Sand and Cement

November 30th, 2015

One of my earliest memories was crouching down next to a cobblestone retaining wall and inspecting the mortar. Then my playmate, we will call him not-Rudy for convenience, from above on the retaining wall, dropped a rock on my head. Nearly 60 years ago it left an impression, and I imagine that I can see that mortar joint as clearly today as then. A few years back I went to look at that wall, and the stone wall up the street from there that I built some 40 years ago. The walls are still there. For me they both hold memories.

I grew up in the Finger Lakes region of NY State and was raised on top of a hump in a glacial moraine that besides being full of stones was attractive to lightning from the embedded iron in the earth. The furthest most reach of the Appalachia’s, all different from any other place in that geographic region. I spent many days in the local crick playing with stones, building dams, diverting water, digging blue clay and leaving it out to dry in the sun to bake turtles. I enjoyed cultivating pools for the minnows and water striders. The crick was also where I learned to socialize as my friends would come to play and we would build in the water together.

Our driveway was made up of a round gravel of an assortment of stone. I spent many hours, days, out on the back stone wall, the walls that my mother had built, with a hammer crushing the pebbles into sand. I sorted the different types, the colors, and the texture of the crushed stone, now sand into baby food jars.

As an adult one time I stood with an architect at the entry to a Sloan Kettering building in Manhattan and I asked them why their specifications for stone repair were all written as concrete repair. They asked me why I asked. I pointed at the surround to the door and said, “Because this is limestone.” “How do you know?” was their reply. At some point we just do not know what to say. At some point we simply do not know how we know what we know. Then there are those places where we suddenly realize that maybe we do not know at all.

Ken Follett sifting sand in Manhattan

Ken Follett sifting sand in Manhattan

I’ve been around out on the streets of Manhattan sifting sand. I got these sieves off of Amazon, they are made in China, they come in a wide assortment of gradations, they are cheap and if you have the patience they work pretty well. It takes a few hours to shake the 5-gallon bucket to get enough finer sand separate from the coarse to do what we need to get done. People that walk by make comments, like that I look like a gold miner. I respond, “I am getting paid to do this.” But deeper in the back of my mind I have a good day doing this simple action that I have been doing off and on for decades.

The problem comes up though that we have been doing this fairly elaborate stucco job on the lower façade of a townhouse and between what I know, and what I don’t know, I keep running into a wall of what I don’t know. As Rudy says, “Oh, you know how to get into trouble too.”

Stucco in a sense is like a thin smear of mortar, the same ingredients that would hold a stone wall together, but in the case of stucco needs to hold itself together as a surface against a field of masonry (in most cases). In this project we need to make a new surface that will match to a surface that is presumed to have been created 50 years ago. We need to provide new shapes, rustication (lines indented to imitate cut stone), and curved bump outs, and to match color. For color we are dependent primarily on the match of the sand. A specific sand that we purchase in New Jersey where we drive out to pick it up. It is several times more expensive than the sand one would purchase at Home Depot. But the sand alone does not a color make. We also need to play with the cement, in this case, contrary to the perspective of our traditional mortar friends who would prefer to play with lime or natural cement, it is Portland cement based, as is the original. The final recipe includes just a tad of inorganic color added to a mix of white non-staining and gray Portland. The color we purchase off the shelf from an artist’s tint source.

A selection of the run of stucco mock-up samples

A selection of the run of stucco mock-up samples

I made 20 mock-ups in search for the perfect match, pushed to the left and then the right with each step, until I realized that number 14, that I had at first rejected, had changed color over time. This is how we get to the desired result, but it is also how we get ourselves in trouble.

Stucco, mortar, what people who do not work with it, those who only see the end result, do not often realize is a fluid material. You mix up the dry ingredients with water and then you apply it with a tool, usually a trowel. Once it is where you have put it you go away and come back and it is either where you put it, or maybe somewhere else. It is also now hard, as they say, hard as a rock.

The trouble is the movement, not always intentional, not always from carelessness or disregard but simply that stuff happens. Mortar, like concrete, sags. More stuff happens when you take in the environment, tough summer days at 98 Fahrenheit, days of unexpected rain, direct sun or no direct sun, or old-man cramps in the hands and legs. So, there is one layer applied and as that morphs from the wrong color to the desired color you fill in here or there, and that new in-fill is the wrong color a tad off from the previous, and you nudge and fiddle with the surface until it properly looks like hell. But if you go away and come back it all mellows out. Patience. Trust in materials science. Worry.

If the above seems complicated we can make it worse.

Original stucco vs. new

Original stucco vs. new

In order to match to the existing color of the stucco on the façade we need to etch the new stucco in order to expose the color of the sand, and to reduce the surface area of the exposed color of the cement. Keep in mind, we are not cleaning the masonry, we are acid etching. In this case we do this with muriatic acid. It is a delicate process, not particularly pleasant, and a total pain. It requires patience and a close observation as the acid foams up and eats away the cement. Caution in handling acids, and despair when it runs down the face of the building and we need to grab the hose real quick before it etches elsewhere than intended.

It is also a problem to control the process. If, in application of the stucco one pressed and swiped in one spot with a bit more pressure and gusto than in another, the stucco being applied by hand, then when it comes to the etch some areas have more cement at the surface than others. Some areas have less cement and get eaten away and made rough with the exposure of the sand. The acid etch reveals a whole other layer of hand activity than if one were to simply apply the stucco, smooth it over neatly, then leave it alone for 50 years.

