Welcome to the site; I hope you find it informative. I'll discuss a wide variety of trades-related topics that reflect my own path in the trades, and issues relevant to what is happening with the new "College of Trades" here in the province of Ontario. Be sure to check older posts, and I'd welcome your comments


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Memories of "Old Woodworking Machines"


2612 Old Woodworking Machines
Beautiful belt-driven nineteenth century machines still make window sashes in this New York shop.

I'm 60, not 160, but tonight I feel like it; transported back to my childhood. I wrote earlier about growing up in a small Ontario town next to a blacksmith shop, and riding a horse drawn milk wagon home from after school. Well, at about the age of 8, I remember Dad taking me to a lumber yard that had an old sash factory, with mortice machines and long overhead shafts, long belts looping and twisting to each of many machines. This was about 1957, when the plant was already long obsolete, but it was intact. Not so long after, I'm sure, the machinery would have been dismantled and scrapped.

The above video illustrates just such equipment, much of it dating back to the 1860's when such mechanization would, as I understand it, have just begun to replace hand work, and others more automated from the 1920's. During these times, sash and furniture factories would have been scattered across towns and cities and would have employed many and used local lumber. I hope you don't mind my reminicing, and regretting not having paid more attention, in the 1950's and more recently, when "The Woodwright Shop" was broadcast in our area and I wasn't astute enough recognize the significance. As an afterthought, the shop would never be allowed to operate today; it was far too dangerous!

How I Experience Craft

These photos are of the main electrical room of a large country home, where I was asked to clean up the work of a previous contractor. 400 amp main service, seven panels throughout the house and several control system panels, and a lot of buried wiring. The first task took over 40 hours in 4 days, to tear apart the entire existing service as shown in the bottom picture, "during" in the middle picture (over 70 panel feeds) and finished in the top picture. The results certainly impressed the second general contractor who brought us in on the job.

Must-See Workmanship, Peter Follansbee


I'll let Peter comment. Speaks well for craft work today to know artisan's like him work so arduously at meticulous restoration of "lost arts". All with hand tools only.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Journeyman’s Way

I thought it might be interesting to put myself back in the place of a new apprentice for a moment. It doesn’t hurt, once in a while, to remember what it’s like on the first day. I well remember mine.

There was more serendipity involved than careful career choice for me. My father was a carpenter as well as a minister, had been an air force mechanic; and I spent six years filling shelves in grocery stores and desperately wanted a more challenging career, but although I knew carpentry I questioned the job security of a non-restricted trade. A friend of a friend knew a contractor who needed a new electrical apprentice, and I hired on at a substantial pay cut. Mid July, 1974, I showed up for work with next to no tools and found I needed more than just a hammer. Over the next few weeks I bought a new pair of steel-toed boots, hacksaw, brace and bit, assorted screwdrivers and pliers, and set about learning some new-to-me tricks of the trade.

Although I wasn’t a stranger to tools, as most young people are today, it seemed as though I’d stumbled upon a completely new subculture. Even the laughter and anecdotes shared around a sandwich at lunchtime was laced with a lingo I’d never heard before. Romex? (wire used in houses); banjo (round mouthed shovel; red driver (screwdriver for #8 screws) 14/2, panel box, fuse block. So many terms, tools, material. Every trade has its’ own conventions. For example, “back on black” is used when running a “switch line” from a light where there is power. You use a two conductor cable, the white wire connects to the power in the ceiling, down to the switch and “back on black” to the light. By following conventions like this, another electrician following immediately knows what to expect when removing a fixture and checking out the wiring.

All of these conventions are important. Some are enforced by code; since almost all jurisdictions enforce electrical safety inspections. Others are good practice. For instance, in our area it’s approved to join two or three solid wires together just by holding the wires with the ends even and twisting a wire nut onto them securely. However, a joint is more secure if the wires are twisted first with a pair of pliers and trimmed before twisting on the wirenut, and also they will stay together if the wirenut is removed for testing. In some cases, this is a significant point when troubleshooting. Commonly, wires come apart while moving them in the box after removing the cover. It’s also always been true that good practice exceeds code requirements. Codes are a minimum.

