Training Fine Furniture Makers

Helen Johnson looks at training opportunities
for the next generation

“The fear is we will lose these important craft skills, that create the future’s heritage, purely due to funding limitations.”

Philip Bastow, a cabinetmaker, is concerned about training the next generation of fine furniture makers. He says, “they’ve pushed kids down the university route and traditional skills are lacking. They’ve taken away the joy of making things and my mission is to get woodwork back into schools � but I have a business to run.” He is not alone. Throughout the industry, makers bemoan the lack of woodwork skills in schools. Pascal Silvestre, a French-trained cabinetmaker, speaks for many when he says, “I don’t think training will improve until the Government stops the feeling that, basically, you go to be a craftsman because you failed at school. We need clever people.” The good news is that despite obstacles of lack of promotion in school, unclear career pathways, and shortage of training places, clever people are making it into the business. Andrew Varah, a designer maker and member of the Guild Mark committee of the WCFM (see info page 101), says: “England is the most famous country in the world for contemporary bespoke cabinetmakers. In nearly all other countries both the numbers of makers, and type of furniture made, are not comparable to those of the UK.”

He adds, “I’m constantly approached by makers from all over the world, anxious to work in a UK workshop, as the range of designs far exceeds that of their own countries. I’m in the process of taking Japanese students who are desperate to come here and be part of this renaissance. We’re sitting on a goldmine of immense talent, and more and more people are commissioning bespoke furniture.” New starters choose between technical college, an apprenticeship, a degree course, or a course run by a practising furniture maker. The big problem is that years of practical experience are needed to become a good maker � and while getting this experience, a trainee is a cost to an employer who has to stop his own work to teach the trainee. Andrew takes graduates from degree courses. He says, “In the old days, students passed O’ or A’ level woodwork prior to entering a two or three year furniture design and making course. Today, without woodwork in schools, much of the first half of the course is spent getting the students to O/A level standard, before advanced skills can be taught.” Andrew selects by looking at the work, and says, “we can tell more about a student from his/her work than by any certificates. “They continue training with us. We give our time freely to teach them, as well as pay wages often not covered by their work. After about two years with us, they’re viable makers. But then, they go. They feel they have learnt enough to set up on their own - and moral or even financial pay-back doesn’t seem to be a deciding factor in this decision.”

“Over the last 6 months or so,” comments Andrew, “I’ve noticed makers saying that they just cannot afford to carry on doing this. Unless the situation changes, I think we’ll see fewer qualified students placed in some of the better known workshops � which is sad.’’ Even Philip, who is evangelical about apprenticeships, was reluctant to take his latest apprentice, Liam Gardner. Philip explains: “I can’t teach and do work. Before Liam, I’d had four apprentices and every one of them has moved on. You can’t force people to stay, but after giving them three to five years training, it would be nice to keep them for another three years or so. But all of my apprentices have won competitions, and they get poached. So I was reluctant to start again. But,” he jokes, “Liam stalked me.” Liam began, aged fifteen, by asking for a week’s work experience. From the moment he arrived, he says, “I knew in my heart that I wanted to come here. For the next year, I kept ringing up to make sure that Philip didn’t forget me. I showed him things I’d done: I had a supportive teacher who gave me a basic knowledge of how to use tools, and I read books and experimented at home. My Mum’s friends asked me to make tack boxes, and it gave me an idea of what I could go on to.”

Philip says, “I took him on because he was so enthusiastic. I want lads or lasses that are keen � they need to show that love and care for the craft.” Philip recalls, “When I was sixteen, I wanted to do something in wood. I’d got grade A in my O’ level woodwork, and the teacher wanted me to do A’ level. But that Easter, a local joiner offered me a job. I became an indentured apprentice and I’m so glad I did.” Philip studied City and Guilds and Liam also attends college. Philip says it’s valuable for introducing other aspects. “For instance, I’ve asked for Liam to be taught veneering, because I work mainly in solid wood.”

Liam won UK National Skills (see info page) in 2007, and hopes to compete in World Skills. He says, “I’m only about halfway through my apprenticeship, so I’ve done well to win this early. It’s down to what Philip’s taught me.” While Liam was in UK Skills, Gary Tuddenham won a gold medal at the 2007 World Skills. Gary began on an NVQ course at technical college � but the course closed. He transferred to another college, but then that course closed too. But by then, he says, “I’d done two years of the NVQ in Fine Furniture Making and I got an apprenticeship at Edward Barnsley. I stayed on as a craftsman.’” Edward Barnsley is a charitable trust that provides workshop training. Gary says, “We normally have about forty applicants for one or two places.” Meeting people at competitions has shown Gary that there are various ways to train. “Apprenticeships are rare,” he says. “There are University courses in furniture design, but they don’t include a lot of working at the bench.”

