Notes From My Apprentice Days

I guess now that I am so old I should recount my memoirs. Here’s one you might like. I have a few now. As a boy of fifteen, and an apprentice to boot (literally), my tasks were very simple and age-, position- and experience-appropriate; catch from all out-feed tables and stack, sweep the shop at least once a day and then locally on location-demand, brew tea three times a day and then be the general dogsbody, whipping boy and head cook and bottle washer to a dozen men. There was no doubt about my position on the totem pole and I knew where I stood.


When Jack Collins finished work each day he insisted we put our tools away sharp. It was a given for us to spend ten minutes after sweep up  to sharpen up  the edge tools like chisels and planes before we went so that we were ready to go when we started in the morning at 7.30. He also insisted that the tools be put away in the toolboxes even though we owned our own tools and had responsibility for them as they were uninsured. After a while of working under Jack, he being the foreman and totally ‘A’ alpha-male shop controller, I noticed his insistence never extended to his workbench and that he always left his bench piled high, unswept, unkempt and totally disorderly when it came down to tools. DSC_0054 So anyway, one night, tired, above my station, just a little belligerent, I asked Jack if he needed help to sort and tidy his bench. He seemed quite relaxed when he said, “No.” I went on and asked why he never put his tools away. This was tantamount to suicide for a “boy”. He said,  “Well, if someone breaks in here and wants my tools I’m not packing them up for them. If they want my tools they must pick up and pack each one if they can indeed find them. The first tools to go will be the boxes packed and filled neatly with sharp tools ready to go.” “Oh!” I said. Then he said, “Sweep the shop.”


Jack was one of my guides and my mentors, but I like to keep more order than he did and so I clean and sort throughout my day no matter what I do.


  1. I love your post on your days as an apprentice. Its neat to see how things really were. I wish the apprentiship system didn’t disappear!

  2. Those of us who apprenticed at different trades years ago should all write down our experiences and pass them along to those following us. We owe it to them for history’s sake. So many great chapters of learning, working, hardships, trials, and best the shared humour and laughter at events that accompanied us on the road to knowledge of our crafts.

    There were the great men ahead of us who willingly shared their knowledge and also those who protected theirs for fear we would surpass them and take their livelihood from them. Knowledge that came too easily wasn’t worth the prize of that we had to struggle for ourselves. This they taught us back then.

    Paul,…hope you make this part of your regular blog to pass along this personal history.

  3. I second what Joe said. As an apprentice, I was always attentive to what my journeymen had to say about their experiences. It tied me to the past and a working world greater than myself. Inevitably in the many stories (including the one about the journeyman working in a zoo between the chimp cages whose ladder was playfully nudged by a chimp), the teller would interject, “He was a good electrician.” This did a lot to quietly build in me the desire to have the same said of me. To hear the stories of your youth helps tie us to a greater woodworking world of tradition forged with callouses and sweat. It is a real world not speculative or interpreted from a book. It inspires us to greater work, and to appreciate those who paved the road for us and what it took to do so. Thanks Paul.

  4. Paul,
    After Vocatioal School in Pine Bluff, Ar. The year course consistedof year of in class/shop instruction. Second year was six month at (for me) Sante Fe RR Shop, Norge, US Time(TIMEX) and Curtiss Mathes,in Benton, Ar.

    the old timers would help if asked, you never borrowed a tool more than once, if at all.

  5. I love to hear stories such as these. I also served an apprenticeship in the HVAC world and learned all about sheet metal duct work etc. I then went on to College to study Engineering and got in the Architectural Aluminum Business, such a diversity in trades.

    I learned a lot from the “Tin Knockers” and was a gopher for at least a year before I could actually do anything other than load, unload the truck. Set up the portable work bench’s with their tools in order, obviously sweep up after them and make sure I had everything ready for the next move. It was nerve racking at first but what I learned was to pay attention and be able to think ahead of them. Then they started to show me how to read the prints, layout and size duct work, learn velocity’s and cfm for sizing etc.

    I to hate to see the apprenticeship’s almost non existing today and shudder at some of the workmanship I see which wouldn’t be the case if people were properly trained.


  6. I too very much enjoy your stories of apprenticing. Apparently it took more than a month or so for you to develop into a Master woodworker. I read how much respect you had for these men that taught at such a practical level and how impractical things can be today. By the way how will you at some point explain how these men would lay out circular stairs by making a pattern from folded paper?

  7. Hi Paul,

    I can relate to this apprenticeship thing, when I started mine in 1975 it’s now 40 years ago!!

    But one thing I could never understand and sometimes struggled with – was the way that some of the more senior workers or ‘tradesman’ (and I’m using the term loosely here), thought it was their right to treat the apprentices quite badly.

    I don’t think they would get away with it so much in today’s society!!

    Oh well onwards & upwards

  8. Paul, “sweeping the shop” reminded me of my “shop” class in middle school. About fifteen minutes before the period ended we cleaned the benches and we swept the floor and polished up the handle of the big front door. Oops; sorry. Got carried away. Any way, when my grandson was making his cutting board, and we were up to our ankles in shavings, and it was time to clean up, he looked over at the big shop vac. I told him, “No, we’re doing everything with hand tools”, and pointed at the broom and dust pan. He did it with no complaints.

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