The Bad and the Beautiful of Period Apprenticeships 

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Sometimes things do change for the better. We just hired two new apprentices at the Hay Shop at Colonial Williamsburg—they are not kids between the ages of 14 and 16, they do not work 72 hours a week for no wage, and they don’t sleep on my attic floor. Those were typical—and legal—apprenticeship conditions in the 18th century. It is easy for us to conjure up visions of period apprenticeship that are heavily romanticized: a young man peers over the shoulder of a caring master craftsmen who patiently reveals the art and mystery of his trade to the next generation while basking in golden, afternoon sunlight. While I’m sure this kind of scene did play out many times, it’s just as likely that the shop was dark, the master was a bumbling jerk, and the apprentice’s adolescent gaze was fixed on the neighbor girl across the way.  

In reality, each shop was not its own little North Bennet Street School, but rather a working business where making the next shilling superseded the need for the apprentice’s next lesson. The apprentice, then, was as much a source of cheap labor as a student. But this was explicitly the deal that was commonly laid out in the apprentice’s formal indenture (contract). Like with indentured servitude, the apprenticeship needed to be mutually beneficial to all parties concerned. Many indentures survive in records and most list a series of promises the young man or woman made to the master or mistress and vice versa. Typically, a master was responsible for teaching all branches of the trade, rounding out the apprentice’s education (reading, writing, basic arithmetic), providing room and board, clothing, and a proper moral upbringing. The apprentice, in addition to pledging obedience, promised to not do a long list of things like divulge the master’s secrets, frequent the ale houses, marry, gamble, fornicate, and all the other things that occupy the mind of your average 19-year-old. This agreement was usually binding for a period of five to seven years, though the length varied widely for many reasons.              

Considering how ubiquitous the apprenticeship system was in the 18th century, it is surprising that we know very little of what the daily life of an apprentice was actually like. But, then as now, mundane events often go unrecorded. While there are a few period writings that cover the general nature of apprenticeship, most of what we know comes from small clues embedded within descriptions of exceptional circumstances. Newspaper notices for runaway apprentices, court records of formal complaints leveled at masters by mistreated apprentices, personal journals, and artifacts all help fill in the details. Below are three of my favorite snapshots of 18th-century apprenticeship. Each is exceptional in some regards, but also typical in others.                 

The Bad Master 

Thomas Johnson (1723-99), whose work is pictured above, became one of Britain’s leading designers and carvers despite serving an apprenticeship under a master whom he described as “the worst carver I ever saw that had any title to the profession.” Unlike the vast majority of 18th-century craftspeople, Johnson left behind an autobiography—itself only discovered within the present century (published in the journal Furniture History, Vol. 39 [2003], pp. 1-64). Though he did not use the text to describe the daily life of an apprentice carver, Johnson gives some clues to the inadequacy of his training. Other English and American documentary sources show that many masters offered only as much training as was necessary to turn the apprentice into a semi-skilled source of cheap labor. Such a strategy had short-term benefits to masters, but limited the apprentice’s prospects for successful future employment. Johnson, feeling this anxiety in the final year of his term, recounted a rebellious confrontation with his master  

“I told my master he did not do me justice, having served six years, and no opportunity of learning more than I knew the first six months, and if he did not procure some means for my improvement, I would run away, and go to France: upon this he struck me, and though I had often felt his blows before, I was now pre-determined, if he struck to strike again. Provoked at the blow, which was a pretty hard one I returned it in his face, the receipt of which made his nose bleed: unfortunately for me a hair broom standing near, my mistress broke my head with it; upon this, my fellow apprentice knocked her down with his fist: her brother being in the house joined the fray, and a battle royal ensued. The shop being on the ground floor we soon got out and run off, and our master after us…”  

After three days, Johnson returned and reportedly finished out his indenture in peace and on good terms. His first paying job (at a low wage that reflected his training) was in a large London carving shop where Matthias Lock (one of England’s finest carvers and designers) was also employed. Fortunately for Johnson, Lock took him under his wing, seeing to it that his skills matched his natural ability rather than his initial training.  