“My advice to anyone starting out is that they’ve got to keep at it. There are very few places. Ideally, you need to go to college first to get the basics. It doesn’t necessarily matter what course, as long as you can spend as much time at the bench as possible. It might even be possible to start by joining the CITB (see info page) and do joinery, then change and adapt.” (Jackie Bazeley of Proskills, however, suggests that, ‘there is a structure for furniture making, which can be accessed through training providers.’ She urges individuals to contact Proskills for more information). Gary adds, “World Skills needs to be more publicised. People need to know that they can go on these courses, and compete, and fly to the other side of the world.” C�dric Cotilleau was also in World Skills, where he won silver in 2005. But he was travelling before that, as part of his training with a French organisation, Les Compagnons du Devoir. C�dric now works with Pascal Silvestre, who also trained with the Compagnons and has a business near York. Pascal says that the Compagnons were founded to train the craftsmen who built the great mediaeval cathedrals. They still train craftsmen today. Youngsters join as apprentices. During the second part of their training, the ‘Tour de France’, apprentices travel to placements in a variety of workplaces. The youngsters are supported though the Compagnons’ network of houses and training workshops. C�dric decided to join after visiting an open day at one of these houses. C�dric left home aged fifteen, but lived in a Compagnons’ house, where older residents helped him. C�dric says, “I learned how to live, and learned community human values, as well as work skills.”

Pascal says that this is important: “We not only teach members to be good craftsmen, we teach them to be good people as well. The idea is that somebody would be able to see by your attitude at work that there’s something a bit special about you.” During his Tour, C�dric took advantage of the Compagnons’ international network. He says, “I wanted to see a different culture and learn about life. So I went to work at Reunion Island.” He competed in World Skills and later came to work with Pascal. C�dric concludes, “I was two years an apprentice, and six years in Tour de France. You learn all the time, but at the beginning, you learn more than you give. At the end, you still learn, but you give a lot of knowledge to younger ones.” Pascal says, “I still train young ones coming travelling. We have ninety three youngsters travelling in the UK and Ireland at present, of mixed trades. We’d like to get young Brits involved, but it’s hard. I had one British apprentice. He took his first stage here, and now he’s gone to France for his travelling.”

Pascal feels that there is currently greater appreciation of craftsmanship in Britain than in France. However, his efforts to involve British people in training have been less successful. He says, “When I’ve asked people if they would like to take one of our members, they’re willing to take someone who’s trained, but they don’t want to take someone younger and teach him, when he’ll be gone after a year. They don’t see that as a benefit. But in France, they understand that it’s a benefit for everyone.” John Makepeace, who has trained many furniture makers, says, “The general feeling is that colleges of design provide training in designing and making. But making facilities are costly and, as a result, the quality of training has declined.” He adds, “It’s hard to find technical colleges offering woodworking for fine furniture. Lots offer carpentry and fitting, but fine furniture needs more.”

“Workshops want people to come with making skills and an understanding of design issues � but colleges are less able to provide. Perhaps it’s a new thing to expect people to come into the workshop with any level of skill. Perhaps we were spoiled when we could.” John says, “It is valuable for young students to gain practical skills through their secondary education. Like learning to do anything well, these are life-enhancing for most people, and help to develop a broader self-respect and confidence. At the same time it is advantageous to have a broad education in a range of subjects. Early specialisation in practical skills can limit creative potential and that is where value lies.” Therefore, John sees value in design degree courses. He says, “For me, there’s a distinction between education and training. Education opens up divergent possibilities, while training tends to narrow the focus, whilst increasing the level of skill. A complete person needs both.” As John says, many technical college courses are geared to furniture manufacture, or to kitchen fitting, but there are some for bespoke work. However, many of these courses are closing. The issue, it seems, is funding. Edward Gee, of City and Guilds, says, “There is a demand amongst learners to undertake our craft qualifications. However, the funding attached is not as generous, and therefore not as appealing to training providers; as other areas of study.” He adds, “Cabinet making, wood turning and woodwork are popular, but small in number, and purely due to funding issues, declined to a small handful of students undertaking them. The fear is we will lose these important craft skills, that create the future’s heritage, purely due to funding limitations.”

However, it may be that the tide is about to turn. The Government wants to see thousands of apprenticeship positions created over the next few years, and sector skills organisations (see info page 101) are all working hard at promoting craft education and careers and encouraging apprenticeships. Although the LSC generally pays apprentices’ college course fees, employers have to pay apprentices a wage. However, there may be help towards this in the future. In January 2008, the Government’s Apprenticeships Review described measures to expand apprenticeships, including a pilot wage subsidy programme for small businesses. Time will tell whether all these initiatives help the next generation to become craft workers. In the meantime, says Philip, “In Mediaeval times, we were the elite. One day, we will be again.”

