Crafting a Life – Episode 13

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Hello, and welcome to Crafting a Life.
I’m Evan Dunstone and this is the Dunstone Design podcast
Episode 13, “Giving it a Red Hot Go”

As you can imagine, a lot of people ask me “how could I, or my child, become a professional craftsman?” Sometimes this starts with an anxious parent contacting me for advice, sometimes it is a mature age person asking “how did you do it”? Often they come out to the showroom and we have a bit of a chat. I’m always happy for this sort of discussion, because you never know where the next craftsman will come from. And, Frankly, I feel compelled to dissuade as many people as possible.

What’s this, an employer trying to talk potential staff out of a career?

Let’s imagine I was a professional tennis player. For the sake of a giggle, let’s pretend I’m Leyton Hewatt (if you’ve ever seen me play tennis, this would be funnier). What must Leyton say when some bright eyed amateur asks for advice? My guess is that he says something along these lines; “you must really, really want it. And even then, despite everything, the chances are that you will not be good enough”.
How many Australian craftsmen make a full time living making fine woodwork? Let’s exclude all other forms of income such as teaching, and of course we are talking about the good stuff, not general furniture. Would it be 1000 makers? Not a chance. Could it be 100? I doubt it. Depending on how you want to classify “quality”, the number is probably somewhere between 50 and 100 out of a population of roughly 23 millions. So, fantastic odds. But it is possible, so, how?

Just recently I had a young man and his parents in my showroom asking me what they should do to break into the industry. In episode 7, Love over Gold, I spoke about “why”, but I didn’t really go into how.

So, here we have a bright young man who likes working with his hands and who doesn’t fit the school system.  He loves the idea of making fine furniture like he sees in Australian Wood Review or Fine Woodworking. He’s read Sam Maloof and James Krenov and perhaps Gerge Nakashima (for some reason they have never read Alan Peters, and he is the one to list to!).

Most young people, and most parents, don’t have a clue where to begin. Quite often the young person just wants to “make” and they really don’t know anything about furniture. They want to work wood and enjoy the process. They are not that focused on what the end result might be, or who might buy it, or what a good employee would look like, or whether they were interested in owning a small business.

I can hardly blame them. I wouldn’t have had a clue at 16 or 17 about being a craftsman and my parents wouldn’t have been any more knowledgeable. I didn’t discover fine woodwork until I was in my mid-twenties (almost too late, as it happens) and I had given very little thought towards furniture prior to that. I am frankly surprised when anyone under 20 has a clear vision of wanting to make furniture, yet they certainly exisit.
Alex MacFarlane, my workshop manager, knew in Primary School that he wanted to be a chairmaker. He famously told his favourite primary school teacher that one day he was going to be the best chairmaker in Australia. 15 years later sent her a beautiful Cataract rocker in fumed jarrah to show that he had meant what he said. Alex started with me as a 17 year old. Rolf Barfoed, who recently left us to establish his own studio, also knew at school that he wanted to make furniture. He finished year 12 and went straight into a quality apprenticeship. We have just taken on an apprentice who has dropped out of a prestigious private school half way through year 11 because this is really what he wants to do. These are the sort of guys who make it. I’m not advocating leaving school, I am simply pointing out that you must really, really want it.
Imagine if the same question had been “I want to become a carpenter”. How many carpenters make a good living in Australia? More than 100, I can assure you. And do you have to be truly exceptional just to survive as a carpenter? With the greatest respect to carpenters everywhere, the answer is no. Good enough is, well, good enough.

There is no clear path and no “one best way” to pursue the craft. No particular training or approach will give you a career trajectory. The most important skill that you can bring to the table is work ethic, or should I say, the motivation to work.

Enjoying the commercial pace of work is critical to enjoying the life of a professional craftsperson. It is very hard to gauge if you have this desire until you have already committed a lot of time and effort to the craft. If you find commercial pressure repellent, you will find it impossible to find a niche as a professional craftsperson. All my team takes great pride in their speed; for them this is actually part of the fun, a bit like a professional shearer.  No one will pay you (either as a client or as an employee) to be slow and/or inefficient. It is almost impossible for a young person approaching the craft as a career to have much concept of such issues.