The Bad Apprentice 

Not all apprentices who ran away came back or were much missed. Colonial newspapers are filled with ads for runaway apprentices. Bad masters, teenage temperaments, the promise of something better, along with any number of other reasons might cause an apprentice to break the legally binding indenture and run off. When this happened, masters often placed ads in local papers that described the runaway’s demeanor, dress, property, and so forth. Occasionally, the ads also offer a little glimpse into the nature of the student-teacher relationship.  

One of the more colorful examples from 18th-century Williamsburg was placed by carpenter James Gardner in the Virginia Gazette in 1773.  

“Run away from the subscriber, in Williamsburg, on Saturday the 13th instant (March) William Bolton and Charles Winfree Chandler: Bolton is about 18 years of age 5 feet 6 inches high, very clumsy, and has a sour countenance. Chandler is about the height of Bolton, 17 years of age, and has an agreeable countenance. Whoever conveys Chandler to me shall receive TWENTY SHILLINGS, and I hereby offer a reward of ONE HANDFUL of SHAVINGS to any person that will secure Bolton so that I may get him again.  

James Gardner 

N.B. They took with them a couple of two feet rules, which all persons are forewarned from purchasing, as also from harbouring or employing them. If Chandler will return of his own accord, I hereby promise not to give him the least correction.”   

A handful of shavings! One wonders what Bolton could have done to earn such a pre-Twitter public shaming from his master. Nonetheless, ads of this nature were fairly common during the period and prove to be one of the best—though fraught—sources of information on apprenticeship.  


When Things Go Right  

Sometimes apprenticeships didn’t end with a fist to the face or a fistful of shavings. Sometimes it was a chest full of tools and a promising future. Such was likely the case when English cabinetmaker Benjamin Seaton concluded his apprenticeship under his father, Joseph, in 1796. Because fathers and sons did not need formal indentures, the dates and details of young Seaton’s apprenticeship went unrecorded. His training likely concluded when he reached age 21 (a typical ending point for young men) in 1796. By December of that year his father had purchased him an extensive kit of cabinetmaker’s tools. On January 1st of 1797 Benjamin, now a journeyman, set to work on constructing a chest to house this generous gift. By April 15th, the chest, neatly executed and decorated with veneers of mahogany and tulip wood, was complete (a faithful replica of Seaton’s chest made by my former Hay Shop colleague Kaare Loftheim is pictured above). Clearly, Joseph had also given his son time and materials to make the chest in addition to the tools to fill it. While many indentures listed a sum of money—known as freedom dues—or goods worth that amount (typically a few tools and clothing) to be paid by the master at the end of the term, Benjamin seems to have hit the jackpot!

If you’re unfamiliar with this remarkable chest and its tools (they’re still together in the Guild Hall Museum in Rochester, England), its story is told in great detail by Jane and Mark Rees in their book on the subject (required reading for period furniture makers). Oddly, our knowledge of Benjamin Seaton’s cabinetmaking career lies solely within the tool chest. There are no other extant pieces that can be attributed to his hand and, most mysteriously, the tools in the chest appear to have been used very little. Benjamin likely took on a managerial role within his father’s business, but the details of his life, like those of so many who apprenticed in the woodworking trades, remain just beyond our reach.  

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Consulting With Prospective Clients

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Q: “How do you handle inquiries from prospective customers?” asks a reader. “Do you have any rules for design and project approvals? Do your drawings and color samples get signed and dated?”

A: Different woodworkers have different business models, not to mention varying degrees of interest in transparency. If you operate a full-custom business, as I do, each job requires a lot of input at the start. If you build to order, primarily from a portfolio of designs, your approach will likely be quite different.

I’ve learned to make the journey from first call or email to signed contract as streamlined and clear as possible, for my clients’ sake as well as my own. Here’s part one of how I roll.

