Chris Schwarz's Blog

Test of the Trade

It’s hard to fathom, but if I’d made a slightly different guess one summer before 10th grade, then I might have ended up taking portraits of your kid’s baseball team.

When I was a boy, I had a few passions that drove me to distraction. I loved building stuff and wanted to be an architect. Every day I messed with my blocks, my Legos and my sketchpad of house designs. I also was consumed with photography. I had my own darkroom, I took classes at the local college and I was head photographer at my school paper.

For several years, it looked like I was headed into the photography trade. And so I was taken in by a local portrait studio to work in the lab. It was an apprenticeship. I and another boy spent our first weeks there cleaning the lab. We washed the owner’s car (with kerosene!), we emptied the stop bath tank. We tended the garbage. We sorted portraits into envelopes.

After proving we could empty the trash without turning on a light (very important in a lab), we were trusted to load the film into the processing machines and make contact prints. And this is where I looked like a god. I had a darkroom at home and could do all the lab stuff quickly and unerringly.

The other apprentice struggled with the hand and technical skills. But he was good looking, good natured and quick with a joke. I did my best work by myself and in the dark.

One day, the head photographer at the studio took us both outside on a sunny day. He handed us each a Hasselblad, the expensive medium-format camera the studio used to take its portraits. It didn’t have a built-in light meter. The photographer told each of us to set our camera’s shutter speed and f-stop to take a photo of him in front of a tree.

We had to divine the right setting for the environment and hand the camera back to him. The person who got it right would be apprenticed to him for the next year to learn the trade in the field and the studio. The loser would have to stay in the lab for the summer and then his job would end.

It was a long summer alone in the dark lab. And when I began high school the next year (as pale as typing paper) I took a job with a fish market (ensuring that I would never get a date with a girl with a sense of smell) and I decided that I should start writing for the school newspaper, as well as take photos.

That choice led me into journalism , another trade and another test. That test also took three months, and I passed (barely, I might add).

What does this have to do with woodworking? Plenty. I’ve been reading about the trades a lot lately and have been wondering about the tests that moved an apprentice to a journeyman to a master. I met a German master a few years ago in Las Vegas who told me about the tests he had to pass to achieve each of these levels of competency. To become a journeyman, he had to build a certain piece of furniture in a certain amount of time.

To become a master he had to first design a certain piece of furniture, then build it in a certain amount of time.

I would love to see photos and drawings of some of these “test” projects. Wouldn’t they make a cool article for the magazine? If you have some, drop me a line.

– Christopher Schwarz

12 thoughts on “Test of the Trade

  1. Chuck Beck

    We have a test program in our guild system. I am a piano technician with the piano technicians guild and if it weren’t for having to try to figure out 17 different ways to repair a key I don’t know that I would be as avid a hobbyist woodworker as I am. I generally have weekends to work on a cabinet, box or bed, but I also end up with pianos in the shop too. The jigs required for replacing ivory keyboards that are shot with plastic replacement sets are not for those with a passing interest. It is amazing what you can learn about furniture spending my days with instruments that get played through generations of families.
    chuckbeck

  2. Chuck Beck

    We have a test program in our guild system. I am a piano technician with the piano technicians guild and if it weren’t for having to try to figure out 17 different ways to repair a key I don’t know that I would be as avid a hobbyist woodworker as I am. I generally have weekends to work on a cabinet, box or bed, but I also end up with pianos in the shop too. The jigs required for replacing ivory keyboards that are shot with plastic replacement sets are not for those with a passing interest. It is amazing what you can learn about furniture spending my days with instruments that get played through generations of families.
    chuckbeck

  3. Tom Bier

    This isn’t a woodworking story, but is a relevant comment on the apprentice system. About 30 years ago I was working in a machine shop and learning the craft from Martin Brutsch who had gone through the machinist apprentice program in Switzerland. He said he didn’t get to use a machine for the first year – only hand tools. His first year final project was a triangular plate with a square bar mounted in the center and a knife edge balance beam on the top. The only assistance they got was a hole drilled though the plate. Then he had to make the hole square, file a matching tenon on the upright, file the top & bottom of the plate flat and parallel, and make sure the whole assembly was square.

  4. Ryan Prochaska

    As a professional wood-crafter, it has always been my goal to complete the work in the most efficient manner. In the shop, it is just expected that one understands and is capable of completing the work. It is another thing altogether to know how to work under certain time constraints.

    I would love to see those test pieces, but I am also interested in the overall process of going from apprenticeship to journeyman to master. It would be great to read about the experiences of those who have gone through the trials, like Tage Frid, Frank Klausz, and others who are currently training in locations around the globe where such systems are still in place (Germany, Japan, etc.)

  5. Christopher Schwarz

    Turner,

    You’re right on all counts. And believe me when I say that I’m not complaining. I’m just fascinated by the tests that are administered in the trades. That photography test was an extreme one, and not very good.

    But in the end, I’m glad it was stupid and I failed it.

    Chris

  6. Turner Jones

    It would seem to me that making a career determing decision at such a young age is really not the thing to do. I believe a person needs to check around, do a number of things while young and pick up several skill sets. The old adage that I have heard is to "follow your bliss". It seems that you have done this. You get to work with craftsman’s tools and write and teach about it. Congratulations! Believe me, a whole lot of us never get to reach this nirvana in making a living.

  7. Greg Peel

    The old kodak boxes of film, I believe, show the table for exposure with "Sunny 16". Basically the formula was 1 over the stated film speed as the shutter speed.

    For Kodachrome 64- 1/60 @f16 as a starting point on a sunny day. My personal favorite in the chart was "Cloudy bright", almost a contradiction in terms, but still valid. Thanks for the memory.

  8. woodworker

    Chris, That would be a really cool article for the magazine. I’ve often wondered what constitutes a good skills test prior to moving on to bigger and more complicated projects. As I suspect is common with most part-time woodworkers, I’ve allowed myself to progress well past my abilities on several projects and suffered the consequenses. When that happens usually the project sits untouched until I change the design to accomodate the skills I already posses, or until I have demonstrated to myself that I can continue with the design as-is. So is 2 years too long to complete a set of 5 custom built-in solid wood bookcases I promised to complete prior to Christmas 2008? Good thing I have a really patient wife.

  9. shutterbug

    I’ve always thought you must be involved in photography, but have always been hesitant to ask and seem like the camera geek in woodworking area. What do you shoot? I’m interested in how your hand tools experience has shaped your choice in photography tools? If I were to guess, I would bet Pentax with screw mount primes.

  10. Christopher Schwarz

    I still remember my guess: f11 at 60. Arkansas is *very* sunny. It was f16 at 250.

    Chris

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