apprenticeship stories

No pictures this time. I was reading Robin Wood’s blog post about apprenticeships. For those interested in crafts, read it.

here’s Robin’s link: http://greenwood-carving.blogspot.com/2010/01/apprenticeships-in-traditional-crafts.html

It got me to thinking about apprenticeships. I have taught a couple of apprentices in the past 10 years, I figure it would be best if they were with me for about 2 years, maybe more. Hard to pull off these days.

Anyway, all this apprentice stuff rumbled around in my head, & I remembered that a couple of years ago, I wrote an article about 17th-century apprenticeships, and about my 20th-century training at what was then a lost craft…so for anyone interested in reading a bunch of blather with no pictures, here’s my apprenticeship story/stories.

Apprenticeship then & now

Visitors to the Crafts Center often ask me how I learned the style of woodworking that I do there. Sometimes it’s a matter of discerning whether they mean how did “one” learn a trade like this in the seventeenth century, or do they mean how did I actually learn to work with these old style tools, and this “green” or unseasoned wood. Either way, the answer is: It’s a long story.  

[the seventeenth-century story]

“An Act touching divers orders for artificers, laborers, servants of husbandry and apprentices” is the title given to the Act that has come to be known as the Statute of Artificers. Dated 1563, this established several guidelines detailing the various aspects of apprenticeship arrangements. One important distinction is the length of an apprenticeship and the minimum age at which the apprentice can finish his term:

 …after the custom and order of the city of London for seven years at the least so the term and years of such apprentice do not expire afore such apprentice shall be of the age of 24 years… [1]

This act continued to function as the guidelines for apprenticeships in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England, and that practice, with some adaptations, carried over to New England. Typically a contract, or indenture, was drawn up between the apprentice’s parents or guardians, and the craftsman taking on the apprentice. These indentures usually outlined the arrangement between the parties; and were filed with either the trade “Company” or guild, or the local courts. These records can often be quite detailed, providing the boy’s name, his father’s name and trade, where they are from, who the master is, his trade and town, and the length of the contract. In addition, often the contract will stipulate what payment the boy is to receive upon completion of his term. At the minimum this is usually two suits of clothes, “one for best, one for workdaies” and sometimes as well he is to receive tools for his trade, or even a payment of money. The lists of tools are particularly helpful for our research, because they give us an idea of what that master thought of as a “starter” set of tools for a young man just out on his own. For example, in 1594, John Sparke was apprenticed as a joiner to Humphrey Byrne in Bristol, England. At the end of the term, Byrne was to provide Sparke with the following tools:

. . . a Rule a compass a hatchet a hansawe a fore plane a joynter a smothen plane two moulden planes a groven plane a paren chysell a mortisse chesell a wymble a Rabbet plane and six graven Tooles and a Strykinge plane [2]

Of course, part of the challenge of reading these records is understanding the wording. In addition to the numerous planes on this list, the “wimble” is a brace and bit, for boring holes; and the six “graven” tools are carving tools for the decorative elements often featured on joined work.

In London, the craft companies, (now referred to as “guilds”) governed the apprenticeships in the crafts, as well as most other aspects of tradesmen’s shops in the City. Each company maintained rules about the number of apprentices a member of the company could have at one time. Members of the companies could have an extra, or “extraordinary” apprentice by paying a fine for each one over the limit.   In their Ordinances of 1608 the Worshipful Company of Turners of London established that:

…ordinary freemen of the company  could bind only one apprentice at a time; liverymen could bind two on payment of a fine of five pounds; and the master, wardens, and assistants could bind three, the third only with permission of the Court of Assistants and on payment of a fine of two pounds…  [3]

The same year, the Worshipful Company of Carpenters fined Andrew Messenger only five shillings for having an “apprentice extraordinary viz one Andrewe King.” At that point, Andrew King was the third apprentice that Messenger had at the time, when he was only allowed two. [4]

One primary difference between apprenticeship contracts in New England from those in Old England is that the age for completion of the term was generally reduced from 24 years to 21 years. A particularly detailed apprenticeship indenture from Plymouth dated 1653 describes the obligations of both the master and apprentice:

Thomas Savory senior of Plymouth and Ann his wife Doe…covenant with Thomas Lettice of Plymouth aforesaid Carpenter; That their sonn Thomas Savory Juni aged five years or thereabouts…shall Remayne and continue with the said Thomas Lettice untill hee bee of the age of one and twenty years; …after the manner of an apprentice; the said Thomas Lettice is to find unto his said apprentice…meat Drinke apparrell washing and lodgin and all other necessaries fitt for one in his Degree and calling and to teach an Instruct his said apprentice in the arte or trade of an house carpenter in as able a mannor as himselfe is able to prforme it,  likewise…the said Thomas Savory is to Doe and prforme unto his said master all faithfull service and not to neglect his said masters business not absent himselfe from the same by night or Day without Lycence from his said Master; hee shall not marry or contracte himselfe in marriage…he shall not Imbezell purloyne or steale any of his goods or Reveale any of such seacrets that ought to bee kept…Thomas Lettice covenanteth…that the said Thomas Savory shalbee by him or his appointment and att his charge Taught to Read and write the English Tongue…Lastly when the term of time abovementioned is by the said Thomas Savory the younger fully attained; that then the said Thomas Lettice or Ann his wife (in case shee bee the longer liver) shall provide for and Deliver unto theire said apprentice two suites of apparell vizt one for best and another for working Daies and also…certaine Carpenters tooles…one broad axe two playnes two Augers and a sett of Chissels; & an hand saw…   [5]

The Savory/Lettice contract is more than just an apprenticeship. The boy was only five years old; therefore the assumption is that his parents put him out because they were incapable of caring for him in some way.

The first record in New England of a joiner training an apprentice is that of Kenelm Winslow and Samuel Jenny, both of Plymouth. Winslow apprenticed as a joiner in London to Abraham Worthington, and was admitted to the Worshipful Company of Joiners and Ceilers in 1624. By 1630 he was living in Plymouth, later moving to Marshfield. The unusual phrasing of this contract is “the full terme of four yeares…” a significantly shorter time than the standard seven years usually cited in English apprenticeship contracts. 

Jan 6 1633   Sam Jenny, the sonne of John Jenny, by the consent of the said John, hath bound himself apprentise to Kanelm Winslow, of Plymouth, joyner, for the full terme of four yeares, during wch time the said Samuell shall doe faithfull service, as  becometh an apprentise, to the said Kanelm. Also the said Kanelm shall exercise the said Samuell in the joyners occupacon, and shall doe his best to instruct him in his said trade, and at the end of his tyme shall dowble appell the said Samuell. But if the said Kanelm shall remove his dwelling from Plymouth, or the liberties thereof, then this covt to be void  [6]

What we know about period apprenticeships is only part of the story. The part we have little evidence for is the day-to-day workings of a shop; how the master planned and orchestrated the workings. Court records and those of trade companies in England give many snippets of the apprenticeship story, but mostly leave these details lacking.

One good source for researching apprenticeships is court records. However, usually in these cases we are reading about apprenticeships that have gone wrong. Thus we can infer from these what the intent might have been. There are horror stories of beatings and runaways, but the examples that yield the most are those concerning the craft aspect of the apprenticeship. In October 1658, Steven Pierson, apprentice to Thomas Mulliner, a carpenter in New Haven, Connecticut, charged that

…he was bound to his M[aste]r in England for 7 yeares in wch time he was to teach him ye trade of house carpenter, but whereas 4 yeares & more of ye 7 is past, he hath taught him but little, yt he knowes not how to hew a piece of timber…

Another New Haven carpenter, Jervis Boykin deposed in the case that the boy “might be sent into ye Bay & placed wth some carpenter there yt constantly followes his trade” [7]

The full story of seventeenth-century English craft apprenticeships will probably never be discovered. But these snippets of information culled from various period sources are a good beginning to help us understand the challenges an apprentice withstood, working at a trade six days a week for seven years.

PF’s modern version

I did not set out to specialize in reproducing seventeenth-century furniture. My training began when I was about 18 years old. I inherited a shop full of power tools – tablesaw, drill press, lathe, as well as some hand tools. I felt I ought to learn how to use them, and found a neighbor willing to show me how each was operated. It was a daunting undertaking. I was quite intent on learning woodworking, but was leery of the tools. Then I was lucky enough to have an alternative fall into my lap. In September 1978, the magazine Fine Woodworking published excerpts from two books that were new that year, one called Country Woodcraft, by Drew Langsner, and the other called Make A Chair from a Tree: an Introduction to Green Woodworking, by John Alexander. I read these articles over and over again, while waiting for the books to arrive by mail-order. Looking back 30 years later, I see that these books literally changed my life, though I certainly did not know it at the time. I became very enthused by the notions introduced by these authors – that you could split stock from freshly-felled green hardwoods, and working with a few simple hand-tools, fashion the wood into long-lasting furniture.

