“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?

Author Robin Wood

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