There are, I suppose, four ways to approach the craft professionally. The first, and easily the best, is to be apprenticed to a master. The obvious problem is that there are very few such apprenticeships available. As previously mentioned in an earlier podcast, I was lucky enough to train under David Mac Laren, owner of the Bungendore Wood Works. There are some apprenticeships in woodwork around, but there are very few with the serious makers, because there are so few serious makers.

Please don’t think I am being pretentious on this point. There are myriad ways that you can make a decent living in furniture or woodwork that are not fine furniture. I can think of many very worthwhile careers in making. Take DesignCraft here in Canberra. This is an extraordinary business that employs lots of well-trained makers. They have a state of the art workshop, heaps of exciting projects, and they work with a wide variety of materials as well as wood. The company is big enough that you could start as an apprentice and work your way up to a management position, or you could specialize into CAD work, or finishing or even designing. What you won’t do is work solid timber with a craft ethos every day. This is not the “romantic” approach to woodwork that people who are reading Allen Peters, George Nakashima or Sam Maloof are after, but it is a perfectly reasonable way to make a living on the tools.

As I have said before, defining fine woodworking is like trying to define literature, fine art or classical music. It’s just a “thing”. You know it when you see it, but it is hard to put into words, and believe me, I’ve tried!

Anyway, back to how; aside from an apprenticeship, there is the “just do it” approach. This is probably best exemplified by Sam Maloof. He was clearly looking at a lot of Danish furniture and tried to Americanize it by hand, and with a lack of formal training. I recently read Keith Richard’s memoirs and he made the point that in the early days, the Stones just listened to “everyone” coming out of America. The band members tried to work out how the music was actually played and sometimes they achieve the right sound, but often with quite a different technique. The Stones started off as a covers band and writing songs came as something of a shock to them. When they did start writing, they brought an incredible background, but little formal training to the table and a unique and enduring sound emerged.

The aforementioned Sam Maloof was somewhat similar. He was looking at a wide range of chairs and started making his own take on them with a wildly different suite of equipment and little or no formal training.  The result was the now famous Maloof joint, and an original take on rocking chairs that became his signature style. The whole thing with the ebony plugged screws appalls those who are classically trained, but we’ll get over it.
The “just do it” approach has a lot to recommend it, but you might have to reinvent the wheel a bit, and it can take a ridiculously long time to get anywhere. On the upside, the sheer volume of information out there in the form of books, blogs, how-to videos, magazines, clubs and forums makes it much, much easier than even 10 years ago. People like the Wood Whisperer are doing a fine job of showing good technique to people online.
Part time or short course schools are also now a popular way of approaching the craft. Just about every major centre in Australia has one or more woodschool being run by a maker who also teaches from their workshop. The typical scenario is the craftsman who gives classes three or four days a week, and makes furniture for clients the rest of the time.

If you have listened to the earlier episodes of this podcast, you will know that back in the mists of time, I was a commercial pilot. When I left school, I trotted off to flyingschool and then worked for a few years as a cattle musterer, agricultural pilot and, finally, a charter pilot. In those days there was often a combination charter and flying school business in the larger country towns. This is pretty much the same business model being used by some furniture craftsmen; some commissions and some teaching.

This teaching service is mostly aimed at amateurs, but there is an opportunity for the aspiring professional as well. Some people work a day job in something unrelated, then attend woodworking classes at night or on weekends. The biggest draw back with this approach is that many of your classmates will be semi-retired dentists who do this stuff for fun and let’s face it, the courses are usually aimed at “fun”.