In the process of this project it occurred to me that the mechanics who did the original work probably did stucco, and nothing but stucco every work day for 15 years before they perfected their craft. People come along and tell us how good it looks and that nobody does this anymore. We tell them that we don’t want to do it anymore either. Here I have a few months to try to imitate the past trades, but what we are to do to this wall is not what they did. What we have to do is quite different and not anything that the traditional mechanics had to even think about.

I tie all of the above in with reflection on Rudy’s search for tools in Myanmar in his blog prior in the series to this entry. A portion of his and Laura’s adventure is to reach out into the unknown of the historic past and meet it up with realities of the unknown present. For me, at this time, that exploration of the unknown is within an hour from home.


Ken Follett

Rudy Christian: Tools of the Trade

October 22nd, 2015

When my wife Laura Saeger and I were asked to become part of the World Monuments Fund team working to restore Shwe-nandaw Kyaung, Mandalay’s most prized monastery, we knew we would face some challenges, including understanding the ancient way of timber frame building in Myanmar, working with teak, a wood we were unfamiliar with and working in an environment nearly 2000 miles closer to the equator than we have ever been before. What we hadn’t anticipated was just how difficult finding the tools of our trade, in this recently opened country, would be.

Since the master blacksmith, Than Naing Oo, spoke no English, and I spoke no Myanmar, we worked from photos and pictures.

Since the master blacksmith, Than Naing Oo, spoke no English, and I spoke no Myanmar, we worked from photos and drawings. Photos by Laura Saeger

As we anticipated beginning our work in Mandalay, we built a list of the tools we were both familiar with, and that we knew would be impractical to try to carry over as baggage or ship as cargo. Not only would there be a great deal of weight involved, but many of the tools we work with are prized antiques or expensive modern versions developed and manufactured in Europe or Japan. We knew getting tools from Europe might be a challenge, but with our Midwestern perspective we thought as close as Japan was to Myanmar, compared to the US, and the rich history of Japanese timber framing would mean we should be able to source good Japanese joinery tools in Mandalay.

At home our versatile Japanese squares and irreplaceable Japanese pull saws are always close at hand, both when we are working in the shop, and when we go out to do on-site work, but even though we took photographs of them with us, not one tool supplier we showed them to had ever seen anything like them before. We soon came to realize that well before 2011, the first year Myanmar began to open its borders to tourism and trade, Chinese manufacturers controlled a strong and nearly exclusive market for most any product you would want to buy, including carpentry tools. Our prerogative shifted from buying tools we knew would work, to buying tools we figured we could make work.

The thrill of touching the master blacksmith’s work for the first time. Do I look happy?

The thrill of touching the master blacksmith’s work for the first time. Do I look happy?

Switching from Japanese style pull saws to European style push saws would be awkward, but something we could do, and replacing high-quality layout tools like squares and dividers with inexpensive knock offs would work, but would have its drawbacks. The real challenge would be finding high-quality edge tools like framing chisels and drawknives suitable for cutting timber frame joinery in teak, a trade that has as much as vanished in Mandalay. Since woodcarving is a trade that continues to thrive, we thought it would be a good idea to find the supplier the woodcarvers get their chisels from. Luckily Min Haem, the on-site civil engineer, was able to connect us up with his prior employer, U Win Maung, who has a woodcarving shop in Tampawaddi where most of the woodcarvers live and work.

After weaving our way through the narrow streets and alleys in the neighborhood of Tampawaddi, we found ourselves in the living room of the family where many woodcarvers buy their incredible variety of carving chisels, all of which were quite well made, but too small for the work we need to do. After asking if they could get larger chisels and mallets, the tool merchant suggested we should go directly to the blacksmith who makes the tools he sells. Having never done anything like this before, we were excited at the possibility of meeting a craftsman who made 19th-century tools in the 21st century. We set off with our guide, U Win Maung, to meet Than Naing Oo, the blacksmith, whose family welcomed us into his shop, and as is customary in Myanmar, asked us to sit and wait until he returned, rather than come back later.

The shop, with its handmade and belt-driven tools, powered by one of the single cylinder diesel engines that are the workhorse of Mandalay, was quite interesting and made the short 20-minute wait quite enjoyable. When Than Naing Oo arrived, we were introduced and I began to explain what we were looking for with pictures we had brought, and hand sketches made while we were talking. Soon it became obvious he had a real interest in making tools for us that were typical of what were once used in the Shan State of Myanmar when heavy timber framing was still an active trade. We agreed on a price and were more than surprised when he said to come back the next day to see if we liked the two framing chisels, drawknife and log caliper he would have ready for us.

The handmade tools including a drawknife (left) a log caliper (enclosing the chisels) a 1½-in. framing chisel and a carving gouge (my gift).

The handmade tools including a drawknife (left) a log caliper (enclosing the chisels) a 1½-in. framing chisel and a carving gouge (my gift).

The next day, after calling to make sure the tools were ready, we returned to Than Naing Oo’s shop to find him hard at work on a chisel that was not part of our order, but his assistant brought us the tools we had ordered to see if we approved. Once again I found myself humbled by the skills of a fellow tradesperson, how well the tools were made, and by how well the blacksmith/tool maker had understood our requests. The tools were crude, by modern manufacturing standards, but obviously well made and clearly showed the hand of the maker, unlike the tools we would normally buy from a catalogue or online.