The new apprentice learns to do these tasks a certain way, because the journeyman he works with wants him to work well within limits of safety. Safety issues are emphasized; neatness and workmanship are drilled in, as is language and demeanour and courtesy when working in a customer’s home or office. He learns what parts are called, where they are in the truck, and to sort out tools and stock at the end of the day. He learns how to set a ladder firmly on soil or a floor, and sharpen a drill bit after it has cut off a few nails. Once he’s learned what common parts are for, he’ll be sent for parts and coffee on a regular basis. And he’ll be the butt of some shop humour for his mistakes and blunders. And some anger and frustration as the journeyman tires of correcting, answering the same questions again, or checking on progress and finding none, because the apprentice didn’t want to admit he didn’t understand what was requested.

So the first month feels a lot like a bad dream; one in which you find yourself attending someone else’s family reunion. Everyone knows each other, but you; you’d really like to know what’s going on, but struggle as you may, the frustration is continuing. After a few weeks, you, the journeyman and the boss will want to know if you “are working out”. Not everyone is cut out to be a tradesman, and even if you are, you and the journeyman may not be as good fit. All trades are highly demanding, mentally and physically, and place high levels of responsibility on the shoulders of workers. Before long you’ll be expected to work with a minimum of supervision and often little in the way of briefing about what a particular job may entail. Other times, such as when you are working on a large building project, you will need to follow direction from a variety of people, adjust your work to not conflict with others, and be conscious of the safety of others at all times while working.

In time, the struggles and hard work will ease, and productivity and quality of output will improve. Fellow worker’s, and other trades will make positive comments, and once in a while you’ll get as good felling of everything working together and making sense. The mistakes won’t end, but there will be fewer, and you will be able to find ways of dealing with unexpected errors on your part and others.

The journeyman’s way, one that is not visible to the novice setting out the first week, is a long one, and one that by no means ends with “getting one’s ticket”, “C of Q” as the certificate of qualification is called that is granted when an apprentice has completed all three stages of trade school and the required 4 to 5 years, and then finally passed a state or province wide test. While formal schooling is over and the journeyperson is able to work independently and with live power, proficiency will continue to improve and work will become easier, over the next 10, 15, and 20 years. And that’s how a master is made. Well on in the journey; when the worker doesn’t do, as much as being, a trademan.

A Case for Atavism

An atavist is a term sometimes used to refer to someone who endeavours to reintroduce methods and ideas as they were used in the past. One individual who illustrates atavism in a very interesting and positive way is PeterFollansbe (http://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/ ). Since picking up the interest during in the 1970's, Peter has focused on researching, practicing and teaching how to work with wood strictly with hand tools, using methods as were in common use during the 1600's.

Peter and others like him have put to rest the old saw about "skills lost forever"; and have demonstrated that makers of the past were not only very productive, efficient, but predated many of the routines of standardization and preassembly that are widely used in shops today. (Read some of the comments on his site about speed and productivity in carving).

Though it may seem odd that I would be finding so much in common with Peter when he exclusively works with his hands, rejecting any power tool shortcuts, when I "can't work" without the latest cordless tools, I find much of interest in how he approaches and connects with wood, making, and tools. Like all tradespeople, I depend on my hands for the work I do. Like Peter we rely on complex routines and subroutines deep in the subconscious combine to enable smooth action as work is being performed.

Several things come to mind while considering Peter's work. First, similar to a farmer close to the earth while ploughing his field with horses, his choice of methods affords him a connectedness; with tools and with material. Peter begins a project with a solid block of wood, using a wide bladed "hatchet" to split and plane the wood to produce a board (instead of simply cutting one readily available to length.

From the moment he makes his first cut into the wooden block based on the direction of grain he maintains full control of how the surface of the wood will appear when finished. For example, while he could have begun by simply ordering quarter-sawn lumber, with the first slice of the block with the razor-sharp axe edge, he has deftly guided the process with an intimacy of mind, hands, material and tools. This happened in a way that would appear to an observer to be effortless, but is actually a symphony that can summed up by what we call craft. Another term that is ideally illustrated here is "intelligent making", a term I've borrowed and used often. Further, true craft mastery doesn't consist of continuously reducing and eliminating tasks. As an example, I could begin making a pine table by purchasing a pre-laminated block of pine.

Peter's choice of the seventeenth century is significant because that period preceded the effects of technological advancement on tools and methods. One Bible commentator suggested the image of Jesus of Nazareth heading out to the countryside to select a wood source from which to hew a yoke he was fashioning for a customer. As recent as the early part of the last century, one could travel the Middle East and find farming and other professions being done exactly as centuries before.

Mastery does involve continuous regard for tradition and content with a focus on right and appropriate methods and devices. One should if possible exceed the efforts of previous masters. In Peter's case, perfection involves more perfect replication of old methods, not replacement of them as we might today.

