apprenticeships in traditional crafts

“Where can I get information about apprenticeships in traditional crafts?” is a question I am often asked. The other question when I publicise the work of old traditional craftspeople who are the last doing a particular skill is why don’t they have an apprentice. People ask me the same thing.

I would like to discus the very real difficulties involved in passing skills on and propose some ideas for potential ways forward. I would welcome comment and discussion of these issues in the comments box at the bottom of the post.

If we go back a few hundred years in the UK there was a full apprenticeship system and it was impossible to work in most trades without having been a time served apprentice. Apprenticeship was viewed as significant training, taken seriously and paid for by the parents of the apprentice much as folk would expect to pay for a university education today in the hopes of better job prospects. After 5 years or so depending on the trade the apprentice would become a journeyman or day labourer, that is they were free to leave the workshop where they were apprenticed and work for pay in other workshops. After a period doing this they may choose to set up business and become a master themselves, all this was regulated and policed by the guild system. Today there are only a few trades where training is essential in order to practice, gas work and farriery are two that spring to mind.

Now if we look at the situation today when I get asked, as I often am, if someone can be my apprentice they are not asking to come and work with me for 5 years. They are asking to come for maybe 3 months or 6, they would not expect to pay me for the training I would be giving them and most would actually expect me to pay them for the work they feel to be contributing.

The I look at the endangered crafts I have written about here such as Trevor Ablett the pen knife maker or Mike Turnock the sievemaker and I ask myself what is the incentive for these folk to take on an apprentice? When you are a self employed one man band craftsman one of the real benefits is the high degree of autonomy to choose how and when you work. As soon as you bring an apprentice in it becomes more of a 9-5. Then there are extra burdens of health and safety legislation, employer liability insurance etc. Most of these jobs involve many skilled processes and few non skilled ones. Other than sweeping out and tidying my workshop there is nothing in my production process that an unskilled apprentice could help with. If I had an apprentice working on the lathe in fact it would mean I was not working I was teaching them so having an apprentice around is actually a significant hindrance to a craftsman in a small workshop. The situation is different in larger workshops where there is tea to make, lots of cleaning to do, simple non skilled raw material preparation or whatever and the apprentice gradually takes on more skillful jobs as they progress. This is the way apprenticeship still works in Japan, the new apprentice starting just by sweeping up for several weeks keeping the worksite tidy and gradually getting to know the routines and rhythms of the workshop before they start with the most simple jobs.

So if traditional apprenticeship is a difficult model in today’s craft world then how do people get into it? When I look round my contacts in the field I see a few who did traditional apprenticeships nearly always in the family taught by a father or uncle. This situation justifies the mentors investment of time in the apprentice. By far the most common entry route now however is what can be called the “self directed learner”. When you ask folk how they got into it they will often say they are self taught but when you esquire further there will often be a host of different avenues they have pursued to gain knowledge it is not just trial and error.

So when I wanted to learn blacksmithing skills to forge my own tools first I was inspired by a chap called Don Weber demonstrating simple toolmaking for woodworkers, he demystified it and made it seem possible. Then a friend and I visited a local smithy and learnt the basics of fire management. We set up a forge and bashed metal, then bought a book “The complete Modern Blacksmith” by Weygers and learned more. Every time I got a chance I talked tools and steel, to old engineers or anyone who had any knowledge I could glean. Finally when we moved near to Sheffield I was able to visit workshops of professional grinders, have access to proper tool steel stockholders and get the best advice on steel qualities and hardening and tempering. If I was learning today I could have saved enormously on the learning curve through internet resources such as the British Blades web forum where folk share knowledge freely about toolmaking skills.

I think this journey is typical, often a chance encounter gives the inspiration, this is followed by an increasingly dedicated (obsessed?) quest for knowledge which has to work in parallel with the increasing skills due to lots of repetitive practice.