Philip Bastow is a designer-maker of fine furniture: T: 01748 884555

Pascal Silvestre is a cabinetmaker specialising in architectural work: T: 01904 470909

Andrew Varah is a designer maker of contemporary furniture and Chairman of the Guild Mark Committee of the Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers T: 01788 833000

John Makepeace is a designer maker who founded the Parnham Trust to educate and train furniture makers in design, making and business management. It has since amalgamated with the Architectural Association, while John now concentrates again on furniture commissions. T: 01308 862204

Sector Skills Councils
Sector skills councils work with employers to assess current and future skills, draw up National Occupation Standards (NOS), and develop courses.

Launched in 2005, Proskills is the sector skills council for furniture making, which includes manufacturing, kitchen fitting, upholstery, and soft furnishings as well as bespoke cabinetmaking.
Spokesperson Jackie Bazeley says that National Occupational Standards have been drawn up, are in place and accessible for both the modern and traditional cabinetmaker. For anyone looking to access skills training, information on training providers is available on the Proskills website. She also points out that Proskills are working with schools to encourage young people into the industry. Jackie comments that employers should not be shy of contacting local schools and offering work experience to interested youngsters. T: 01235 432032

CCskills is the sector skills council for creative industries. It was formed in 2004 and has been gathering information prior to launching a strategy this year.
Spokesperson Phillipa Abbott says, ‘We have only just begun our work with the craft sector and Rosy Greenlees of the Crafts Council has joined our board to oversee this. Current government-funded apprentice frameworks are problematic for the sector due to a range of factors including geographical spread, diversity of craft disciplines and the high percentage of sole traders and micro businesses. CCSkills is therefore developing special apprenticeships geared to the needs of crafters. Crucially, CCSkills also wants to campaign to get craft back into the school curriculum. CCSkills believes that craft education is vital not only to train future crafters, but also to educate potential craft buyers. The public perception of the craft sector, and the level of respect accorded to makers for the skills and creativity they bring to their work, is intrinsically linked to an understanding of craft skills. Practical experience of three-dimensional work at school and beyond must play a vital role in creating this level of understanding.’ CCskills is launching its first Creative Apprenticeships in 2008 and plans to promote these careers in schools. T: 020 7015 1800

CITB Construction Industry Training Board, for apprenticeships in carpentry and joinery: T: 01485 577577

The Institute of Carpenters
The Institute of Carpenters was formed by craftsmen in 1890, with a remit to oversee training and maintain high professional standards. Spokesperson Duncan King says that with few traditional apprenticeships now available, college based routes in are the norm. Students usually begin with an NVQ course. For those craftsmen and women wanting to enhance their career, the Institute offers further qualifications.
The Institute also encourages ‘skill sharing’, and wants established workers in wood to contact local colleges. Duncan says, ‘Experienced professionals will always be welcomed by colleges to contribute, be it as an occasional teaching assistant, an afternoon for a seminar, or a class trip to their workshop to really see the skills at work.’ T: 020 7256 2700

The Edward Barnsley Workshop is a charitable trust that trains apprentices within a commercial bespoke furniture business. T: 01730 827233

The Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers
This Guild was founded in 1951 to foster the craft and industry of furniture designing, making, marketing and retailing. The Company does not arrange apprenticeships. It fosters professional development through Guild Marks for craftsman made furniture and educational tours for students of design. T: 020 7256 5558

UK Skills organises skills competitions, and manages the UK team for the World Skills competitions. T: 020 7580 1011

The Compagnons du Devior have a representative in England, Brice Delhougne.
Brice organises 3 week exchange visits for apprentices aged 16 to 19 and is looking for British apprentices interested in work experience in France.
Contact Brice on 079 6807 7534

City and Guilds offers qualifications in vocational skills T: 020 7294 2800

Selection of courses:

This is neither exhaustive, nor is listing an endorsement of the quality of the course:
it is simply a selection to whet the appetite:
All courses charge fees.
Grants, bursaries or loans may be available. See
The Learning and Skills normally pays course fees for apprentices (subject to age), while employers are expected to pay the apprentice.

HND or Degree Courses
Places on these courses are allocated through the UCAS University Admissions application system
Oxford and Cherwell College
Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College
Lincoln University

Short Courses:
typically one to ten days in duration.
West Dean College
T: 01243 811301
Many practising cabinetmakers offer short courses, among them are Bruce Luckhurst:
T: O7730 202560
John Lloyd offers short and longer courses:
T: 01444 480388
David Savage offers a one year intensive course:
T: 01409 281579
Willliams and Cleal offer short and long courses
T: 01984 667555
Tom Kealy teaches short courses and a weekly day class at his workshop in Somerset.
T: 01460 234272

NVQ and City and Guilds Courses:
These are offered at many technical colleges.,
T: 080 800 13 2 19
Can help with locating a suitable course.

Apprenticeships combine college learning with work experience. Some are organised by the employer, others though local training organisations or skills councils.

To find an apprenticeship, you need the detective skills of Sherlock Holmes, coupled with the competitive drive of an Olympic athlete: there is usually stiff competition for any apprenticeship place.

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