As we stood there admiring our amazing acquisition, the master blacksmith, who had stopped working at his forge, came up and presented me with a beautiful carving chisel he had just finished making as a gift to me for our ordering tools that he had never been asked to make before. There is no doubt that most tradespeople I know will agree that good tools make our work more enjoyable. I have often said there is nothing better than a well-made tool, but now I can say that what is even better is shaking the hand of the tradesman who made it for you; something I had never experienced before searching for and finding the tools of our trade.

You can learn more about the Shwe-nandaw Kyaung project a

Rudy Christian

Ken Follett: How to Survive Your Work Environment

July 29th, 2015

It has been suggested that we add a bit of how-to into our discussion, or maybe talk about upcoming events. On the upcoming events thread we have been way too busy this season to think much about anything upcoming other than what we will need to get together and get done next week. The upcoming will have to wait.

As to how-to – for the last 30 or so years I have worked in restoration in the NYC environment. I want to talk about how to survive in our own unique work environments. I know it is different in NYC than some other places, like Maine or Oregon, and Rudy comes into town from Ohio once in a while to do stuff. I know he always finds it quirky and adventuresome.

I have helped a few folks at various times come in from outside of NYC in their need to get acclimated to the place. Over decades I have noticed that of those from more rural places who come into the city –, at one time I was one of them – that they either adapt real well and stick around for a while, or they go stir crazy nuts, babble at the mouth and then run off into the wilderness (that vast unknown region West of the Hudson).

Ken Follett on the job in NYC, guarding the truck and parking place. Photo: Zach Watson Rice, architect

Ken Follett on the job in NYC, guarding the truck and the parking place. Photo: Zach Watson Rice, architect

The photo that I include here is me doing real serious work. My assigned job is to make sure that we do not have to move our truck that has the tools and equipment in it. We are parked right outside the door of an historic shul where we are doing probes. This is our staging area. Also that our tools and equipment are not stolen.

This was a double-shift project, by that I mean that we had already worked a day in the field and this was a gig that we had to fit into our schedule. We are parked in the bicycle lane, which also means that I need to look just industrious enough that we don’t get any bicycle evangelists irritated in our using up their designated space. The hazard flashers are on. Now, if we were used to work in the boonies of America it would not necessarily occur to us that this is a task that needs to be figured in to the means and methods plan.

When we worked at Sing Sing I was told to figure up what we thought it would cost and then triple it. Thankful that we only worked there once and it was a small educational loss. I will talk about toilets later, but I won’t talk this time around about the toilets at Sing Sing.

We had a slate roofer friend come in to Brooklyn one time from Monticello, NY, to do a job for us as a subcontractor. He picked up a kid off the street to hire for day labor. He then drove to a hardware store to get some materials. He left the kid in the truck with the keys. His idea that the kid would watch the truck while he went to shop. Reasonable request. The kid sure did watch the truck, all the way to wherever he drove it off to. So, the how-to part here is how to not lose your truck and tools on the first day on the job.

Parking a truck in NYC is often problematic. We were recently on a project where the street cleaner comes through on our side of the street either on Monday or Thursday between 11am and 12:30. If you are sharp you can make use of this short span of time when vehicles are rushing around playing musical chairs to either not get a ticket, or to get parked once again.

On a Tuesday a kid from Arizona came into town with a really fine welding truck that was his own. He had earned his welder chops in the oil fields of the Dakotas. This day his job was to remove and re-install an iron area-way fence.

It was the first day he had ever been in NYC. He was perplexed that he did not know how he was going to be able to get his truck with the welder machine close to the work area. I, the elder sage with the big bushy beard, pointed at the street parking sign and told him, “You need to read the signs.”

I had read the sign myself on several occasions in an attempt to make sure I actually understood what it said. When I pointed at the sign I did not think about there being a tree in the way between us and the sign and at first I think the poor kid was impressed that I was trying to tell him to learn to read the trees. But reading trees is a whole other issue in NYC.

I was down at the Department of Transportation and while waiting for my number to be up I read a whole page of paper on what you need to do to get a permit to touch a tree. I found out that you can get in a whole mess of trouble if you knock a branch off of a tree. Having done that a few times I have often wondered what the consequence could be. Not pretty for a dumb sap, if you get my drift.

One rule of survival at work in NYC is that you do whatever you can to move the work forward until someone comes along and tells you that you are doing it all wrong. Usually this is my son and business partner.

To park the truck in a garage down the street costs $40 each time. They would never accept a welding truck, no way. So on the hottest day of the summer I worked alone on the façade of the building, half-work in the area-way, half on the sidewalk with people with dogs and baby carriages and octogenarians that walk through all day long.

In the heat I had lost attention about the street cleaner. I got a ticket. It was so hot, particularly with the full sun radiated off the masonry front of the building that… it was hot… oh, yeah… hot, yes, it was hot and I nearly fell over a few times when I stood up too fast. Despite the irritation of a ticket, it was super convenient for me to go sit in the truck, read emails and run the air conditioner for a bit.

The ticket cost $65. So, for $25 I got more relief for the money than if I had gone to a movie theater, plus once I got cooled a bit I got to keep at work for a pay check. I had brought my own lunch which, in that neighborhood, would have cost me half the $25. But then I was told by the superintendent from the building across the street, a neighborly fellow originally from Malta, and who has just as much fun with his parking situation as mine, he told me that you can get a ticket if you sit in a vehicle with the air conditioner on. So I relax with the door open and my feet stuck out.