So how do we create the conditions in which folk can pass the skills on? The Heritage Crafts Association is currently looking at trialing a new type of apprenticeship which would put more emphasis on the learner and less on the teacher. The idea is to create the conditions in which a dedicated learner can access the information they need and have alongside the facilities to immediately test and develop their knowledge by practical work. This model apprenticeship would provide basic subsistence living expenses for the apprentice and also access to one or more mentor craftspeople. These folk would be paid for the time they spend training the apprentice. The apprentice would not be with the craftsperson full time but would have their own workshop where they practiced skills and have regular visits to their mentor to learn new skills.

I would be interested to hear from any blog readers with experience in this area, how did you get into the crafts or develop your skills? Do you know craftspeople who have or have not managed to pass their skills on? Does anyone have experience good or bad of different formal or informal training or learning environments?

21 Responses to apprenticeships in traditional crafts

  1. woodnstuff January 5, 2010 at 1:39 pm #

    Hi Robin, Excellent topic for debate, look forward to feedback. Here's an American Blacksmith talking about the subject that I think you may find interesting. May I also take the opportunity on commending you on the tenacious work you are doing on behalf of traditional crafts in the Uk.Also this Blog just gets better and more thought provoking as it develops.Best regards, John

  2. Ian January 5, 2010 at 4:54 pm #

    Hi RobinA very interesting and important debate which you have summarised very well. I have a couple of thoughts which may or may not be of use:The traditional apprentice route was exclusively aimed at young people and therefore appropriate in relation to the apprentice being supported by their parents. (It was because of this a quite socially exclusive training method but that’s a separate issue). Having spent years working with young people in training environments it would seem difficult to make a generally available system which required more than say one years formal training attractive to the majority of young people. I would imagine the majority of people who would be seriously interested in formal training of any length would be mature people who were looking to change jobs. These are often people who have been tinkering with the craft, doing short courses etc. This brings me on to the second thought, I am currently re-training in Shiatsu, the course is 3 years; structured so that we have a weekends training every month and then do lots of practice and self directed learning in the gaps. We of course pay course fees so the school can employ teachers. It seems to work quite well. The crux point for traditional crafts I think is that most of the students who are willing to pay £1000’s on fees on Shiatsu training have a reasonable expectation of making an ok living at the end of the 3 years. Just some thoughtsBest regards,Ian

  3. Nathalie January 5, 2010 at 5:10 pm #

    Hi,Interesting topic indeed. I'm an apprentice myself in France and here apprentices are paid according to their age and skills (i'm in first year and 23 and paid 53% of the minimal wage). I don't know all the details but the state helps the craftmen that hire apprentices. It's not the perfect system but it works and it's good for young people interested in crafts. I like your proposition but i think it's easier for a craftman keen to learn another skill than for a beginner. In France if you're an adult you can also learn by the Greta which offers courses and training sessions. This can be paid by the Employement Agency or your employer.Congratulations for the work of the HCA. I'm looking for such an association in France but haven't found yet…Bye

    • Paul May 6, 2016 at 2:35 pm #

      hi Nathalie. I’m very interested to hear that you have been an apprentice in France. We really want to move to Southern France, and would like to find out about Woodwork apprenticeships for our son who is 17 years old. Any information would be appreciated.

      Regards, Paul

  4. Richard Law January 5, 2010 at 5:15 pm #

    I think finance is a key issue here. My father was a partner in a small building business, and they regularly had a couple of 'prentices learning the trade. I believe an indenture system was still in place, which was a contract protecting the interests of both parties (not necessarily equally!). Inevitably, as the 'prentices progressed beyond teaboy and general labourer they used to be a real cost to the business. Obviously, as they were learning they often messed things up, wasted materials, took too long to do a job etc etc. Why would anyone set them on? Well, eventually they became more skilful and became an asset rather than a liability. The employer began to get a payback for his investment. The indenture ensured that this investment return happened, and the length of the indenture reflected the time needed for the payback. Retaining them in the business after they 'came out of their time' as they used to say round here, was another matter, and some employers with very little training initiative benefitted at the expense of those who trained people up to skilled men/women.Nowadays, of course we have to do everything in a rush, so 5 year apprenticeships mostly just don't happen, and many jobs have been de-skilled anyway. I hear that the school-leaving age is to be raised to 18, the age of majority is also 18. The apprenticeships from age 16 to age 21 can't happen anymore. I will be very interested to see what the apprenticeship terms are in the forthcoming Monty Don TV program.Obviously we can't go back to the old days, but it is quite a problem to see just how to get those skills passed on. The model apprenticeship in your post Robin sounds a good starting point, but there is the funding aspect to be considered – isn't this where I began?

