Apprenticeship

When I was eighteen, I had the good fortune to meet a master builder who had an unusual apprentice program. The deal was this: a two-month trial with pay for the apprentice at minimum wage. During this probation period, each apprentice was taught very basic skills, and was provided with lots of laborious tasks. At the end of the two months, the apprentice was given a evaluation of how well he or she had acquired the skills taught, what the aptitude of the apprentice was for mastering new skills, and most important how well the apprentice managed his or her time. This all happened on active job sites working with other apprentices, and occasionally a journeyman who had gone to the next level. The system was, as far as I know, unique to this particular master builder, who had learned it from his father.
          At the end of the two-month trial period an apprentice would either, be asked to leave, or to continue his or her apprenticeship. As the apprentice mastered more skills, and became more useful, his or her pay slowly increased. The goal was to be tapped as a likely journeyman, which meant the same workload as the other apprentices but that you were also expected to learn additional skills. Journeyman were sent out to jobs, or parts of jobs, on their own, checking in only when necessary. They also were assigned the most highly skilled work on larger jobs and were paid more as well.
          I signed on as an apprentice initially because I needed a job to pay for college and was hoping to learn some craft as well. My apprenticeship and eventual move to journeyman, not only helped pay for college, but ended up being a profoundly important part of my creative education as well.
          Working for Lucky (my master) was an amazing experience. He was uncompromising about producing work of the highest quality, and he had extremely high expectations for those of us who worked for him. He expected his apprentices to be well-spoken, well read, and present themselves as professionals. We had a dress code, were expected to provide certain of our own tools and they were to be kept sharp and in proper working order, and woe betide the apprentice who failed in any of these respects. He had a very short fuse, and being “chewed out” by Lucky was not an experience one wanted to repeat, particularly because he had absolutely no qualms about telling you exactly what he thought of your work or behavior at high volume and in public. He could also be generous and took time to point out quality work and give due credit in public as well. I was fortunate in that I managed to dodge most of his worst tirades, but I was also a quick learner and really appreciated what he was trying to teach.
          The reward for being a quick learner was that Lucky singled you out to work with him, which was also intense. His talent, and patience, as an instructor more than made up for his short fuse and mercurial temperament. Articulate, and direct, his teaching sessions were rich with pearls of wisdom and hands-on demonstrations. “See the whole project”, he would say, “not just the interesting bits”. Another of his pearls was; “There are no shortcuts, just more efficient ways to do each step of the job at hand”. While he was working with you, he expected your undivided attention; but if you provided this, he treated you as his equal. The jobs and the skills were constantly changing and his knowledge of craft was seemingly inexhaustible. Whatever was called for, making hand made clapboards with froe and drawknife for an historic home, recreating 18th century moldings, mixing horsehair plaster from scratch, or timber-frame restoration, Lucky would produce the tools and skills needed and tackle the job as though it was just another day’s work, which I suppose it was. The sheer chemistry he knew about paint was by itself an education.
          The jobs varied enormously. We worked in several very well known museums and worked on notable homes maintained by historic preservation societies, but we also worked on ordinary homes that needed a new deck, or a new roof, or a simple addition. Regardless of the job, what Lucky required and expected, was efficiency and quality; anything less was substandard work.
          As the years have passed, I have come to realize how indebted I am to Lucky. In some ways, the education I got from him rivaled what I was learning at Universities in Boston and Florence. My apprenticeship was a time of revelations. Each day seemed to bring with it exposure to some new craft or aspect of craft, challenge, sometimes drama, and often humor.  I was conscious of the fact that, as an artisan, I was being weaned of some terribly sloppy and unproductive work habits. What I was unaware of at the time, was that Lucky was subtly indoctrinating me with disciplined work habits, and an appreciation for organization. For those lessons in particular, I am very grateful.

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