Like many others, when I started my business I gave away a lot of time. I didn’t know any better. Those days were long before the internet and social media, which have made getting the word out so much easier and affordable; I simply needed income and didn’t have an established network of clients.

Someone would contact me about having a bookcase or entertainment center built. I met with them at their home (because most of my work is designed to complement its context) at no charge and with no strings attached, did scale drawings based on our discussion, and met with them again to go over the drawings and talk budget. Sometimes they asked if they could hold on to the drawings to think about them, and taking them at their word, I said yes. After hearing that a couple of these prospective clients had given my drawings to other cabinetmakers and had them build the jobs, I learned an important lesson.

When I started my business, I intentionally included the word “design” in my business name as a way of notifying people of my interest in design—i.e., to discourage those who might want me to mill lumber for them or build bathroom magazine racks with integral toilet paper dispensers from contacting me. This implication of my business name made it easier to transition to charging for meetings and design work.

Step 1: Initial contact

When a prospective client gets in touch by email or phone, I explain how I work. We have a brief discussion focused on two questions:

  1. What are they looking for? I ask them to describe the job they have in mind.
  2. Can we work together? We need to figure out whether their ideas and my capabilities will mesh. Ideas and capabilities encompass not just my skills and the tools I have available, but also any budget they may have in mind and their desired timeline. If their budget is unrealistic and they’re unwilling or unable to increase it, we know we aren’t going to be able to work together. The same goes for schedule: If they want a new kitchen by mid-March and I’m booked until December, I can tell them so and avoid wasting anybody’s time.

Step 2: Preliminary consultation

Local clients

If the prospective clients are local, I will schedule a consultation that can last up to two hours. I charge for this meeting; my current preliminary consultation charge is the equivalent of two hours of shop time. Why charge for only two hours, when that won’t cover the time spent getting to and from the meeting? I’m trying to strike a balance between covering most of my time while not setting the price bar too high at the outset and scaring potential clients away. (It happens.)

During the consultation we discuss their ideas. I make suggestions, which range from aesthetic and functional considerations to specific materials they may want to check out. I also typically take measurements and will sometimes do some rough sketches in an effort to get us on the same page. Sometimes this is all a client wants from me; at other times it’s the start of a significant business relationship, and that’s the main point, for me: While the preliminary consultation leaves the client with substantial information and ideas, it also provides me a chance to sell my work.

Clients who are more than about an hour’s drive away

If the prospective clients are more than an hour’s drive away, I usually charge an hourly fee for travel.

Out-of-town clients

If they are in another city, I charge by the day so that I get paid for travel time as well as the consultation. Some may balk at the idea of charging for travel time; I did, early on. Then I reminded myself that the 5 hours I spend driving to the north side of Chicago would be billable if I were drawing a commission or working in the shop. In other words, the travel time is costing me big bucks if I don’t charge for it. If you can afford not to charge for this time and prefer not to do so, good on you. I have to charge for it.

I also make clear that prospective clients need to pay for travel expenses such as airline tickets and overnight accommodations. Typically, I’ll schedule my drive or flight to allow for a substantial meeting on the day I arrive, then a follow-up the next morning. This gives the clients some time to mull over what we’ve discussed the first day and we can build on those ideas over breakfast.

While this may sound like a big investment for potential clients to make for a preliminary consultation, I do my best to provide good value so that even if we don’t end up working further together, they have some solid information and new ideas they can use with another cabinetmaker. In reality, most distance jobs requiring onsite consultation at this stage involve built-ins, so I take detailed measurements and discuss various possibilities for the job, depending on the clients’ ideas—in other words, we would have to cover all of this anyway, so the visit allows me to streamline the process. And in most cases to date, the visit has resulted in good work.