  5. Oxtails January 5, 2010 at 5:29 pm #

    I'm currently living in Germany and it seems to me that the 'old' apprenticeship system you describe remains more in tact here. One element which not mentioned in your post, is that this system is underpinned by ferociously protected professions as far as I can tell. So simply buying a white van, does not entitle you to call yourself a plumber or trade as a plumber here.It's worthwhile to consider potential apprentices and their needs in two separate groups. Namely, School Leavers and Career Changers. It seems to me that the traditional apprenticeship scheme you outlined, served the School Leaver group needs pretty well. They have time to learn and practice to perfection the skills required, and also to spend time gathering fresh innovations from other enterprises, in their Journeyman year. There is a structured set of proficiency tests of increasing difficulty as a learning framework and this provided continuous confirmation of ability and quality of work. True, financing is a problem, but in my opinion School Leavers had a disproportionally tough 2008/2009 and need all the support we can give them to make the tricky transition into meaningful employment. So I think priorities for this group would be:-Solve the financial issue (perhaps by a combination of parental contribution, redirected benefit payment, charitable trusts, low interest loans like students??)-Ensure that the competences required are transparent, appropriately taught, practiced and tested throughout.-Keep the basic model of a mixture of formal college courses (where appropriate) and practical mentored learning.-Keep some form of Journeyman experience, even if reduced in duration.However, when I think about the Career Changer group, the traditional model seems to be very poor indeed. Firstly, who among us has deep enough pockets to pay a mortgage and feed our families for 2-3 years, while we go off apprenticing and journeying? Secondly, the fundamentally 'full-time' nature makes it impossible to make any sensible transition between the first career 'day job' and the intended new career. I think then my priorities for this group would be closer to your recommendation Robin: -Availability of short (1-2 weeks) intensive courses that can be attended using annual holiday, alongside the day job -Encouragement and support (financial & literary if needed) for remaining talented craftsmen to get down on paper/DVD, good quality 'How to' Guides – like mentioned in the post for Blacksmithing for example. Should include clear descriptions of specific competency objectives in that craft – including both time and quality benchmarks. -A functioning Mentoring system – this is really powerful and I think vital for Career Changers. For most, they can attend short courses, read books, then practice 'at home' to hone the skills and improve speed and quality of work. But inevitably they will hit difficulties at home that did not seem to be there on the courses or are not covered in the books. I like discussion forums too, where experts kindly take time to answer newbie questions, but something about having an agreed, named Mentor, who will help you see it through, would be the best help possible. Agreed Mentors need to be recompensed for their time.-Freedom to start in business alongside the day job and perhaps before formal learning/modern apprenticeship is complete. By that I mean no protectionism preventing Career Changers starting in a small 'trial' way a business and selling products, even alongside the first career day job. I say 'let the market decide'. If my products are not of sufficient quality due to my lack of skill, I will find out pretty quickly that nobody will buy them.

