Dovetails and Mouldings

The Apprentice

Being a self-taught woodworker means that what I have mostly learned over the years is how to make mistakes. Websites such as YouTube and Instructables mean that there are a lot of really good resources online to learn from. Some of the better “Makers” on YouTube have great channels that are a good source of inspiration and teaching materials.  But learning from a video is a little like understanding the theory of swimming; knowing that you move your arms and kick your legs is not going to get you out the deep end of the pool. It does not matter how many YouTube channels I subscribe to, or Instructables I read, or books I buy, there is a limit to how much I am going to learn on my own. Many of the makers are extremely talented, but, like me, many of them are self-taught and make the same mistakes I do. Plus, its one thing to watch a video on how to sharpen a chisel, its another to actually see it being done, and get to hold it, see the bevel and test the sharpness yourself.

Since I have a lot of spare time on my hands at the moment, I decided to see if I could get some time with some professional woodworkers. I approached a local cabinet maker and asked if I could join them for a week. This is a local, family owned, business that has been making bespoke furniture for more than 30 years. The owners were somewhat bemused at my request but agreed to allow me to spend some time in the factory.

Monday morning rolled around, and I arrived at the factory. I was introduced to the foreman, Clifford and told I would be working with him. Clifford is a master cabinet maker. He has been doing this job for more than 40 years. He worked as an apprentice himself for more than 6 years before he was considered fully qualified as a cabinet maker. He is extremely talented and pays attention to every single detail. He was about to start a huge centre island and I would be helping him. He started by taking me through his process. He starts by studying the drawings and understanding what is needed. He then lays out his piece in full scale on a piece of board. “Seeing a drawing, and actually working out how to put it together are two very different things” he told me. He plans each component in detail; measures and prepares cutting lists and thinks about the materials he is going to use in the construction. Most of Monday morning was spent discussing the materials, the types of joinery, and the construction. This was to be a painted item, and so it would be constructed from MDF and Poplar. It is the centre piece of the kitchen, and the last part to be constructed.

Just after morning tea ended, we started cutting materials. The MDF  was edged, and cut to size, biscuit joints cut and by lunch time, the base carcass was assembled with glue and screws. What amazed me was how quickly Cliff was able to prepare the materials and do the assembly without any errors. But then, he spent as much time preparing for the build as I do fixing my mistakes. The next step was to build the poplar framed panels and the columns. I was given the task of building the columns. Something I had not done before. Cliff cut mitred pieces, showed me how to assemble the first one, and left me to my own devices. A quick QC check on what I was doing, one or two corrections on technique and a bit of advice, and I was flying solo.

And so the process continued. Cliff would instruct, I would absorb, he would demonstrate, and I would build. As my confidence grew, so too did Cliff’s confidence in me. By the end of Thursday, the island was built. It is a work of art, and I am proud to have been one half of the team that built it. By Friday, Cliff was allowing me to measure, cut drill and assemble on my own. Now that doesn’t sound like a big deal, except the saw I was using took up more space than my entire workshop. I was warned before hand that it was by far, the most dangerous piece of equipment in the workshop.

I learnt to build carcasses and panelled doors. I built columns with nothing more than glue and painters tape. I finally learnt how to cut dove tail joints and build drawers. I watched in amazment as Cliff hand built a complex moulding for the cabinet using nothing but a router and a table saw. He taught me to mitre and fit the moulding, taking almost two hours to cut the mitre joints so that they fitted perfectly. And perfectly fit, they did. I learnt to drill and fit hinges, and hang doors so they were pefectly aligned. I built the shelves and fitted the drawers.

I also got to work with Douglas. He is a few years younger than me and has been a master cabinet maker for as long as I have been a laboratorian. He is extremely skilled. The best part of working with Doug was the long philosophical discussions on beauty, art, and our favourite YouTubers. Doug told me he spent 4 years as an apprentice before he qualified. He is such a good cabinet maker that he went from apprentice to foreman skipping the bits in the middle. He is a natural in the woodshop and moves with grace and ease. Its clear that his was mentored by Cliff as they have a similar approach. He taught me to glue panels and edge boards all while carefully watching me, giving me advice and correcting mistakes. In the blink of an eye, the week was over, and my mini aprenticeship was done.

The furniture this factory builds is beautiful. Each piece is built with passion, pride and an attention to detail that borders on fanatical. That gives each piece a soul; a little piece of the maker that gets left behind that brings each piece to life.

The word “artisan” is derived from the French word, artisan, and from Italian artigiano, based on Latin artitus. It means to ‘instruct in the arts’, from ars, art- ‘art’. Artisans are important in the world, especially today. They create objects of beauty. In a world filled with mass production and consumerism, it is refreshing to discover that people like Cliff and Doug are still here, and still making beautiful objects by hand. Objects that will last more than a lifetime,. The best part of it was that they are willing to share that knowledge with people like me.

Thank you both, for the art, and for the teaching.