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There’s a modern art scuplture at out college of two men hauling about a tonne of plumbline over the heads of visitors. This is the plumbline from below.
That’s year one of college finished. It’s been a good one too, with lots learned and a lot of good new friends. I’m now on the trade guild register as an apprentice carpenter, and I’ve got a licence to use all kinds of dangerous machines. Next year will be mostly in my employers workshop and dealing with customers, and then I get to make my final project and exams in a bit less than two years.
I doubt I’ll have got my act together by then, of course, but I can live in hope.
It would appear that modern carpentry in Germany is not so much a traditional craft with old men handing down secrets of the trade to the next generation as (mostly) a high-tech industry based on fast, expensive and very complicated machines which manage to achieve an almost as perfect result in a fraction of the time. This presents some problems in my mind, like the resulting dependency on said very expensive and complex machines, loss of traditional skills, and perhaps most pressing, the very real danger of losing a thumb, finger or hand. Even if you manage to keep all digits intact, the machines have a nasty habit of firing bits of wood across the room fast enough that you just have time to think “oh ——–” before they hit you rather hard.
To prevent, or at least reduce, the number of future one-armed carpenters we all have to get a machine operators licence, which is why I just spent a couple of weeks hearing various stories about interesting ways people have managed to injure themselves (as if I wasn’t nervous enough around these things in the first place) and making random and often not terribly useful objects with these machines.
The second week was the week of the chair. This was much more fun because we were released from all the theorising and got to make a set of six dining chairs from ash wood. Even better, I landed in a group with two very competent, and more importantly patient students, so the week went by pretty well. Mind you, I say a week, it actually took a week and then another half week of rushing to the workshop after theory sessions because we hadn’t finished our chairs quite in time, but on the other hand we did manage to make all six without too many visible mistakes, despite someone (who shall remain nameless) putting various bits through the machine the wrong way up. Again.
There isn’t an exam for the machine course, thank goodness: we just had to attend it for three weeks without visiting the local emergency room*. It was a bit like learning to drive: the goal is that you are safe, rather than expert. I’m not sure I’ve achieved either, but I’m officially allowed (read: “insured”) to use the dangerous things in the workshop. This is Germany: I have a certificate, therefore I am.
And I’ve got a free chair into the bargain. Since it got home the boys decided it needed testing properly and used it as a climbing frame and dance floor.
*Is it coincidence that the local hospital is the regional centre for fixing amputations?
It was a warm day, so a couple of the class decided to go and get chocolate ice cream for everyone.
This sort of thing didn’t ever happen at my school in the UK, but there were many offers to flush your head down the toilet or throw your shoes on the roof: school just isn’t like it used to be.
Pencil sketch of a pencil, sketched during a break from annoyingly impossible maths problems at college. The pencil was a souvenir of our last visit to Japan: the Japanese seem to make these far better than we manage (see also: erasers, sketchbooks, notebooks, etc…) so whenever I go there I stock up on stationery. If you are wondering how I managed to do a sketch of a pencil using pencil, I always carry a spare. This is less because I’m organised, more that I have an incredible capacity to lose things.
House in Esslingen-am-Neckar. Esslingen is our local ‘big’ town and it emerged relatively unscathed from the war. Faced with an almost unparalleled stock of ancient wood-framed houses, the local council then bulldozed about two hundred of them to make a new ring road, which is now noisy, smelly, congested, and loathed by all who have to use it. Still, there are a lot of traditional, timber-framed buildings left, held together with wooden pegs like this one. There are also a few carpenters who make a living fixing them, because old buildings have to be maintained using traditional methods and hardly anyone is willing to learn the skills any more.
All the better for those of us who are, of course.
Esslingen railway station, where I change from train to bus every weekday. Usually this works but last Friday I arrived just in time to watch the bus leaving. Still, at least I had something to do while I waited for the next one.
More sketches may follow. depending on family, work and me not being caught while drawing at college…
The real practical exam is over, thank goodness: I can handle a lot of things, like making presentations to hundreds of people, and working in an emergency room, but ask me to do an exam and I seem to go to pieces. I don’t know why, but there it is.
The worst bit of today (apart from being faced with the mess I’d made yesterday) was the oral exam. I don’t do oral exams, as my teacher discovered. I managed to remember my name, but even stupidly simple questions were a bit too much for my stressed brain. Still, we muddled through.
In the end the result wasn’t quite as bad as I’d feared. I managed to hide most of my mistakes (it’s amazing what you can cover up with glue and sawdust) and I managed to finishe the whole piece, which not everyone did, and it even worked, by which I mean I could open the drawer and close it again, although I’m not telling how much fiddling about it took to get that to happen. It isn’t perfect, and I’m not sure I’ll bother bringing it home, but at least it isn’t instant firewood which was the most likely outcome after yesterdays comedy of errors.
For obvious reasons I can’t take any pictures of the finished result, but above is the state of my workbench after I finished the last mad dash to hand the box in by 1100.
Theory exam tomorrow.
