Big news, I have an apprentice.

I have written before about the problems of apprenticeship into the crafts in the UK today.

I was often been asked why I didn’t have an apprentice and also folk would write to me and ask if they could come and learn from me. I have had various folk come from time to time and stay a while exchanging work for knowledge, from a business point of view that has rarely worked out for me though I have other friends particularly where they can offer free accommodation where that system has worked better.

The problem is that the folk that wish to learn want to come  and have me teach them, that takes my time so when I teach I charge for it. Folk think that they can help me and make a contribution to the business but in reality there are no unskilled parts to the job and if there were then doing repetitive unskilled work is not what folk want, they want me to teach them.

I remember discussing this problem with Walsall saddler Frank Baines. He employed 12 people many of whom had been with him 15 years or more. He said he had a stream of folk from around the country wanting to learn saddlery with him but they always would stay a year or two then leave to set up on their own. This meant the business had lost out because that first year or two the employee is really a bit of a liability and it’s only later they really start to be productive. Apprentices always overestimate their own value and ability.

Frank however told me he had found the solution was not to take on folk that desperately wanted to be saddlers, instead he took on young local people who just wanted a job. They worked hard, did not mind repetitive tasks and as time went on they grew to love the nature of craftwork and be proud of the skills they developed.

So in the run up to last Christmas I started employing part time a local lad to help pack parcels and do the mail order.  Zak was hard working, very efficient, thorough and did not make many mistakes. Soon I started training him to grind knife blades and do some simple woodwork tasks. Now I have taken him on full time and so far it is working out really well for both of us. He lives in the village which is a huge benefit, loves the work, enjoys the perks of the job such as free tickets to Glastonbury festival and flexible working hours to fit round a young persons social life. As time goes by he is gradually learning more aspects of the job, he has forged some tools, helped with carving some big bowls, and cuts out my bowl blanks on the bandsaw. I pay him a proper wage not the few pounds an hour of a government “apprenticeship” scheme and he is well worth it.

Here is Zak at Glastonbury in his hollowed out mellon mask, later that night he was to be found dancing with Bez “twisting my mellon man”DSC_0285



7 Responses to Apprenticeship

  1. Tiffers August 16, 2015 at 3:24 pm #

    I love teaching people but like you have said, teaching costs money. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have written to me asking if they can be an apprentice but not realising just what that entails. I love the way you’ve gained your apprentice though, it seems like a very solid and sensible way to go. One day I think I’d like to be in that position.

    Mind you, I wouldn’t be a Master Saddler now if someone hadnt believed in me when I was 16 and I wrote to them asking if they took on apprentices…..

  2. Ty Thornock August 17, 2015 at 5:34 am #

    Fantastic! Glad it is working out for you. In many ways I think this is more how apprenticeships were run. Kids getting a job and learning a skill over time.

  3. Erin Needham August 17, 2015 at 11:14 pm #

    Wow! A Happy Mondays reference from a guy who turns bowls on a pole lathe…now, that’s twisting MY melon!

  4. graeme August 20, 2015 at 11:20 am #

    Good on you Robin,
    Great that you have found a way to make an apprenticeship work for you and your ‘apprentice’ albeit informal.

  5. John Farthing October 21, 2015 at 11:14 pm #

    If it isn’t too much of a trade secret I would very much like to know what seasoning is required before you carve a spoon for instance. How long are your billets of wood left to dry out . ?
    I am not going into the production of spoons ! but I do like to attempt to make walking sticks (about two a year)
    Regards John farthing

    • Robin Wood January 19, 2016 at 2:41 pm #

      spoons are best carved from completely fresh wood, sticks are best seasoned

  6. Dan Bell November 19, 2015 at 11:36 am #

    What a great experience for you both. It is nice to find youth with interest in traditional crafts but I think the nicest thing about this, is that you have managed to take on a local lad in an area where such opportunities are very limited to say the least.