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An Apprenticeship Experience

By Jock Dempsey - anvilfire guru

Apprenticeships are a tricky thing. As an institution they are a thing of the past (legally indentured for 7 years). And even when they were a governed institution there were abuses. A few states still have laws on the books covering them, but most do not know they exist or apply them. However, the IRS expects taxes to be paid on both parts of the "trade".

I took on an blacksmithing apprentice once many years ago. We both didn't do a very good job of holding up the deal. I provided room & board, he provided labor. He expected a lot of attention from me, and I expected him to take the opportunity he was given to study on his own as much as possible. He expected a lot of exciting lessons, I expected him to take advantage of my extensive library. He expected technical jobs, I gave him simple mundane jobs. He expected structure, I expected self discipline. We both had the same goals but neither had the same methods. A two year arrangement fell apart in a few months.

Another Apprentice

Three decades after I took on the apprentice above I took on another older supposedly more mature apprentice. We corresponded for a month or so about it asking a lot of questions. The apprentice had read the above and I told him the situation was not much different. I could afford very limited time and he would have to take the innitiative to learn. My shop at the time was limited but had most of the basic machinery.

The arrangement started off fairly well. But the apprentice was not as much of a self starter as one needs to be in this trade. I provided library, tools, fuel and materials as well as an unending amount of work that could be done in the way of menial labor (cleaning, hauling and toting). I also provided some lessons and direction.

The apprentice did not take advantage the oppurtunity provided and worked very few hours in the shop. He would get frustrated and give up on the simplest tasks that mearly needed practice at hand skills. Instead of trying again, he would give up for the day. However, he stayed a year.

During that year we traveled to many blacksmith meets including the Southeastern Blacksmith Association convention, Sofa Quadstate, Armour-Ins and every local event including Renaissance fairs. I paid all the expenses. The apprentice never sat through a full demo or took notes. After he did this at second major event with some GREAT and rare demonstrators I gave up. You've heard the saying you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink? This horse would not drink.

During that year we also went to numerous flea markets and sales as well as the blacksmithing meets. The apprentice was interested in armour so I purchased sheet metal tools and stakes. He had become fairly adepept at making hooks and he traded some for tools as well. I tried to explain to him that he was giving away his labor, as well as my fuel and materials when he traded hand made ironwork at flea market prices. That he should try to find an outlet for the hooks and get a fair price for them. He refused to understand the economics.

During that year I think he might have read one book out of scores avaialble and only browsed a few others. Many days the forge went unlit and on those that it was only saw a hour's use or so. Of the jobs I expected to be done only the lawn was maintained and not very well. The shop was dirtier and not a single machine had been cleaned of rust. My anvil had dings and at least one piece of equipment wrecked.

He finally went home due to some family situation. It was time.

I thought this was a realy good opportunity for someone. Time and equipment to do almost anything. Resources to study and travel for wider horizons.

This was my second failure with an apprentice. Was it me, or the apprentices? Perhaps I was too easy on them, but I did not have time to direct their every task. I have since removed my offer of an easy going apprenticeship. Will I do it again? Probably not.

Yet Another Apprentice (Number 3)

About 14 years after number two I tried AGAIN. This was another 23 year old male. We wrote back and fourth numerous times, we talked on the phone several times and I was very clear about the situation here. This was a much nicer place than before with a nice cozy bedroom and private bathroom to himself.

He was considerably overweight the same as I am and we thought it would be good to work toward getting us both in good shape. He lived half way across the country and we talked about various transportation options. He finally found money to fly here and I picked his up from the airport late in the evening. The next morning I showed him around a bit, the shop, the library, the yard work that needed to be done. . . I gave him some books to start reading. That afternoon he called home and that evening he said "his mama needed him". His father was driving 1200 miles to pick him up the next day. . . The end. I was a bit shocked.

And Yet Another Apprentice (Number 4)

This one is a young woman in her 30's. She did not come here looking for an apprenticeship. She is a friend of my girlfriend, was in a bad situation and needed a place to live. So far she has only spent a couple weeks here in batches of two and three days. She has learned to arc weld and gets up early to practice on her own. She took to forging quickly and seems to enjoy it. She has made a handful of basket twist handled steak hooks (she likes to grill and this was a new tool to her). She has been the best student I have had.

I'd like to make the arrangement permanent but like many folks these days she has needs (most financial) that I can not fill. She is a great self starter in the shop but is having a hard time translating that to her life. So, we shall see. . .

Apprenticeship FAQ

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