It’s exam season, so this week I spent a day and a half building a pine step as practice for my end of year exams.
Exams here are different to how I remember from school in the UK. For starters you can’t just go in and pick up your tools. The first 45 minutes you have to write out your plan for making the item in the drawing you’ve been given. Only after your plan is finished do you get your wood.
You are supposed to follow this plan, or at least try to look like you are following it. I failed, as mine didn’t have instructions like “Discover you drilled half the holes in the wrong place at the end of the first day, and there is no way you can get the thing to go together”. The next item on the list could have been “introduce your fellow students to a few new English words they certainly didn’t learn at school”, because that’s what happened.
Thankfully in a practical exam I can ask for help. After twenty minutes with my tutor I’d been given a crash course in moving holes: there was an easy way and a hard way. Of course the easy way wouldn’t look half as good (meaning lower marks) as the hard way, provided the hard way worked. Of course if the hard way didn’t work, I’d probably fail quite dramatically.
And they say carpentry is dull.
To properly sort the problem I had to drill several new 8mm holes, this time in the right place, the enlarge the four misplaced holes to 10mm, put some 10mm pieces of pine into my enlarged holes, and cut them flush with the rest of the piece.
This done I could then glue the whole step together using the new holes, leaving plenty of time for finishing and sanding before eleven. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, I could drill the new holes in the wrong place, again, enlarge the new holes instead of the old ones, drill clean through the wood and make a mess of the other side, or just run out of time and hand in a pile of badly cut wood.
I solved the problem next morning by asking my vastly more gifted and very patient friend to watch what I was doing and make sure I didn’t make any of the mistakes above, or indeed, find some other way to mess things up. With him there I stopped fretting that I was about to do the wrong thing, which meant I drilled the new holes, enlarged the correct holes, and finished the rescue operation in ten minutes flat.
I even finished on time, and I’ve been given a 2.9 which is “fairly good.” considering there’s a row of former holes where no holes should be, I’m happy with that.
Now I just have to get through theory exams in economics, humanities, and, believe it or not, ethics, do the ‘real’ practical test, finish the final wood theory test, finish the second and final week of the machine course, retaining all fingers, draw the last of the technical drawings, and I’m done for year one.
And if anyone needs some holes moving, let me know…
Just over a fortnight ago we quietly passed the eighth anniversary of our moving to Ostfildern, so I’ve now lived here sixteen days longer than I lived anywhere else.
People occasionally ask us if we’ll ever move back ‘home’, meaning the UK. This rather misses the point that Beautiful Wife is Japanese, and even if we decided to go to the UK, it isn’t like we’ve got roots in a certain place anyway. Theoretically our family name comes from Wales but I think we’d have to go back a few hundred years to find that connection, and at that time the other side of the family was apparently living in Dundee with a German name, so it looks like we’ve a long tradition of making things complicated.
I occasionally have daydreams about moving to Wales or Scotland and living off grid, but unless we have a total collapse of the Euro or fall off the end of the Mayan calender, our boys have a much better chance of getting a decent education if we stay in Germany. And as much as I whine about it, our cycle provision and public transport is far ahead of anything in the Motherland, even here in Mercedesville.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t really have a ‘home’ in the normal sense. And that I’ve probably spent far too long thinking about it.
The carpentry apprenticeship continues. Last week we spent a day trying to fit a set of doors into crooked door frames in an apartment in Stuttgart. Apparently many of the older buildings on the edge of the city centre were solid enough to survive British and American bombs landing quite closely during the war, but they were shaken so badly that they were knocked out of alignment. Now doors have to be fitted very, very slowly and tailored to each frame, which involves much carrying of doors back and forth, a job done mostly by the apprentice.
The irony of this is not lost on me.
This is my Raubank, or jointer plane. It’s 600mm (about 2 feet) long. We don’t use this sort of thing in the carpentry industry today: we have machines that can plane wood almost as well as by hand in a fraction of the time, so it would be too expensive to pay a carpenter by the hour to hand plane wood any more.
I prefer hand tools to power tools because they are simpler, easier to maintain and last longer. In the UK and USA, hand planes are usually metal, but in mainland Europe still use these simpler wooden planes, where the blade is positioned by tapping it with a hammer and secured with a wooden wedge, which I prefer as there are no moving parts to go wrong.
I’m slowly building up a set of basic carpentry tools, and I’m trying to get as many as possible second hand, partly because it appeals to my inner tree hugging hippy (Less damage to the environment and no money to the evil corporations, et c.) and partly because I’m broke. I got this plane for a fraction of the price of a new one, even though the base is Guaiacum wood, instead of the usual (and much cheaper) beechwood. Probably it looked a bit too tatty (It was described by the seller as ‘Looking like the Titanic’) for most people to be bothered with it.
The Real Carpenters at work think I’m very strange to be excited about a tatty old jointer plane, but as I repeatedly turn up to the workshop on a Bakfiets, it’s just another eccentricity to add to the list.
Besides, when the inevitable collapse of civilisation comes, I’ll at least be able to make nice shelves.