17 November 2014 at 3:08 pm

      I loved this comment Gav. Especially “these tools is a self imposed obligation”. Thanks for your thoughtful contribution.

  5. Steve Massie on 17 November 2014 at 4:41 pm

    Paul a great post and again Thank You for what you do. I wish I could apprentice under you as I really like wood working and working with my hands.

    I am very fortunate that I do have a College Education in Engineering and was also able to work and apprentice in the HVAC field during that time, which was the mid 60’s. After College I went into the Army and then moved to Florida to be closer to my folks. Well what a shocker that was for the HVAC field, they used fiberglass duct work which is entirely different then sheet metal which was used only in Commercial and Industrial type buildings. Where I lived there was not that much work except for Residential work so that is when I switched careers to the Architectural Aluminum business which I stayed in until I retired in 2009.

    I hate to see that the apprenticeship programs today are few and far in between except for some of the larger Cities and I am not a big fan of Unions either. Thankfully you do what you do.


  6. Orestes valella on 18 November 2014 at 1:49 am

    As an architect with my own office I generally have one apprentice at a time, roughly for two to four years time after they graduate from architecture school. I see it as my responsibility to teach, mentor and ultimately give back to another individual the care and consideration that was given me, when I was starting out. What they learn cannot be learned in a school, but what I learn from them cannot be bought with gold.
    We should all make it our responsibility to mentor, teach, counsel the ones who will be carrying on the torch of knowledge once we have passed on.
    orestes valella

  7. DeWayne Wiederhold on 18 November 2014 at 1:17 pm

    Great post sir. When I was a young man (more of a boy) learning my trade, I didn’t have the formality of a traditional apprenticeship, but I met the Boss at breakfast every day and we didn’t separate until well after dark. The first couple of years were pretty rough, if there was a dirty, cold or unpleasant chore it was mine. We developed a good relationship over the years, unfortunately it was all too often one sided. I was a real punk in those days and I’ve always regretted not taking better advantage of what was available to me. I didn’t learn my trade well from him (entirely my fault), but the work ethic stuck and I feel fortunate that I got that.
    I’ve always heard the story of the German machinist apprentice whose only tool for his first year is a file. Over the years I’ve had dozens of kids under me who have a certificate from a trade school whose primary skill is processing financial aid forms. A large proportion of these kids think that with this certificate they should be able to start at the top. They feel that they should be allowed to skip the dirty, cold and unpleasant. I can’t help but think that the old ways of starting at the bottom helped to build character, make the boy a man, build a work ethic and hopefully develop some empathy.
    You have always struck me as meek and humble, I am curious if you start your apprentices at the bottom sweeping sawdust, cleaning and stowing the tools and such.

    • Paul Sellers on 18 November 2014 at 2:47 pm

      I did. A fundamental then was not trying to ensure people didn’t have low self esteem but trying to get them to see that they esteemed themselves far too highly. Trying to undo the damage caused by this new wave phenomenon has become increasingly more problematic. Often the only way to deal with it is to simply say no to them. I think for the most part they seem to get that even though the problem is inherited by you from parents who never loved their kids enough to say no. Over expectation is our first-world dilemma like having to bend down to plug a cord into a socket or wait two seconds for interconnectivity. But, BUT, there are a lot of youngsters out there who feel cared for when you spend time with them and I have had more of those than the others. I still work with the others basing my input as a possible start for change. Usually that means my character is being worked on too.

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