Wednesday, January 28, 2009

'Will you take an Apprentice?'

I wanted to make a general commentary on this whole situation, if for no other reason than to save me repeating the same general reply over and over. (I refer readers to an earlier related piece 'Career as an Artisan Blacksmith? )I have been getting an increasing number of letters like the following:

" I have always had an interest in blacksmithing ... and after having attended a basic course I have had a great desire to learn more about blacksmithing and gain some experience at it .... even though it would mean a drastic cut in pay I would rather learn more about blacksmithing if it is at all feasible.

I started researching blacksmiths online (including the OABA website) looking for a potential employer I felt I could learn from and enjoy working with...

I do understand that as an apprentice I would be required to do the simple, repetitive and labour intensive tasks as befitting my level of experience. I also realize that it must be done at a rate of pay that is profitable to you. If you have sufficient work for me, or can acquire such work (i.e. making handles, hooks or simple fireplace tools and more as I gain experience and skill) I would be more than happy to come into your employment."
(much edited from the original - name removed )

The simple answer is, well, no.
And here is why...

'Traditionally' (used in this case to refer to the Settlement Era) a young person (virtually always male) learned the 'art and mystery' of the blacksmith at the hands of an older, experienced smith, via the apprenticeship system. A typical arrangement started at age 9 to 11, and lasted anything from 5 - 7 years. A legal contract (indenture) defined the relationship. As with any contract, it cut both ways:
The Master was required to -
Supply food and housing
Supply clothing as required
Teach the student the trade
The Apprentice was required to -
Obey the Master
Work as instructed
Live with the Master
Refrain from specified behaviours (generally alcohol, gambling, women)
Depending on the time and place, there might be a 'signing fee' paid by the parents to the Master. In some cases there would be some limited 'pay' over the final years of the apprenticeship, typically paid to the parents, not the boy. The Master would be responsible (legally) for the conduct of the Apprentice, which included handing out discipline as he saw fit. The living conditions for the Apprentice varied considerably, anything from table scraps and sleeping in the forge to living like a member of the family. The Apprentice was bound, and subject to prison if he broke the contract.

The Master was trading off years of instruction against a possible assistant in the later years of the arrangement. A young apprentice was fit for not much more than sweeping up and simple labour at first. By the mid point of the indenture, the apprentice would be able to assume more and more complex tasks. It was expected by the last years he would be a hard working assistant, this labour 'paying back' the effect loss to the smith at the beginning.

At the end of the ideal indenture, the Apprentice left his former Master's shop, with a box of tools (made himself), a store of knowledge, and some store of direct experience. At this point he was considered a Journeyman - a trained blacksmith who moved to work for pay in other shops to accumulate experience and hopefully the funds to start his own business.

This traditional system rarely (if ever) can be applied to our modern world. Young people are in school until well into the age range that once was expected for journeymen (late teens). The only way the apprenticeship system works is with multi year commitments, trading labour against room and board.

So to be clear, what people have been asking me for is really a Journeyman position, but with no skills to bring to the arrangement. Undertaking repetitive tasks at a reduced wage for the opportunity of being gaining experience in more specialized skills as an assistant. I certainly see what advantage is in it for them. What advantage do I gain as the blacksmith? The only way I could envision such a relationship would be one framed much more like the traditional one: Straight out of high school, a multi year contract, room and board and no wages. Something you could arrange with a son or daughter, but not likely 'legal' in our modern world.

Right off the top, people forget that any working situation in our modern world is governed by strict provisions - the Labour Laws. Minimum Wages, Workman's Compensation Insurance, Unemployment Insurance, requirements for Occupational Health and Safety. These costs alone are going to amount to hundreds of dollars a month. As a 'sole proprietor' defined business, I can subject * myself * to extremes. Legally, I am not allowed to do this for any employee. (An example, there is no heat in the workshop, and its been -15 C most the last week, and why I'm inside writing this.)

A practical aspect is - just what kind of work goes on at the typical 'Artist Blacksmith' work shop? Can even a minimum wage level assistant fit into the pattern?