A lady in the high-rise building across the street from where we are at work comes over at least once a week and complains about the noise. So I went over with my smart phone with the sound meter app and in front of her building it is 78 dB and when I walk down to the far corner to 2nd Ave. where they have been at work on the new subway for years now it is 74 dB. This is without ambulances, fire trucks, or an ambulatory bus to honk their horns at a double parker.

When I use the vacuum cleaner at home it is 80 dB. But in NYC one needs to take rational science into small account as once you find a nut case they do not go away easy. I had a project where an elderly person with nothing better to do every single day sat up in the window videotaping the crew. It can be nerve wracking.

I also had a project on a 20-story building where a woman would occasionally run out onto the terrace, grab up a quarry tile and throw it over the parapet. I saw her do it one time, but much later I did not tell the lawyers at her claim of leaky roof drains deposition about it.

Flying flower pots are bad news as well. Or there was the time we got an angry fax letter complaint that the work crew had sat on their terrace furniture at lunch break and needlessly reduced the lifespan of the seats, which notice we got as a perspective on the day of 9/11.

The how-to here is how-to not go nuts and still get the restoration work done.

We had a job at a private Boy’s School on the Upper East Side where we were told that we could not use the bathrooms and had to put a porta-toilet out in the street at the curb. This was OK except that with the pressure on parking the local residents would shove the John with their bumpers. Imagine, Mercedes, Land Rovers and Jaguars putting the portable into toilet. Every few weeks I got a call that neighbors down the street were upset that the toilet was again in front of their building. It was my task to go out and supervise the relocation of the small structure.

We were asked to put together a proposal to work in someone’s trophy house, by that I mean that they collect houses like some folks with old coins, postage stamps or postcards. Not houses to be lived in, but talked about and if one is lucky get to walk through. This was a house where some famous photographer that we had never heard of had lived.

In the proposal, as was standard in all of our proposals at that time, we included a clause that the building owner was to provide access to a toilet. We made sure to say that we would be clean about it. Their project manager, from California, not used to work in NYC, or simply upset at just how crass and insensitive us Easterners can be, felt that this clause was outlandishly rude on our part. I am glad we did not get that job.

As to bathrooms, Starbucks is the best thing that ever came along for those who do in-out spot work in NYC. They always have a pretty clean maintenance facility, you don’t have to ask or buy any java, and they don’t ask questions. Though a builder type all dirty and so in boots with a hard hat you may have to stand in line and act half-ways human. For their service at Starbucks I don’t care how much the coffee costs.

Ken Follett

Rudy Christian: A Good Reason to Talk to Myself

June 16th, 2015

Ken makes a lot of good points about not just the how but the why of someone becoming a tradesperson. Although I still wonder whether the process is more about discovering your inner tradesperson than deciding to be one. People have often heard me say it’s important to put tools in the hands of young children so they can decide which ones fit their hands and minds.

In the “note” at the end of Ken’s blog he wrote: Timber framers, at least some of them, use “marriage marks” to indicate which end of a timber joins into another. This is essentially true, but more accurately “carpenter’s marks” (the more traditional name) are a way of keeping track of where each piece fits within a “scribe rule” timber frame; kind of like Post-It Notes engraved with a race knife.

A traditional tradesperson in Mandalay refining his skills in the ancient craft of woodcarving. Unfortunately most of his work is headed for the Chinese hotel chain market. Photo by Laura Saeger

A traditional tradesperson in Mandalay refining his skills in the ancient craft of woodcarving. Unfortunately most of his work is headed for the Chinese hotel chain market. Photo by Laura Saeger

Timber frames often have hundreds of individual components and when frames are cut using scribe rule layout, which is what we did when we first started building them in this country, each individual piece could only go in one place in the frame because it had been scribed to fit there. I find it interesting that right around 1800 timber framers in America came up with a simpler system of layout, called “square rule” layout, which easily takes 75% or more of the back breaking work out of laying out and cutting up a frame. It also makes the majority of the parts of the frame interchangeable, which meant carpenters marks were no longer necessary.

Curiously, the system of square rule layout never traveled back to the Old World and frames there are still being cut using scribe rule. To me this offers us a fascinating look at both learning and tradition. It would appear that when tradespeople developed their own traditional way of laying out timber frames, that became the standard and accepted method. Although the style of scribe rule layout systems and carpenters marks varies from country to country, within their borders, that the way it is done. The knowledge of how it was done was passed from one generation to the next and that’s how you learned to do it.

Germanic carpenter’s marks found in a frame outside of Wooster, Ohio.

Germanic carpenter’s marks found in a frame outside of Wooster, Ohio.

In my travels I have been lucky enough to visit quite a number of centuries-old timber frames in the Old World and the new. It’s quite something to study carpenter’s marks in different countries and realize what an ancient tradition their use is and how they have traveled through time across generations remarkably intact. Carpenters marks cut by German carpenters in 1500 look remarkably like ones that are cut in 2015. The same is true in France and England and other counties where the building of timber frames continues.

When you look at frames cut in this country in colonial times you find there are carpenters marks that are exactly the same as you find in the Old World. When we came to this country we brought our tradition of building with us and first generation timber frames were built as we had built them before we got here, but we were building them in the New World. We didn’t have an American timber framing tradition yet.

Working and learning in a world where a young tradesperson was very likely to meet tradespeople of many different nationalities had to influence the very process of learning a trade. Depending on where you were you could very likely end up meeting master timber framers who were English or Dutch or German, each of which brought a different tradition of timber framing to America. Studying carpenter’s marks reveals that very early on in America timber framing began to change. In effect, we were creating a tradition that was both a melting pot of many different traditions and unique.