Step 3: Design and consultation

If a client wants to proceed after the initial consultation, I write up a formal proposal for design work. “Design,” I always point out, will include further consultation (there’s a lot of back and forth with my jobs, because I like to work closely with clients), research into materials and related products, and drawings. I charge for all of this by the hour. My design proposal states the scope of design work, and when relevant, includes a note about the anticipated schedule so that clients can factor my timeline into their plans for other work. My design proposal also states deliverables, i.e. scale drawings, a list of products for a kitchen remodel, etc.

In cases where the design work is separate from the build—i.e., where there is no telling whether I will be the one hired to do the build part of the job—I charge for this work at a higher rate than for my shop time. I bring decades’-worth of experience and perspective to the table; I don’t want to feel as though I am in effect giving away my ideas to other builders.

Finish samples

Depending on the job, I may provide finish samples at this point or at the next stage, when the job is under contract. I make these up in the shop, taking the process all the way through from bare wood to top coats, to ensure the samples are representative. I keep records of exactly which products I have used, ratios in cases of mixed colors, etc., and the order in which I have applied them. This information goes in the client’s file along with everything else (and incidentally, it’s very helpful to have in case a client ever wants further pieces to match). I ask the client to let me know her choice of finish in writing, so I have a record.

Step 4: The build proposal

When the bulk of design work is complete (which is not to deny that changes may be made as the job progresses), I can provide a reasonably accurate estimate of what the job would cost to build. Depending on circumstances, I either send an email with a figure or range of anticipated charges, then wait to see whether it’s in the ball park, or I just go ahead and write a detailed proposal. Because my proposals include a lot of specifications, they take some time to write; this is why I often send a quick email with the price estimate first; if it’s way too high, I can often rework the specs to work with the client’s budget.

Next time: What’s in the proposal?

Nancy Hiller is a professional cabinetmaker who has operated NR Hiller Design, Inc. since 1995. Her most recent books are English Arts & Crafts Furniture and Making Things Work, both available at Nancy’s website.

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Using SketchUp Layers to Visualize Design Variations

In my previous post I talked about some of the basics of layer usage in SketchUp. Now I’d like to show you a few ways to leverage layers to show some different things in your models.

In this video I’ll demonstrate how you can show different options in your model. In the example, I’ll change out the hardware on the cabinet below. Then I’ll show you a simple way to animate your model and for those using SketchUp 2019, I’ll show one way you can use the new dashes feature to show hidden details.

By the way, as part of setting up to show different hardware, I am leveraging a feature that allows you to replace selected components with other ones. In order to make this work quickly and easily, you need to make your components so they have the same relative insertion points. I did a blog post quite awhile back on this which you can see here.



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The Best Power Tool for Apartment Woodworking

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My home shop’s in the spare bedroom of my apartment—less than ideal, but it lets me woodwork, so I’m still pretty lucky. My apartment itself is the first floor of a converted house; a young couple and their one-year-old live above me. Because of noise concerns, I work mostly with hand tools—again, less than ideal, but it lets me woodwork. I recently finished a project that involved about 26 mortises. While I could have waited to chop those out by hand when the neighbors weren’t home, the proposition seemed hairy. If nothing else, it would have made the project even longer to finish, and I’m already pretty garbage with deadlines. (Don’t tell my boss.) Enter my favorite power tool for apartment woodworking: the hollow-chisel mortiser.

A unitasker taking up valuable space in a cramped room? Absolutely. Keep in mind it’s hard to do woodworking without mortise-and-tenon joints. Unfortunately, making mortises is, typically, pretty dang loud. But a hollow-chisel mortiser is whisper quiet—like a big cat purring. If you’re not familiar with the sound, it’s almost the same as a drill press. The only time it gets noisy is if the bit’s dull or not set up correctly, two things you should be avoiding regardless.

So if it’s as quiet as a drill press, why not just get a drill press, which is much more versatile? Honestly, I never took to mortising with one. The lack of control when paring a series of round holes into a rectangular mortise bothers me. While a mortise chisel (or bit) makes a mortise as wide as itself, mortising on the drill press involves boring holes slightly smaller than the mortise before paring to your lines. If I blow past these, though, my tenons can’t be uniformly thick. That’s pandemonium. With the mortiser, there is no such problem.