The honest truth is - this is a feast and famine lifestyle. And never confuse yourself that the artist blacksmith is an artist first, not a business man! Those who are interested in the business selling metal objects are not using the skilled labour intensive methods which these potential 'Apprentices' are so interested in learning. Certainly one can 'get by' supporting themselves as an artist, but you do this because you are compelled to the work, and chose the life that this creates. It absolutely is no comparison to working at GM - no weekly wages, no pension, no support if you can't work. If that is your hope, it is an empty dream.
Projects come and projects go. On a good year there will be large and interesting commissions, sometimes actually resulting in profits left over. A huge amount of time is spent in the raw mechanics of supporting the business. Forms, accounts, communication, promotion, design, maintenance, prototypes. If I manage one hour actually at the forge for every four hours spent on other stuff...

So for my own operation, and for most of the other Artist Blacksmiths I know, the only time I can * afford * to have an assistant is when a specific project requires specific help. This is almost always things like a couple of days painting, a couple of hours moving a large piece, a day helping install or deliver a finished piece. I no longer make 'handles, hooks or simple fireplace tools'. That is work too easily available off shore at slave wages, I leave that to the newcomers to compete over.

One last important consideration - Knowledge is hard won, and not casually given away. I personally are part of a generation of artisans who had to re-invent their skills from the ground up - working alone. I tell my (paid) students that they will learn more on a two day basic course than I did working two * years * on my own. I am amazed (and sometimes in awe of) the 'current generation' of artisan smiths coming up. They have had not had to spend years inventing simple skills, so they start working at such a higher level. How much knowledge should be given away to those who are fully intending on becoming my direct competition in an ever shrinking market place?
Skills can only be achieved through practice, the speed and fluidity that so many see in my own hands is only created through endless repetition. That skill has a high price that has been paid, if nothing else in mere years of practice with little money generated. There is also the cost in raw damage, for smithing is destructive to the body, and those endless hours take their toll.

So, in the end I must say, despite your honesty of intent, that I can not help you. You have much to gain, but the cost to me personally is much too high.

Advice, however, I am willing to give freely:
Get yourself even the most simple of forge and anvil. Practice. Learn slowly, but practice endlessly.


STAG said...

I have been called "mercenary" with my skills. As if that was a bad thing. When does giving away your skill set become giving away your intellectual property?
(This has been a problem much on my mind of late.)

I have had those letters drop off dramatically when I put the requirements in black and white.
Its just a little reality check. Nothing scares the twinkies away like the prospect of real hard work. Those who are left may well be iron for the forge.

So, why "should" I train my competition? Well, if they pay me to do it, thats a good reason. If they already know the technique but only want me to show them how to do it better, thats okay too. If I have a skill set in a market niche which I am not filling, I might trade that skill for one I don't have. Thats three...there are other reasons.

The survival (or revival) of an ancient art is not one of them, sorry. I don't think my art is on life support. It won't die if I don't pass it on. Your smelting projects however...

Unknown said...

Well said Darrell!

Your words, experience, and level of "giving" to the smithing communities is extreme to start with IMO. The art of blacksmithing like all REAL trades, is a special and earned art that no one dserves to pick up cuz its just "given" to them.

Anonymous said...

Great post. You are correct on all points, as well as being a heck of an historian on this one.

As someone who wanted to learn smithing in my misspent youth (before I went on to enter a career in the much more lucrative field of biology), I greatly respect your wisdom and insight into the situation.

Do think about this, though: when you get older, consider writing up as much of your skills as you can, and as you go, keep teaching as many paid students as you get (for whatever you consider an honest tuition), so that the skills you've accumulated aren't lost again.

And know that some of us look on in awe.

Mal said...

I would like to make one very minor adjustment...not every applicant is as naive as the majority. I know for fact that such arrangements do still exist, though greatly diminished. Upon discovering this, I have been searching for just such a room-and-board, years-long arrangement - it beats hell out of entry-level jobs that barely pay rent, and the skills would be useful in my intended career as well...which doesn't actually threaten competition with yours.

That said, I do understand the annoyance of repetitive and ill-informed requests. If nothing else, they are making it much harder for me to find the work I'm looking for. As a general rule, people too often type/speak/act without thought or understanding, only clogging things up for the rest of us.


February 15 - May 15, 2012 : Supported by a Crafts Projects - Creation and Development Grant

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