In 1980, I saw an advertisement for a week-long class in chairmaking, being held at Drew Langsner’s craft school Country Workshops, to be taught by John Alexander. I didn’t drive at the time, had practically never been out of New England, wasn’t much of a woodworker, and was terminally shy. I wrote to the address, signed up for the class and made plans to get down to western North Carolina.

The class really inspired my interest in this craft, and I stumbled along on my own for a few years. Then I returned to Country Workshops by the mid-1980s, and was for the next five years or so a regular attendee at a number of classes – timber framing, white oak basketry, spoon carving, coopering, as well as ladderback chairs with Alexander and American style Windsor chairs. A woodworker from eastern Pennsylvania named Daniel O’Hagan was one of the teachers I met there, and it was his example of using exclusively hand tools that got me to give away all my machines and power tools. I have never missed them.

In addition to my once-or-twice yearly trips to North Carolina, there were a variety of books to pore through and study. A couple of standouts were British books that were early-to-mid-twentieth-century records of a then-vanishing way of working. The best of this ilk is George Sturt’s The Wheelwright’s Shop (1923). Sturt’s father and grandfather had run the family wheelwright’s shop, and Sturt took over upon his father’s death. He had the foresight to understand that this was a way of village life about to run its course, and recorded it in a very readable style.

In addition to Alexander’s and Langsner’s books, there was another author writing in the early 1980s on “green” woodworking. Roy Underhill had (and now more than 27 years later, still has) a PBS television show The Woodwright’s Shop. The show and its companion books detail the author’s forays into handtools and traditional woodworking.

Around 1987 John Alexander showed a group of us a slide presentation about seventeenth-century oak furniture made in New England. A friend of his at Winterthur Museum, Charles Hummel, had shown him some joined oak chests and upon studying them, Alexander noted that the stock for these works was riven or split from the log, just like his ladderback chairs. I was caught, and Alexander and I began an informal study, 500 miles apart. Alexander lived and worked in Baltimore, MD and I lived at the time in Hingham, MA. Our “work” together consisted of lengthy correspondence and weekly phone calls. We would each spend some time studying original artifacts, he at Winterthur Museum and I at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. We’d take numerous slides and notes, compile these and send them off to each other in the mail. We would each work in our shops, experimenting with our ideas based on what we had seen on the existing furniture. It was a cumbersome undertaking by today’s standards, but one benefit was that the need to write it down forced a sense of clarity upon our thinking.

Our artifact study was supplemented by the study of the tool history, as well as the documentary study of the period. To learn about the tool kit of the seventeenth century, we started with Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises; or the Doctrine of Handy-works Applied to the Arts of Smithing, Joinery, Carpentry, Turning, Bricklaying. This book was published in serial form in the 1680s in London, and the chapters on joinery and turning were a critical first step in the tool history aspect of our study. In addition to Moxon, we studied probate inventories in great detail for craftsmen’s tools. Learning of the period tool kit and understanding the traditional use of bench tools like planes, saws, chisels, and carving tools helped us to see that to assemble a tool kit that functioned like a seventeenth-century kit was not that difficult. The forms and functions of hand tools have not changed much over time.

Throughout our studies, our friendship with Robert Trent, the leading American scholar of seventeenth-century furniture was a great benefit. Trent led us through the process of researching the artifacts, their history, and the formation of an attribution for a group of furniture. This amounted to a private internship, though, again quite informal. The first results of this collaboration with Trent were published as “Seventeenth-Century Joinery from Braintree, Massachusetts: the Savell Shop Tradition” in the 1996 edition of the journal American Furniture. [8]

Similar to the collaborations with Robert Trent in this country, my studies in England with Victor Chinnery, author of Oak Furniture: the British Tradition, have greatly advanced my understanding of seventeenth-century joinery and furniture in ways I never could have imagined. I’ve been fortunate to make three trips to work with Victor and tour the countyside to see collections of oak furniture, some of it in its original settings; an astounding experience.