  6. chrisvanaar January 5, 2010 at 8:12 pm #

    Hello Robin,A dutch story:After I got my A-level diploma, all things didn't go well. I failed to pass a entrance examination for creative teaching, military service waited and there was economical crises. I had some occasional jobs and was looking for something interesting as a apprenticeship in cabinetmaking, "only if you bring a bucket money along!". So I made a detour by using the possibility for jobless adults and went to "Vakopleiding voor Volwassen", followed classes carpentry for nearly 1 year and went to work as a "concrete carpenter". Because of the economic crises, they hired only a few builder`s labourers and a lot of carpenters, because a carpenter can do also plain builder`s labourwork but not vise-versa. There was a lot of scaffolding, concrete and dust and nearly no carpentry, and when the carcass was there, I was sacked, in dispite of the fact I was the best at the eveningclasses I followed besides. Fortunately my girlfriend, had a good steady job and encouraged my plan to get a cabinetmakers license, which was still required then. At that course I met 2 guys who had the same in mind and together we hired a part of the workshop of an old restaurateur, who was our teacher, on paper. As "self directed learners", I bought all the issues of "Fine Woodworking", a magnificent magazine then and all the literature I could get. In 1984 we started cabinetmakers "Kopshout" out of nothing. Kopshout made and still makes furniture on demand out of domestic solid woods. This was quite unusual then and only possible because all 3 of us had wifes with steady jobs.After 17 years I left because of chronic shoulderjoints problems caused by the hard work, it still is to earn a decent income as a cabinetmaker. Besides I didn't agree with the prospect to get apprenticeships (space and use of machinery) and to become a teacher for leisure cabinetmakers.Now I am a parttime woodturner and have a parttime job as planning employee, so I have managed to separate ambition and earning money!!!!! Chris van AarPS Look at fushimiurushikobo (1-16), perhaps an other way of apprenticeship?

  7. Robin Wood January 5, 2010 at 8:27 pm #

    Wow thanks for all the very interesting ideas and stories, very interesting to hear how things are in other countries too. Thanks for the link to the bamboo spoon vids Chris they are great. The internet does offer potential for learning, forums, youtube etc. I share a certain amount of my skills that way though it takes time to do and there is a limit to the understanding that can take place through video, for most it is voyeuristic like watching celebrity chefs but not cooking. My wife Nicola has a PhD looking at how tacit skills can be passed on using multimedia and the difficulty is that at any stage the learner is only open to absorb the next stage and a good teacher can package that information and tailor the level to the student. This can be done with video but it doesn't happen often. Again the forums are good because questions and answers can be tailored to the appropriate stage in the learning.

  8. doug Fitch January 5, 2010 at 10:40 pm #

    Hi RobinReally interesting discussion. Here's a scheme for apprenticeships in studio pottery. Lisa Hammond of Maize Hill Pottery is the driving force behind the 'Adopt a Potter' scheme. I believe that it's funded by donations. Here's the link to the site following is lifted from Lisa's site:-Adopt a Potter ' apprenticeshipsWHO: highly commitment and competent pottery students.WHAT: the trust is inviting applications from students seeking funding of £80.00 per week for one year to enable them to apprentice with an established, practising potter. Initially, funding is limited to applications from both apprentices and potters within the UK. Adopt a Potter Trust was set up to help secure the future of studio pottery by funding apprenticeships thus enabling students to work alongside a master potter. It is hoped that an apprentice will learn and develop some of the necessary skills required to establish their own career and business. Both the apprentice and the host potter will benefit from the arrangement but it is the apprentice who should gain most from this focused experience.DETAILS: Mazehill Pottery, The Old Ticket Office, Woodlands Park Rd, Greenwich, London SE10 9XECheersDoug

  9. Lee Love January 5, 2010 at 11:00 pm #

    I apprenticed in pottery 3 years with National Living Treasure Tatsuzo Shimaoka. I started at the age of 46 (I was the oldest person to have apprenticed with him.) I was paid well. He passed away in 2007, so that opportunity is no longer available. Talk to lots of people who have done apprentices.

  10. Karin Corbin January 6, 2010 at 1:22 am #

    I can take a hands on lesson in carving that Northwest Native bowl you recently finished and buy the bent knife to make it with within a few miles of where I live. My favorite hardware store in Seattle carries that kind of knives.Once people have shown initiative to get some basic training they can often find entry level positions which means on the job training for them.

  11. pfollansbee January 6, 2010 at 2:21 am #

    RobinAs you know, I work in a museum setting, so my livelihood is not dependent on selling my furniture. But the museum always has budget problems, thus I rarely have had apprentices. When I have had them (2 good ones, each only one year, essentially) they were paid (poorly) by the museum. They were both in their 30s, so "career-changers" as someone here termed them, though both were involved in woodworking. If I worked in the real world, instead of museum-work, it would not be practical to have an apprentice studying what I do…as you note, unless someone is paying you, any time you spend teaching someone is time out from making things…Much of my training took place in short-term workshops, then followed by solo work trying to apply what I learned…nowadays I think the easy availabilty of information really will make a difference. Time will tell. We'll have to see the next crop of weirdo craftsmen/women, how they come up, etc.