Tool Test: Benchtop Mortisers
These fast, accurate drilling machines
cut square holes easily

Well, what about a router with a fixed base and a plunge base? They’re outrageously versatile and probably more affordable—so definitely more bang for the buck. The catch is they’re as loud as a pack of banshees. Plus, routers vomit dust and chips, and seeing as my shop is right off my bedroom, I want to keep things clean. A shop vac would help, but again, noise.

That left me with a hollow-chisel mortiser. I picked mine up used for $175 and haven’t looked back, especially after setting it up with the help of Rollie Johnson and Matt Wajda. It’s afforded me a level of freedom, speed, accuracy, and repeatability that are hard to beat, especially in a hand-tool shop.

Can’t beat these results with a stick—and at 8pm, no less.

Next up is a bandsaw—just as soon as I find a place to put it.

N.B.: For what it’s worth, I do have a benchtop planer. That lives in the shared basement, where it’s in a box when not in use. It’s hands-down my favorite power tool, but it’s crazy loud, making it a fairly firm no-go for apartment dwellers. If you can make it work, though, get one before any other power tool.

For more on hollow-chisel mortisers, click these links:

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STL187: Desert Island Dream Projects

Question 1:

From Paul:
Heide Martin’s serving trays in the May/June 2018 are beautiful and I have since made a couple. My question is about keeping the bottom boards flat. I cut some walnut that had been air dried for probably 20 years. In an hour or two both boards cupped. I then sequentially tried wetting one side, wetting both sides, soaking in water, soaking in fabric softener, each time clamping the boards to keep them flat and leaving for days and days to dry out. None of these things worked and in the end I ended up using some walnut plywood instead. How do you folks keep wide, thin boards flat?

Question 2:

From Richard:
In reality we all have limited amount of shop time available.  However, if the amount of time you could work on a project was not limited what one piece would you choose to make?

Segment: All-Time Favorite Technique

Mike: Using pocket holes to quickly make and change full-size mockups

Tom: Beveling an edge of a workpiece with a handplane

Ben: Riding the back of the blade to start a cut on the edge of workpiece

Question 3:  

From Mark:
I have been building furniture full-time for just over a year. Is it legal and/or ethical to build something from the magazine or a video workshop and then sell it? For instance, if a client asks me to build 4 Adirondack chairs, my thought is build them loosely based on what I find at Fine Woodworking, vs. reinventing the wheel with my own design every-time.

Question 4:

From John:
I was reading a FWW article by Steve Latta in issue #241 about draw-bored tenons where he said, “I make pins from riftsawn or quartersawn stock…”. If you’re making dowels, how can it possibly make any difference whatsoever if you use quartersawn or plain sawn boards?

I still like Steve Latta, btw.  Keep up the great work, see y’all at FWWlive!

Every two weeks, a team of Fine Woodworking staffers answers questions from readers on Shop Talk Live, Fine Woodworking‘s biweekly podcast. Send your woodworking questions to [email protected] for consideration in the regular broadcast! Our continued existence relies upon listener support. So if you enjoy the show, be sure to leave us a five-star rating and maybe even a nice comment on our iTunes page.

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Silicone is Swell

Truth be known, I am a bit of a sentimental person. Although for some reason my emotional temperature really revved up after I turned 40-something. I’m told this is a natural part of the aging process. You know … like your brain becoming as smooth as a cue ball and your joints filling up with sand. (Mother Nature, you are a mean one!)

But in the last couple of years, my tendency toward the tender has yielded a sweet benefit. After I lost my tungsten wedding ring (in a pile of sawdust, if you must know) I replaced it with a silicone wedding ring … and it is the clear deal for all of us who work with our hands. First of all, silicone rings will rip apart if caught in a ladder or similar situation that could endanger your finger. Second, they are inexpensive — I have lost three more wedding rings since my metal one went missing. (Not my fault! I am just active!) And third, they look great.