By 1800 we had a strong American tradition of timber framing. The way we lived, farmed, worked and communicated was different than it had been in the countries our ancestors came from, and so was the way we learned. Rather than learning in a world that was primarily populated by a single nationality that could be traced back over many generations, we were learning in a world made up of mostly American citizens whose ancestry could be traced back to many countries besides this one.

It doesn’t surprise me that the tradition of timber framing that we were immersed in in 1800 was a place where American ingenuity could change the basic way we did timber frame layout work. Having had the option of learning from so many different timber frame traditions, and the option of mixing them together to create our own meant we didn’t look at our trade the same. Our trade was different and new and our own. Why wouldn’t we want to make it easier as well?


Carpenter’s marks are basically carpenters talking to themselves. Each time you scribed a joint to fit together, you knew you better mark it so you could keep track. If that mark also told you where that joint was supposed to go in the frame, that was even better. Kind of like reading your own handwriting on the wall. But what if you didn’t need to make all of those notes to yourself? What if you could look at a piece and know where it went? Sounds like an idea worth noodling to me.

So if our own creativity and ingenuity provided us with the ability to improve our own trade and simplify the thought process as well as drastically reduce the amount of physical labor involved, why has it become simply an American tradition and not affected the way it is done in other parts of the world? Does this say something about the very nature of learning?

In Ken’s last post he described his opportunistic approach to learning his trade. It does make sense that once you decide what you want to learn, a good way of doing it is to find someone to learn it from. The question still remains as to whether the desire was one of self-discovery or implantation, but what he didn’t do was go to Japan to learn stone masonry. He decided to learn it where he would be doing it.

What I did learn when I attended the Gewerbe Akadmie with my son in Germany was that what I was learning would be of little if any use here. Learning the traditions of German timber framing is no doubt useful if you are going to be timber framing in Germany, so what point would there be in coming to America to learn the traditions of American timber framing unless you plan to work in America?

The fact that we feel we have a better way of laying out timber frames in America is true if this is where you are doing it, but not if you are doing in Japan, because that isn’t the way it is done there. The simplicity or elegance of square rule layout is lost on Japanese timber framers. The reality is they don’t use scribe rule layout either, but that a topic for another discussion. Right now I think I will just be glad it is the way I learned to do it here. Next I will need to learn how it’s done in Mandalay, which is a new adventure I will have to tell you about later.

Rudy Christian

Ken Follett: William Blake Cut Sharp Marriage Marks

May 6th, 2015

I like how Rudy refers to the circuitous route by which trades tend to get to where they are though I would want, for cultural reasons, to flip this perception on its head. I have usually known pretty well where I wanted to go, if only I could find a way to get there. If there was a circuitous part, then it came about mostly from my listening to other people, teachers, adults, guidance counselors, misguided mentors, friends, telling me that I could not get to where I wanted to go.

Stonemason mentor on the left, Marshall Pruitt. On the right, a younger Ken Follett.

Stonemason mentor on the left, Marshall Pruitt. On the right, a younger Ken Follett.

I know a good number of folk in the traditional trades who knew full well right along that was where they wanted to be. Often enough there was pressure from their families to be something else, and they had to learn to resist. I consider this the “cantankerous” generation that came along with an attitude of, “No way, not us, we won’t go.”

This irritable, though valiant, resistance, by the way, has a tendency to become ingrained in habits of thought and feeling and quite often will bleed over into project teams. Such as the oft-encountered sense of adversity, a false one that I do not have space enough to go into presently, between the person who designs with lines and the person who uses a hammer and a chisel to cut lines.

But I step back from a reactionary impulse and begin to think about where a belief originates that one can live a good life thoughtfully while working physically. I believe it has to do a great deal with our ability to see options, to see opportunities, to visualize a path, to know where the next step is. Just as with a revolutionary, a rioter, a victim or suicide, the options, opportunities, and the vision of a path forward may not be there.

At one time in my youth my life was a bit messed up and it occurred to me that, as with many at a point in their lives, I had no clue what I wanted to do with myself. I decided that doing anything would be better than wondering what not to do next. I’d pretty much given up on going to college (I kept applying to a working cattle ranch and school near Death Valley), and so I said to self, “I think I will go to Japan.”

So, I drove alone to Oregon from upstate NY, and after a half year, including several months working as a cook in a restaurant on a Native American reservation, I hitchhiked back. I never left the American continent. I never got on a boat. At some point not long after my return to the family home I was piling up stones in a creek – not as sophisticated as that YouTube guy that balances stones – and it was then I decided that I wanted to learn to build fireplaces. Not long after that I was delivering bull manure – it was my first honest business – and I met a stonemason who was as old as I am now. He needed a mule and I went to work. He sort of taught me how to build fireplaces, and he also taught me how not to build them. The idea that one should only learn from people who know what they are doing is misleading. I now know that in winter the white stuff on the frozen trowel was ice and not a sign of the mortar setting up quickly. I worked with him for three years. Twelve-hour days, six days a week. I think of him often these days as I look around at the world of trades work.

A point of my early bias in respect to formal education can be illustrated with an exposure that we had for a few days of patio and barbecue building when a young fellow about my age came along. He was recommended by someone’s aunt or uncle. He told us he wanted to be a stonemason and that he had gone to school in Denmark for it. This poor kid was a dunce when it came to stonework. We had to shuffle him off fairly quickly. He may have had a paper certificate in stonework. (I have nothing against Denmark.)