Again, should we all become atavists? Certainly not. I don't want my mechanic hand-filing from blocks of metal the parts he needs to repair my truck. But there is, however, much in Peter's work to illustrate what we all experience to a lesser degree; the connectedness of hand, mind and tools, regardless of whether they are powered by battery or human effort.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Craft Knowledge: Undercurrents

The results of craftwork have been admired since antiquity; but not always the doing. The ancient Greeks openly disdained hand work. A Chinese Emperor from around the Eleventh Century made a point of trying to learn some of the trade secrets of the artisans within his realm, whose work attracted his admiration and fascination; to little avail. Visitors to pioneer villages, where demonstrations are given of various pioneer crafts that once were common to farm communities, also draw curiosity; but perhaps not to the degree that would lead to genuine appreciation.

Nicholai A. Bernstein, the Russian neurophysiologist whose work I've discussed before, put it right when he said that watching a master at work fools us into feeling that we could easily replicate what we are seeing. However, without having the advantage of schooling or self-learning, and 10,000 hours of meaningful practice, we would make as big fools of ourselves as we would by going into a tournament foursome which included Tiger Woods with the media following behind (as one Toronto executive learned the hard way some years ago).

It's not likely that a casual chat with a guest craftworker would make you any wiser than the emperor of a millenia ago, and for a very good reason. The craftworker's wisdom, like an iceberg, lies predominently below the surface. What the intelligentia know is largely 'an open book', and someone with enough time (as did Karl Marx and others)could spend a decade in good libraries and emerge well educated, as long as we were reasonably selective and productive. And we could I would assume be able to articulate what we had learned and write about it. But craft knowledge is in contrast predominantly tacit knowledge, meaning that even craftworkers don't always know what they know, unless they are exceptionally self-aware, self-monitoring, about their skills and the reasons for their selections and methods.

As a brain function, intellectual activity centers in the area behind the forehead, the frontal lobes. That is where conscious, deliberate thought takes place. If I intend to do something, my frontal lobes are active, making decisions and choices; but when I awake in the morning, get ready for work, mercifully getting out of bed and performing morning rituals does not require my deciding what to do. (Age helps too!) I'll have checked the clock a few times, then find myself doing one of the several things needful to be ready to go out the door.

Few craftworkers or artisans write about the experience of "watching themselves working"; thereby seeing what others watching them see. I've had other tradesmen say to me, "That's not the first time you've done that!", meaning, the work I (like any experienced worker) was doing flowed, without undue hesitation, whereas they themselves wouldn't have known even what material to buy for the job, without planning. Therefore, planning a small electrical installation would have been taxing on the frontal cortex ("That gave me a headache!") whereas 35 years experience means it presents no challenge. Occasionally bosses, even highly educated ones, can't ask you to do something they can plan themselves. Sometimes, humourous, sometimes frustrating.

(in progress)

Saturday, September 5, 2009

History: Craft Knowledge First in Print

I've just been given the link to a very interesting site, and i'd like to pass it on. (Thanks Kari)


This site, dedicated to old books and literature, features reprints of a very old book by Joseph Moxon on trades methods. It is considered by the site host to be the first printed book on trades skills, something we now take for granted. In 1703 there would be no benches in home Depot where one might have trade knowledge passed on for free. and that would be for a very good reason. Prior to the Great Fire of London, 1666, which wiped out a great deal of the city of London, skilled trades and their knowledge were strictly controlled by individual guilds, now known as unions.

For centuries before, all through Europe novices would be sworn to secrecy, because what a tradesman knows is his livelihood, how he makes his living. An early mason would make his own tools (read "Pillars of the Earth" by Ken Follett) but his knowledge was his bread and butter. I believe that this was also true many centuries before, because the use of craft terms in the Bible alluded to "craftiness, sleight of hand, hidden knowledge" suggesting that one's knowledge wasn't shared with others.

In this way, guilds kept tight control, and if a job needed to be done or a building constructed, the guild supplied the master builders, labourers, carpenters and masons to get the job done and contend for fair wages for the tradespeople.

The great fire of London, however, changed that forever, as there were not enough trained workers available, and once the doors were opened, they were not shut again, as the newly trained cohorts went back into the countryside after the rebuilding had been done. Joseph Moxon was a very interesting character; as the free portion of the reprint of his book tells, a prolific author and the first tradesman allowed into the Royal Scientific Society". I hope I've piqued your interest! It's good to remember what life was like. Dave