As we huddle round the smouldering remains of our global economy, it is comforting to note that while banking and advertising crumble like a wedge of Caerphilly, one industry continues to flourish.
Armed with sublime skill and a set of tools that the average ancient Egyptian would have no trouble recognising, the master craftsman has never been more in demand.
The reason for this, as Prince Charles noted, was that while generations of gifted master craftsmen and women have helped to shape our country’s great towns and cities, “there is a tremendous shortage of people with the necessary skills to conserve and restore this built heritage – as well as to respond to increasing new-build demand.”
But what marks out a master craftsman from a mere craftsman? “I don’t think you can quantify how long it takes to become a good craftsmen” explains Guy Mallinson, master cabinetmaker and star of the recent BBC series Monty Don’s Master Crafts. “I’m still learning and I’ve been at it for 35 years.”
“I would not necessarily link the word complicated with the best in craftsmanship. On the contrary, it the relatively simple processes practiced again and again that develop an in-depth knowledge of, and empathy with, material and structure,” admits Mallinson.
“I work with the nature of the material. Working with unseasoned wood, understanding which way it will split and working with the grain. It’s the repetition of hand techniques and the feedback that you get from the material that increases your level of skill.”
“It could take 40 or 50 years to get to the top” agrees London-based blacksmith Joshua De Lisle. “When you’re a master you’re at a point where you have full control over the material – but it doesn’t end there. Metal can be moved in all shapes and forms so there’s not really any limit to it. It’s what the design consists of that will increase the difficultly.”
So in essence, blood, sweat and tears. (On occasion, literally – more of that later). But once a craftsman reaches the rarefied air at the top, how can the rest of us identify them?
Mallinson reveals two examples. The first, in terms of a master craftsman working with wood, it is the ability to “use shrinkage of material to lock joints, working with just a draw knife and an axe”.
The second is a little more curious – what he calls The Secret Miter. Perversely, it seems that while competition between cabinet makers may be fierce, they choose to deliberately conceal their best work forever, ghoulishly entombing it like an ancient pharaoh.
“It’s universally accepted that the best miters have no glue lines and no ‘gappiness” says Mallinson “but the very best cabinet makers include The Secret Miter – a hidden dovetail joint. It is sometimes an unusual shape, and made with very fine pins that are aesthetically beautiful and yet have the strength of a dovetail.” He is mildly reluctant to reveal precise details of individual secret miters, as if to do so would be the equivalent of breaking the magician’s code.
A little more prosaic is the art of ‘smithing – as master blacksmith Jon Bellamy explains. “There is no final exam or – as far as I’m concerned – accredited qualification for blacksmiths. The nearest accepted trade qualification is experience – and the work produced. This is basically due to the very broad range of skills that are covered under blacksmithing.”
“There are no complex techniques in blacksmithing, just individual skills, built upon until the student is competent and capable of combining and using them effectively. In order to become a master, an apprentice must complete a test piece.”
And, whereas a Japanese apprentice katana swordsmith who, having studied for 15 years, might take 10 days to make his graduation blade, a Blacksmith’s test piece is produced to tighter deadlines reflecting the need to work skillfully and accurately whilst enduring intense heat.
“Usually this is a Guild Lily” explains Bellamy. “It involves forging scrolls, taper, leaf making, forge welding, punching, making tenons, and riveting and is tested under supervision in a relatively short time.”
And once this standard has been achieved? “Our best students will then go onto become UK National Champion Blacksmiths”. First prize? £300. The respect of your peers? Priceless.
Combined with practice and skill, the ultimate rite of passage for master craftsmen is – to put it bluntly – cocking up. After all, one tiny slip of a mason’s chisel could turn a masterpiece to dust.
“It happens all the time” says London-based blacksmith Joshua De Lisle, “And it’s one of the most important ways to learn and develop the ability to keep going. That way, a failure isn’t really a failure.”
“I burn my hands quite a lot – especially if handling a piece that’s expensive and that I’ve put a lot of time into. It could be at a crucial point but if you don’t work the piece while it’s hot, you can start to lose the metal through oxidising. Many times my hands have been burning and smouldering but you just have to carry on – then cry out in pain afterwards!”
“Becoming a master is all about risk and yes, a lot of things will end up on the fire” agrees furniture maker and woodworking expert Guy Mallinson. “You can spend a lot of time on a small component and one lapse of focus can ruin the entire piece.”
“Drill a mortice lock wrong on a leg of a chair and that can represent a day’s work. But you need that element of high risk to focus, improve and become a master craftsman.”
“Twenty years ago I was commissioned to create a 30ft veneered boardroom table, with a one-off design of a tree. The tree was made from a sequence of repeated layers. We ruined one part of the pattern and the whole thing had to be re-made. It took 15 craftsmen two weeks to get back to that same point. It happens; it’s all part of the risk. But put it this way, master craftsmen do not go to work with a hangover!”
To be fair, even the most talented tee-totaller can expect to pick up a few battle scars along the way. “Fortunately I’m relatively unscathed” says Mallinson. “A few scars from saws and plenty of stitches – it’s part of learning to respect the material and tools.”
That said, one cabinet maker who will recognise those sentiments only too well is Stuart Keen, who in June of this year accidentally cut off what was described (by some newspapers) as ‘his own appendage’ – with an electric saw. Thankfully surgeons were able to re-attach it, and Keen continues to make exquisitely beautiful cabinets.
Still fancy becoming a master craftsman? Hey, nobody said it would be easy…
Guy Mallinson is a pioneering master craftsman, cabinet maker, furniture maker and woodworker. His Bendywood handrail at the Laban Centre was awarded the prestigious Stirling Prize. He runs a range of woodworking workshops, the details of which can be found at www.mallinson.co.uk
Blacksmith Joshua De Lilse has five years experience as a blacksmith and has just completed a set of gates for Richmond Park, soon to be installed at the St Paul’s vista. For info on this project and others, visit: www.joshuadelisle.com