What I came to learn was that if I wanted to learn how to do a thing, then it was up to me to go find someone who knew how to do it and to then do my best to work hard and gain their approval so that they would feel inclined to teach me. My career has been a movement from my choice of one mentor to another until one day I looked around and wondered where they had all gone off to.

Some may say that my learning was imbalanced. I have a habit of finding people that I think are angels. This one day I had off from work, it had to be a Sunday, and I was sitting on the wall at the local bank and this guy came along and asked me for $5. He said he did not want just $5 for nothing, but that he wanted to talk with me for a while and then I could decide if I wanted to give him $5. So we talked.

He asked me what I did for a living and I told him about building fireplaces and doing stonework and out of the blue he pointed to the row houses across the way and said, “One day people will be asking you how to fix buildings like that.” It was then I thought he may be a bit nuts. But, eventually that is exactly what I came about and learned to do. See, there is a seed to every vision, and with as many visions as we can hold there are more options and more opportunities.

But, I can also revert to what Rudy says about starting out in one direction and ending up in some other place. I actually started out wanting to be a poet. I may still be one, but taking up a sledge hammer and banging on glacial cobbles to split them open and reveal the minerals, crystals and colors of their insides and then building a wall of them is a compulsion all unto itself.

At one time I wanted to be a zoologist with a specialization in animal behavior. We have had all sorts of pets over the years. Another time I wanted to be a goat herder and build a yogurt empire, but then we got pygmy hedgehogs and I felt downsized in the dairy industry. Instead, I like to make wine out of weeds and flower petals.

Though my rambling here may seem off the mark, the point I want to make is that very often when I am engaged in doing what seems the least likely to have anything to do with traditional trades, or even with historic preservation, is often where I learn the most useful skills. In some circles, it is called play. In my culture I call it meditation in motion. It is that celebration of life where our work becomes the passion, where it is not solely gauged by the pay check or the industrial hours, but by the satisfaction, the contentment of doing a thing that one is able to do and at the odd times to accomplish it fairly well.

As humans we need heroes, we need role models, we need companionship and a sense of community in shared values. Rudy asks why there is an imbalance in the implementation of the learning modes in our society. There is not much of an imbalance in my society. There may be in your society, but not in mine. Rudy often calls out that that there is a problem with our culture.

Many years ago it occurred to me that if I wanted to write just like everyone else then I should read what they read. If I wanted to write something different then, as with Thoreau, I would need to find my own dissonant drummer, and read what every other writer is not reading. Go off list, young man! The learned knowledge that comes of reading, of reading extensively, is a form of culture. There are some really incredibly dense and obtuse books out there (I confess to having read all of Finnegan’s Wake, once, while daydreaming amid mesas) and one day I had the epiphany that all those fashionable books that I don’t care to read are not in my culture. In fact, to we each have to live within our own unique culture. So, honestly, I’m not quite sure what culture it is that Rudy is calling ours. In my culture tradespeople are not only highly valued and respected, in many cases they are my friends.

One time I was in a bar and I told a stranger that I wanted to be a writer. He responded, “So stop wanting to be one, and be one.” That made sense. It shows that we can learn things at the least expected opportunity. If you want a different culture, then have a different culture. Another time, I told my painter friend that I was having a good time playing with stones and he remarked, “Well, maybe that is what you are supposed to do.”

Likewise, if one does not want to be imprisoned in a narrow minded society where the abstract function of the brain is dominant over the mind and hand at play together, then just don’t do that.

Go barefoot and run into the sun with sharp mortise chisels.

Note:  William Blake was an engraver and poet. He engraved copper plates for illustrations of his poetry. That line cutting, very sharp and precise was an act of craft that in turn became a print. He had a fixation on the sharp line and rebelled against the fuzzy lines of the artists of his day. He also created a rather intense personal culture. One of his poems, written in 1790, was The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Timber framers, at least some of them, use “marriage marks” to indicate which end of a timber joins into another.

Ken Follett

Rudy Christian: Which Came First: Teaching or Learning Trades?

February 23rd, 2015

Ken’s first contribution to “A Place for Trades” was primarily about process, which points up the fact that learning (hopefully) can be the result of a system of education which works from the top down, or the bottom up, or a mix of each. Analytically, this is quite well thought out and described, unlike the way in which most people I know in the trades would view their own circuitous route which lead them there. In fact, far more people I meet in the trades tell a story of starting out in the “hierarchal” learning environment and ending up in “distributed” ones, as Professor Elmore has put forth.

My timber framing mentor Ed Levin, who we unfortunately lost in 2013, started off college with the intention of becoming a mathematician. My college years were spent as a student of mechanical engineering. Interestingly, both of us started off studying subjects which later in life proved invaluable in our pursuit of the trade of timber framing, and both of us transitioned from one form of learning to another during our quest. In fact we probably spent time learning our trade in all four “distinct modes of learning” described by Professor Elmore.

To me this begs the question why is there such an imbalance in the implementation of the learning modes in our society? Have we intentionally structured public and private education as hierarchal because of the relative simplicity of it compared with the less structured modes, or have we designed the educational system to produce the kind of student we consider to be the most beneficial to our society? Have we modeled our culture of education to suit who we have become, or who we wish to become? The answer may lie in the fact that what we now call “shop class” was originally called “industrial arts.”