So, save your finger and keep love alive with a silicone wedding ring. Better than sliced bread! (Or a sliced finger …)

Rob Johnstone, Woodworker’s Journal

2019 Online Exhibition of Turned and Sculpted Wood

2019 Online Exhibition of Turned and Sculpted Wood

The fourth annual Turned and Sculpted Wood exhibition is currently on display at the online Wood Symphony Gallery. (Click through to view the entire exhibition.)

Plentifulness the Coliseum by Steven Florman [above: Double Vision Spine by Jim O’Donnell]

Curated by Larisa Safaryan, the exhibition features over 140 pieces created by 60 artists from across the United States, France, Germany, Sweden, Israel, Japan, Australia and more.

Strain by Rebecca DeGroot

Wood Symphony founder Larisa Safaryan is the daughter of wood artist Nairi Safaryan, whose work was shown at Los Angeles’s Del Mano Gallery prior to the death of the founders; Larisa had worked with del Mano’s Raymond Leier on online exhibitions.

Whale Tail by Ian Bell

Natural Finish for Softwoods

Natural Finish for Softwoods

Rob Johnstone explains How to Apply a Natural Finish on Softwoods.

How to apply this finish:
1. Sand the project up through the grits until at least 220-grit
a. It is a good idea to sand pieces that will be hard to reach before assembly.
2. Wipe the project with mineral spirits to check for glue splotches
3. Apply a sealer coat (Zinsser Sealcoat) of a shellac-based finish by wiping: flooding the surface with finish and wiping it off.
4. If you have any nail holes, cracks or defects in the wood, fill them now with a wood filler putty that matches the color of the oiled wood (sand smooth)
5. Apply at least two coats of a wipe-on polyurethane
6. Optional: After the finish has cured for 72 hours, apply a coat of high-quality paste wax and then polish it off.

Makita Cordless Coffee Maker

Makita Cordless Coffee Maker

Makita’s commitment to creating a completely cordless jobsite now can extend even to your favorite fresh brew with the 18V LXT®/12V Max CXT® Cordless Coffee Maker. No paper filters are needed, just your favorite ground coffee or single-serve pack, water and a Makita 18V lithium-ion battery and charger. It will brew up to three 5-ounce cups of coffee on a single charge of an 18V LXT 5.0Ah battery (sold separately). It is also compatible with both Makita 12V Max CXT® and 18V LXT® lithium-ion batteries.

The coffee maker is under 9 in. tall and has a 3-1/2-in. cup clearance. It will brew a 5-ounce cup in five minutes when powered by an 18-volt LXT battery. The unit has boil dry protection that automatically turns the coffee maker off if there is not enough water. With a 5.0 Ah battery installed, the coffee maker weighs 4.8 lbs.

Makita’s 18V LXT Cordless Coffee Maker (item DCM501Z) is currently available for pre-order and will sell for $99.99. Makita covers your purchase with a three-year warranty.

Gardening Tool Turning Kits

Gardening Tool Turning Kits

Rockler’s new Gardening Tool Turning Kit includes a hardened-steel trowel, transplanter and cultivator; you turn the handles from the wood species of your choice in a size and shape that best fits your hands. The trowel has a curved, 2-3/4-in.-wide blade for general digging, planting and rooting out difficult weeds. The transplanter has a tightly curved, 2-in.-wide blade with markings up to 4 in., so you can plant to precise depths. The three-pronged hand cultivator will help to loosen soil, rake in soil amendments and remove weeds. All three tools have a matte stonewashed black oxide finish.

Rockler recommends turning the handles 6 in. long from 1-1/2-in.-square blanks (not included), but you can make the handles any length or proportion you like. Bore a 21/64-in. hole for the tool shanks and then glue them into the handles with epoxy.

The new Gardening Tool Turning Kit (item 63703) is available now and sells for $49.97. Or, you can purchase each tool individually for $19.99.