  12. The Bottomer January 7, 2010 at 10:53 am #

    Hi,You echo a lot of our concerns Robin. 14 years ago we were approached by parents asking if we would be prepared to train their 16 year old son. We agreed to give it a go. The lovely young lad came to us on Saturdays and midweek evenings to learn, in return for his freely given education he helped us with the mundane maintenance tasks in the workshop and at exhibitions. He is now 30 and still comes over once a week and voluntarily helps us at shows.That was then and it has been a wonderful experience. Unfortunately current HSE and employment law would make me think twice now. Kim (Former Glory)

  13. Karin Corbin January 8, 2010 at 1:48 am #

    This is a link to how one traditional old time trade is being kept alive. school teaches shipwrights methods used in the local area during the late 1800s and early 1900s. They are the only school in the world to focus on this. You could say that indeed the people in the course are paying for an apprenticeship. They pay master builders who learned this knowledge for previous generations who learned it from previous generations to teach them all the skills. The student apprentices work on real boats that will be sold upon completion. That helps keep the school open and helps purchase materials for the next project. Because there are now many skilled shipwrights trained at the school in Port Townsend, WA historic ships go the the community shipyards for repairs. Also new ship replicas are being built in the Puget Sound Region. There is a big wooden boat festival in town every fall which brings hundreds of wooden boats in along with vendors and thousands of visitor. A new Maritime Heritage Museum Center is currently being built in Port Townsend. The town already has the status of a registered, historic, Victorian Seaport. One of only two in the USA. A fine example of the potential for a symbiotic relationship of a community supporting a the teaching and practicing of a traditional craft and that craft in a very significant way supporting the local economy including tourism.Perhaps this great example will help you with persuading your contacts to support your programs.

  14. Robin Wood January 19, 2010 at 9:02 am #

    Just wanted to thank everyone for their thought provoking inputs here. It is very interesting to read about the situation world wide. Karin the boat school does look wonderful.

  15. Jutta Stiller January 20, 2010 at 4:25 pm #

    Hello Robin,It is fascinating to see the different ways that people have learned their skills.I suppose that I never thought about it too much as I started to learn from my dad at a very early age. He was, and I now am, a woodcarver specialising in bespoke hand carved picture/mirror frames, and as far back as I can remember I was allowed to go and play at the workshop. He made it a fun place to be, he cut blocks out of the wood for me to build things and encouraged me to think of things to make. He helped me to make the things I wanted to and eventually I progressed to being taught various parts of the jobs that he did and then how to work them out on my own.We did talk a bit about apprentices and he was of the opinion that he would not teach anyone apart from me as the time involved would be so great. He also felt that when he was teaching someone he spent most of his day making sure they had enough work and then he had to get his work done once they had gone home, not condusive to a good homelife! I can see now how lucky I am to have been taught like this, I do not think that I would be doing this job if it had not been 'on my doorstep'. I know of one degree course that teaches what I do, they have very few students each year, I think a maximum of 4. Other than that I wouldn't even know how to go about getting an apprenticeship or learning the necessary skills.I've been working out how I could pass on my skills but I haven't got a clue as yet how to go about it.All the best,Jutta

  16. ezikut custom tools August 29, 2011 at 9:56 am #

    The apprenticeship system was more or less intact in the colonies ie NZ, Australia up until the early 1980's When successive Federal Governments removed any or all the financial benefits to companies.I myself went through the system in a 5 year apprenticeship in the late 1960's as a Toolmaker.There are still a few companies who offer apprenticships in various trades here in Australia. But no where the number of what it used to be, so much so, we now have a severe shortage of skilled trades.This shortfall is now trying to be addressed by immigration with out much success.regardsH MackaySydneyAustralia