In a culture where tradespeople are considered highly valued members of society, the mechanisms by which the knowledge of the trades is passed from generation to generation are prolific. As I stated in my own last blog post, the fact that learning a trade is largely an experiential process means it requires tradespeople to be involved. It also means that the mode of learning our current educational matrix is built on, hierarchal individual, is not well suited to tradespeople functioning as educators within the system. In effect, whether by intention or not, our educational system is a reflection of our society; a society in which tradespeople are largely invisible.

From left to right Philippe Compagnon (Zimmerman Instructor), me, Carson Christian (my son) and Lon Tyler (TFG member and friend) at the compound roof framing class we participated in at the Gewerbe Akademie in Rotweil, Germany, in 2003. Hands on learning German style!

From left to right Filippo Compagnon (Zimmerman Instructor), me, Carson Christian (my son) and Lon Tyler (TFG member and friend) at the compound roof framing class we participated in at the Gewerbe Akademie in Rotweil, Germany, in 2003. Hands-on learning German style!

As Ken points out, my personal mandate to share my knowledge of the trades isn’t shared by every tradesperson, nor should it be. I like to think my German heritage has influenced my desire to pass along the knowledge of the trades. In Germany tradespeople are still considered an important part of society and the educational system there is built to educate people with an interest in becoming one. My son and I were lucky enough to attend the Gewerbe Akademie in Rotweil, Germany, for a short period, where we studied compound roof framing. It was a valuable experience for me because of the insight it provided in how the trades can be taught.

At first blush it would appear the mode of learning at the Gewerbe Akademie is “hierarchal” because each classroom has an instructor who oversees the learning activities undertaken by the students. Those activities, in the carpentry (Zimmerman) course, include drafting, projected drawing, tool sharpening, joinery and model building. What is interesting to me is that the student starts out learning the traditional ways of timber carpentry and transitions through its evolution to CNC machine programming and operation. Once this period of preliminary education is complete, the student has the option of where to take on an apprenticeship followed by a period as a journeyman during which the learning mode becomes “distributed.”

Germany and France each have trades educational systems built on centuries of tradition, yet the students are encouraged to pursue their trades education in whatever way best suits their personal interest, whether it is based on tradition or modern technology, and the modes of learning are employed as a logical sequence, rather than a restrictive structure. To me this is an indication of how an educational system can actually support students of the trades who are subsequently encouraged by the fact that the trades are valued in their culture.

It may be that our public and private educational systems are so linear because of their goal of providing certification for succeeding in the “garbage-in-garbage-out” methodology employed. It would appear they are more about teaching than learning and the type of individual who succeeds at memorization is granted a certificate showing they have the right stuff memorized to function as a member of our capitalistic society. The need for the experiential learning that is necessary in the pursuit of becoming a tradesperson isn’t recognized as being of any value since there really is no need to educate a nonexistent part of our society.

To me, this is motivation enough to want to be actively involved in any process which nurtures learning a trade. It’s not as much a mandate as a survival mechanism. If we believe that our society, and our built heritage, is or will be better off with tradespeople as part of the population, we can’t leave the process of creating them to an educational system which no longer recognizes their relevance. Although I have met a lot of people who disagree, in my opinion certification is not the answer. As I have said before, you don’t learn a trade in school. If we really are certificate driven, maybe we could just give graduates an “I’ve figured out what I want to learn!” certificate.

Maybe Professor Elmore has so carefully studied the four “distinct modes of learning” as comprehensively as he has because he has realized that a holistic education requires a blend of them. As Ken so correctly points out, they all lend themselves to the different way people learn in different ways. To focus on one method penalizes the students who need the other. In a way, the lack of recognition of the trades in both our society and its educational systems, has humiliated many who would succeed if they were not imprisoned in a narrow minded society where the use of the mind itself is valued, instead of the use of the mind and hand together.

Rudy Christian

Rudy Christian: Want to Trade?

January 7th, 2015

Who would have thought that accepting the opportunity six years ago to blog about the trades for Traditional Building would have led to so many intriguing conversations with readers with such varied perspectives on where we are, how we got here and where we should go from here? More than anyone else, those conversations have been with my long time friend, fellow tradesperson and writer Ken Follett, although some may not call our interchanges as much conversations as conflictations.

My respect for Ken’s view of many things, in particular the place of, or even need for, trades education in our society, has motivated me to let those conversations be viewed and reacted to by you. Ken has agreed to be a guest blogger in “A Place for Trades” and you are about to have the pleasure of reading his first post. I will follow his post with another of my own and we will alternate posts as we move forward in our blogging match. Enjoy. – Rudy Christian

I have been invited, or challenged, to contribute here as either a sounding board, a counter-measure or a punching bag to my friend Rudy Christian’s blog comments. Though by habit I am inclined to hustle rocks into a pile, this may be a case where I assist Rudy when he needs persuasion to throw his more warped and knotty timbers onto an active bonfire. Hopefully there will be no dynamite in the mix, but there may be some firecrackers.

Rudy often says that there is a need to change our culture. I am not quite sure what he means by that and I suspect that I may disagree. If we turn off the television, don’t listen to the radio, forget to go online to check the news, and go read a book about the eleventh century, then our personal culture is very quickly changed. So, culture has changed, in particular my culture has changed, but whatever problem you started the day with, I expect you still have to deal with it.

Ken (second from right) doing what he does best - reminding us that we are the stories we tell. As you can see, everyone is listening.

Ken (second from right) doing what he does best – reminding us that we are the stories we tell. As you can see, everyone is listening.

