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Five Things Every Timber Framing Apprentice Should Consider

If you are thinking of taking up the art of timber framing, or post and beam construction, or mortise and tenon joinery, that's a great thing. Seriously, it's becoming more and more important and valuable as a skill and it's a great trade, too.

But before you head off to the nearest Timber Framing Workshop, Apprenticeship or Intensive, here are my top five recommendations to you, for your consideration.

Number One: What is your skill level?

This is important because it makes a difference if you already know how to measure a beam correctly, or use a hammer, or understand how to be safe with a drill, a saw, or basic carpentry hand and power tools.

If you have no experience with any of these tools, I would probably steer you towards an Apprenticeship, that takes students who are learning from the ground up, and can give you those skills, rather than a three or five day workshop, where you are having to absorb a huge amount of information on the fly, in a short period of time.

Most people overestimate their skill level when they are applying for something, like a job, or whatever, but in this case, honesty is the best policy. (Well, pretty much all cases, but you know what I mean. Self Honesty!)

This is very important because it will mean that you will get more out of the program if you aren't completely lost when you are taking your program. At the same time, if you are more advanced in your skill level, you don't want to be bored as everyone is learning very basic skills that you already know. So, give yourself a good honest assessment as you begin your timber framing journey.

Number Two: Power Tools, or Hand Tools?

Timber framing shops typically fall into two categories: Old School/ Traditional style, and Modern/Production style.

In the old school shops, you will learn how to timber frame more along the lines of how it was done a hundred years ago or more, without power tools and using heirloom tools and everything done by hand.

In the modern shop, the joinery will be often very much the same, but they will use power tools to cut, drill and shape the beams quickly, and then use the hand tools for the final quarter inch of the shaping of the joinery.

Both have their place, and honestly, if you are looking to go work for a timber framing outfit after your apprenticeship, it's a great idea to learn how to use the chain mortisers, big circular saws and drills, as part of your training.

On the other hand, if you just want to build your own house, and you don't mind doing it by hand and you like that old school style, you don't need to learn to use a $1,500 circular saw, since you probably won't be buying one anyway to build your own barn or home.

Number Three: Are You Ready to Work?

I won't beat around the bush with this one: Timber Framing is hard work. You are lifting heavy mallets and very sharp chisels. You are lifting beams onto saw horses, and taking off wood with an axe, and making hardwood pegs with drawknives. That takes hand, arm, wrist and shoulder strength.

For most people who are not used to timber framing or hard physical labor, it's important to start slow and give your body a chance to slowly acclimate to the demands you are placing on it. You shouldn't jump into timber framing actively five days a week to start. That would be very, very costly in terms of increasing your risk of serious injury to your body.

It's a good idea to mix up your first three weeks, with a little bit of sawing, a bit of mortise cleaning, and a bit of drawknife work. This way, you are giving your body a chance to build up some strength, but you don't run the risk of tendonitis, or carpal tunnel, or other injuries.

Most schools and shops will help you in this process, but honestly, if the instructors and framers have been doing it for a year or more, they will be able to frame all day, for hours at a go. They really won't be thinking of your sore muscles from the day before.

It's better to start slow, and take your time, and stay safe and healthy! Plan for this accordingly!

Number Four: Do Your Homework!

There are lots of resources out there for timber framers, with books, online info and forums, as well as youtube videos and the Timber Framer's Guild. Read up and do some studying, so you will get a sense of the different styles of joinery. Learn what a dove tail is, or a sill beam, or a collar tie. Learn about the tools of the trade, and the difference between and English style frame and a Dutch style frame. Learn as much as you can, and write down your questions in a notebook so you can ask them in your class, intensive and apprenticeship.

Timber framers love tools, old frames and to share interesting things they have learned along their journey, and if you have good questions, you will show them you are sincerely interested, and you will definitely stand out from the crowd. I mean, don't ask questions to show off or get attention, but just let the crew know that you are serious and you are not coming in completely green!

You can look in used bookstores, or get books online, too, that are pretty cheap, that are old but good, and sometimes it's just fun to look at the drawings and old photos too, and check out how they did things back in the day. There are a few good new timber framing books too, so those are important to check out as well.

And if the person you are going to learn from has written a book about framing, it's a great idea to actually read his book before you get to the program!

Number Five: Invest in Yourself, and in Good Tools.

Learning a trade is one of the best things you can do in today's world. It gives you a craft that has great value, and a skill that can help you and your family for decades to come.

Think about it: If you learn to build a frame and you build your own house, your own barn, your own workshop, you will save an incredible amount of money over having someone else build it for you. Your home and property values will be much more significant, even twenty years later. You might even avoid having a mortgage, which could save you many, many thousands of dollars.

If you go into business for yourself, you can make money building frames for other people and, if you're good, you can make a good living.

Don't skimp on your training, or in buying your own tools. Tools always have great resale value, and knowledge is never wasted.

I am also not talking only about money here. Invest your time, and invest in relationships. Build a great relationship with your mentors, because chances are, you'll be working on a frame at some point in the future and you're going to need help with something, and it's a great idea to be able to call them up or send them an email. It's not just about using your mentors as a resource, but it's also about connecting as people who love wood, and love the craft, and appreciate hard work.

Final Tip: Remember that when you choose to become a Timber Framing Apprentice, you are doing so voluntarily, and entering into a situation where the shop leaders are going to spend time with you, investing their time teaching you, patiently, about the tools, the design, the techniques and all the things that they have spent years figuring out, and they are basically giving you knowledge that was hard earned through sweat equity and sometimes blood. Take what you learn and be respectful, not just for yourself, but for all the other apprentices who will follow in your footsteps someday.

I know of many craftspeople, woodworkers, blacksmiths and carpenters, who will never ever take on apprentices again after having too many young people be disrespectful, dishonest, careless and not complete their commitments. They just gave up, and said "I'm done."

To me, that's sad. All of that accumulated knowledge will be lost, and it's totally preventable. (Sometimes, great artists and craftspeople need to reject candidates for being apprentices, too, if they don't show that they are ready to make this commitment and show up in the right way!)

Remember that what you do has impact, and do your best to honor the tradition, and the craft, and you will be fine. Pick the right shop, or school. Pick the right style. Get excited, too, because what you are about to learn will change how you see wood and how you see buildings, and it will also change how you see yourself. In a very, good way!

I hope this helps some of you who are out there thinking about taking this next step, and please feel free to contact us if you have any questions.

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