In the end, what Alexander and I were learning was a discipline in two related crafts, that of the joiner/turner in the shop, and that of the furniture historian, using artifacts, archives and documents to better understand these seventeenth-century trades.


[1]  Margaret Gay Davies, The Enforcement of English Apprenticeship: A Study of Applied Mercantilism 1563-1642 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1956) pp. 271-74

[2] W. L. Goodman, “Woodworking Apprentices and their Tools in Bristol, Norwich, Great Yarmouth, and Southampton, 1535-1650” Industrial Archaeology 9, no. 4, (November 1972) 376-411

[3] Paul S. Seaver, Wallington’s World, A Puritan Artisan in Seventeenth-Century London, (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1985) p. 115.

[4] Bower Marsh, A.M. Millard, editors, Records of the Worshipful Company of Carpenters 7 vols.; (Oxford: printed for the Company at the University Press, 1913-1968.) 7:256

[5]  “Extracts from the Deed Books of the Plymouth Colony” quoted in Benno M. Forman, American Seating Furniture 1630-1730, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1988)

pp. 57-8.

[6] The Winslow/Jenney contract is in Records of the Colony of New Plymouth in New England, (ed., Nathaniel Shurtleff and David Pulsifer, 12 vols., the Press of William White, Boston, 1855-1861) 1:24. For Winlsow’s London record, see Peter Follansbee, “Connecting a London-Trained Joiner to 1630s Plymouth Colony” in Antiques and Fine Art (Summer/Autumn, 2007) 200-205.

[7] Patricia E. Kane, Furniture of the New Haven Colony: The Seventeenth-Century Style (New Haven, Connecticut: New Haven Historical Society, 1993) p. 78; quoting Charles J. Hoadly, editor, Records of the Colony and Plantation of New Haven, from 1638 to 1649 2 vols. (Hartford: Case, Tiffany and Company, 1857) 2:361-362. 

[8] Peter Follansbee and John Alexander, “Seventeenth-Century Joinery from Braintree, Massachusetts: the Savell Shop Tradition” in American Furniture, ed., Luke Beckerdite, (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, 1996) pp. 81-104

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3 thoughts on “apprenticeship stories

  1. All this talk about apprenticeships is truly fascinating stuff. I’m a self-taught woodworker, but I did serve a somewhat antiquated and abusive apprenticeship in a totally unrelated ancient craft.

    In turn, I took on several apprentices with mixed results; some were romantics and dreamers – they fell by the wayside, but a few dedicated individuals who were prepared to endure real hardship, both economically and bodily, made good and went on to enjoy healthy careers themselves.

    Since running my antiques and restoration business, I have been asked several times if I would take on an apprentice and my answer has always been that unless my salary is met for the period of the apprenticeship, I couldn’t afford an apprentice.

    It’s a shame there’s not a system of indentured apprenticeship supported by governments or other sponsorship because I (plus many others, I’m sure) feel I have unique skills and knowledge to offer and which will unfortunately, as I’m now retired, die with me.

    I knew Victor Chinnery well during the years he was a consultant with Stuart Interiors at Barrington Court. I too worked with Stuart Interiors off and on over a period of years. Touring with Victor must have been great fun.

  2. Peter: Thank for you your description of apprenticeship then and now. I have but one emendation to our part of the story. I started telling you about 17th Century joinery as we drove home from teaching a post and rung chair shop at Country Workshops in North Carolina. You did all the driving and were exhausted when we got to my home in Baltimore. It was around midnight and you cried for bed. Little Mister Grandiose insisted that you look at some joinery slides. As usual, you kindly put up with me. At this point I was making joint stools. You watched the screen with lidded eyes as I rambled on and on. Then I showed you the slide where I was riving off (not sawing) the waste from both sides of a tenon. You eyes opened in amazement. I knew you were hooked and let the slide just sit on the wall. For once I remained silent. Small wonder you don’t recall it. You had your craft epiphany in your sleep! If you like you could dig out that slide and put it up for all to see. It might, though I doubt it, refresh your recollection. From there on you were a joiner, not a chairmaker. We made a covenant to never go to the lumberyard again. You went speeding off and left me way behind. It has been a wonderfilled journey.
    Jennie

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