  17. Lee Love August 29, 2011 at 2:22 pm #

    We are pretty lucky in Minnesota. The Folk Craft and Tradtional Arts grant supports apprenticeships. I am applying for one of these. Please see the link below:

  18. January 8, 2013 at 9:10 pm #

    This has been an interesting read, thanks Robin!This comment comes from someone who is desperately seeking some way into the world of work as a skilled craftsperson other than university. I'm 21, currently on a Foundation Art & Design course, for which I've had to pay full fees (ouch), and I have already been to university to study maths and I dropped out after a year. I'm such a practical learner that I couldn't stand the way in which university managed to change all uni courses so that they had such an academic focus, rather than a practical skills focus.I would love to become an apprentice for 5 years. The fact is, I simply cannot find ANY crafts apprenticeships. I think you're right about some of the problems we need to address concerning apprenticeships. I would be more than willing to pay for an apprenticeship, providing there was some guarantee of a job at the end of it. Another HUGE problem though is that of accommodation whilst studying as an apprentice. I live in the sparse county of Lincolnshire where opportunities seem to have disappeared. Moving across country to become an apprentice would be exciting, but totally unfeasible if there was no cheap accommodation near by.Here's hoping the government will snap out of the uni mindset soon and start investing in other routes to employment.Regards, Beth

  19. Graeme October 26, 2013 at 11:07 pm #

    It seems to me it is a bit disengenuous to claim that taking on an apprentice would be a burdensome cost. Traditional apprentices spent their first weeks/months freeing up the Master and advanced apprentices from the mundane: sweeping, brewing the tea etc and were on hand to help with the unskilled tasks that are repetitive, tedious or require extra muscle. Jeremy the clog maker talks about how he doesn’t include the cost of retrieving the wood but with an apprentice he or you or Peter Follansbee could reduce the time that takes and quickly free yourselves from the task completely. However, I suspect none of you are ready to forego those tasks. I definitely can’t see Peter consigning himself to carving all day every day. Variety is the spice of life.
    Traditionally apprentices started on very low wages and learnt very little in the early part of the apprenticeship, yes they were a cost but they created value by increasing the productivity of the skilled workers. By the time they finished the apprenticeship they were paid much better than at the beginning but considerably less than the qualified tradesperson with the same skill set. So there is a payback at the end in fact more than a payback a tidy profit.
    If the apprentice is to pay and the govt. to subsidise the artisan then a traditional apprenticeship doesn’t fit. The apprentice is now a student and can expect to be learning and honing the skills of the craft on a daily basis. The govt. too can expect that the student will make steady progress and the artisan will need to lay out a schedule of learning. I’m 50 so not Gen Y but if I was paying I would expect this I would also feel some ownership of the things that I made, which also doesn’t fit with an apprenticeship, the whole point for the tradesman is to increase output and therefor profits.
    No disrespect intended but if an artisan or tradesperson thinks they should be paid to take on an apprentice who is going to immediately free up some of their time from the unskilled tasks and in the long-run double their output, that artisan is not ready for an apprentice. When the burden of too many orders, arthritis, back-strain or just a genunine desire to honestly pass on their skills and knowledge come along with a bit of luck a genuine candidate will come along too. Otherwise secure your craft through short courses for amateurs (some may become semi-professional) and just be generous with sharing your knowledge.

    • Robin Wood October 27, 2013 at 8:51 am #

      Thanks again for all the interesting comments. Graeme an apprentice in a workshop with 5-10 people can be useful from day 1. There is enough sweeping and tea brewing to do. In my workshop the non skilled tasks of that day would take 15 minutes. The thought that timber selection might be one of the unskilled tasks is horrifying. When I collect timber I am making choices that will make the next months work either a joy or a pain, same no doubt for Jeremy and Peter. I am not trying to be disingenuous simply explaining the reason why all of these self employed craftspeople do not take on apprentices. Since this post we have had the sector mapped by the government and that mapping shows that 78% of the sector are self employed and 77% are not passing on their skills. If the apprentices were so helpful I am sure it would be happening more.