Finally, there are the full time schools like the Sturt School for Wood in Mittagong, the Centre for Furniture Craftsmanship in Maine and the Carl Malmsten School in Stockholm. There used to be more of these types of schools in Australia, but we don’t really have the population to support more than one or two nationally, because there are only perhaps 20 or 30 people a year who are both good enough and resourced enough to attend such schools. A decade or more ago, there was The Australian School of Fine Furniture in Launceston, Tasmania, The Australian School for Wood in WA, the aforementioned Sturt, The Furniture Workshop, Canberra school of Art and the Furniture workshop at the University of Tasmania, Hobart. Some of these schools have gone altogether, while others have changed direction so much as to be unrecognizable. In Australia, The Sturt School for Wood is the great survivor, and through a combination of tenacity, good luck and good management, currently offers the best all-round training for someone who wants to be a self-employed designer/maker.

But if any child of mine showed a serious interest in furniture making, I would pack them off to the Malmsten school in Stockholm. Not Cappellagarten, that is good, but in a different way; no,  the Stockholm school is the real deal. That school teaches technique, creativity, design and time management. It trains professionals, not dreamers. But it is a big, big commitment and not to be taken lightly.

One of my recent employees, Adrian, did a lot of the above. He worked in construction, but he wanted to be a craftsman. He joined the Melbourne wood guild, did some short courses with a variety of small private schools over several years, considered Sweden (Cappellagarten, not the Stockholm school, but he didn’t know any better) and finally did the one year course at Sturt. Putting my employer’s hat on, Adrian comes to me as the equivalent of a third year apprentice. Now, please don’t think I am being disrespectful of either Adrian or Sturt here, because I have great respect for both.

The job I have, and which Adrian has filled, and which in many ways represents much of the employment opportunities for a craftsman, is for a maker who can interpret a drawing and make production and commissioned work in solid and re-sawn veneer timber within a commercially viable timeframe, but to an exacting standard. I do not need a designer, although a strong aesthetic sensibility is required.

Despite all his training, Adrian had never made the same thing twice, nor had he had any practical exposure to production planning, or had much experience interpreting a drawing that he had not done himself. Making your own design from scratch, within a reasonably generous time frame, and with the direct assistance of a master craftsman who is teaching you is a valuable way to learn woodwork, but it does not necessarily prepare you for being a good employee as a furniture craftsman.

The other glaring problem is that Adrian had never used professional level equipment. Very few schools have spindle molders, and those few that do, often so limit the use of the machine as to render it to be little more than a glorified router table. On top of that, equipment such as planners, thicknesses, even table saws are often essentially good quality hobby equipment.

How can any student who goes through any of these schools learn pace of work? They are told by instructors that pace of work is important, but how long should a process take? What is a reasonable time to take to sand a chair leg? All the other students are working at the same pace, and the instructors cannot actually show the students what a day’s productivity should look like.  Adrian comes from a construction background, so understands instinctively the relationship between time, quality and commercial reality and in this he had a big advantage over his peers.

The only school that I have ever heard of anywhere, that takes this aspect of the craft seriously, is the Malmsten School in Stockholm. But before you get too excited, this is a three year course, and you r have to pass an exacting entry test, which most people who have not worked as a craftsman i.e done an apprenticeship, would struggle to pass. If you still want to do the course, but don’t have the required basic skills, you would need to do the two year “pre-education” course. So in Sweden, they see five years of training as reasonable. Sturt, The Centre for Furniture Craftsmanship and most similar schools try and do it in 1 year. A traditional apprenticeship is four years. Some tertiary courses, such as the Canberra School of art, are either a two year Diploma or perhaps a 3 year degree.

I go back to my old position which I have banged on about in the past; I think it takes five years to know if you will be good enough, and another five years to become good enough. People also talk about the 10,000 hours to master anything, and like all such numbers, my 5 and 5 rule, and the 10,000 hours and all the other advice in the world is just that; advice.   The short answer is that it take longer than you think.

So, how do you make a career in fine woodwork? You find whatever opportunity is available to you, and you start making. You make and you make and you make, and then you make some more. And if you have the right combination of talent, tenacity and good luck, you might just make it. There is no short cut or quick option, but some approaches are more efficient than others.

Let me know how you get on.

You have been listening to Crafting a Life, the Dunstone Design podcast on all things furniture and woodwork. I’m Evan Dunstone, and I look forward to your company next time.