Rudy in his last blog pointed out that public education as it is currently structured is not the solution to the need for a maintenance of the knowledge of practice in traditional building trades, but that the practitioners of traditional trades themselves provide a solution. I want to step back from what Rudy has said and look at the kinds of education that are actually available.

Public education over the last 50 years has leaned toward the elimination of shop, home economics, arts and music. Though we could go into expressing our views on why this has occurred, for the most part we need to acknowledge that our political and academic society has taken this direction, in many respects, out of a lack of understanding of the various ways in which people learn. For this position I would draw from the work of a high-level academic, Professor Richard Elmore, the Gregory R. Anrig Professor of Educational Leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. (ed, Harvard: GSE2, Leaders of Learning, 2014.)

What Professor Elmore puts forward is a model of four distinct modes of learning. For this conversation between Rudy and myself, this distinction is important to understand. One of the modes is specific to an educational model predominant in public education and tends to exclude the other three modes of learning. The four modes are Hierarchical Individual, Hierarchical Collective, Distributed Individual, and Distributed Collective.

Hierarchical Individual: Within the structure of a set of learning objectives, in general provided by an external source (such as the government) there is a well-defined framework of teacher to student in a superior-subordinate relationship. The orientation is toward performance targets, as in individual testing. This is the mode of education that those who can’t quite make it, those of a tactile and experiential hands-on relationship to the physical world, find themselves experiencing as a really lousy time in their lives.

Hierarchical Collective: A bit less restrictive, learning objectives established externally, but the learning process is more accommodating to a group of students in a learning community to work together in a guided relationship with an instructor. This is somewhat the model of a workshop in which an experienced timber framer leads a group of students in fabrication of cannon carriages required for a specific historic fort. The goal of the workshop is from an external source – the need of the museum fort for cannon carriages – but the instructor works with the students in guiding them as a working group. There is a clear objective and it may not allow within the context or the time involved for an individual student to carve out of oak a happy mermaid.

Distributed Individual: In this mode the individual follows his/her own self-generated learning objectives, gaining the knowledge that they require from the world around them.The students are often involved in a mentoring relationship with an instructor, or several instructors, who possess and are willing to share the experience and knowledge that the student seeks. An example would be a young mason who desires to learn to build traditional fireplaces. He would seek out a mason who builds fireplaces to work with, and also has the initiative and self-directed interest to read up in a library as much as possible. In addition, he would take an occasional class to broaden his/her skill set.

This is a learning mode close to what Rudy expresses as forming a bond between the mentor and the student. The mentor is not necessarily degreed in formal educational practice but has a knowledge that they wish to impart to others.

Where I do disagree with Rudy is that I do not believe that there is a universal mandate that anyone who knows anything has a responsibility to share. I consider this an important distinction. For one thing, there may not be anyone looking for that particular bit of knowledge, and for another, the one-on-one educational model is not particularly efficient when it comes to learning objectives established by an external authority.

For instance, if the external learning objective is to increase public literacy and the basic math skills required of a consumer society, then a hierarchical mode of learning has a more efficient, a broader reach than one-on-one. Or, if the objective is to increase the resource pool of traditional trades practitioners able to work on historic sites, then it makes sense that one not rely on a learning mode whereby the mentor selects the student as well as the student seeks out and selects the mentor.

My own education after public school was to seek out working mentors and prove to them that I was worthy to be their student. One aspect that needs to be kept in mind is that those a bit more on the radical edge who learn in this manner likely did so contrary to the tracking the hierarchical education modes may have enforced onto them, and often are not particularly adapted to “playing with others.”

Distributed Collective: This mode involves a community of learning in which a group of people with a common interest gain knowledge from each other and from their interaction with the world at large. There are leaders and instructors, but the tendency is for a collective sharing of the learning experience, and the leadership takes on less of an instructor-student relationship and more of a role of cultivating the interests of a community of people and sustaining them within an environment that enhances the educational experience.

An example of this mode would be a local writers workshop in which the leader sets the calendar of gatherings but leaves it to the writers to bring their own material to read and discuss. It is a highly organic mode of communal learning, and those comfortable in the mode tend to have a great capacity to play together. Another example is the occasional free-form of a PTN IPTW, in which between demonstration sessions of hands-on trades practitioners (giving those with knowledge experience of teaching to a group), people stand in the cold and rain and talk about whatever. The learning is within a structured environment without structured objectives other than the desire of the individual seeking to be informed.

Though in practice the distinction between each mode of learning is clouded and mixed, it is valuable to have models from which to make distinctions between what we see as currently existing, to be able to discern what we like and what we do not like, where we find ourselves between the selection of modes, and what we would like to imagine as possible for the future.

These modes of learning, though not directly relevant to heritage conservation or maintenance of the built environment, are the perspectives being explored at a high academic level as well as being pushed out into the educational environment. If there is to be a change in our culture, which Rudy often says we need, then one element is that there needs to be a wider public and political perspective on the potentials of public education.

The call to reinvest public education with shop class, home economics, art and music is not solely that there is a need for people in the world proficient in use of a hammer, paint brush or spatula, but that there is a whole wider world of people who need education to serve their best mode of learning and to cultivate their individual and community potential. In public education, to ignore three-fourths of alternative modes of education, to isolate and nurture one mode of learners from the majority of others, is to erode the foundation of a democratic citizenship. Nevertheless, to abandon public education as a viable cultural resource and give preference to alternative educational resources would also be a problem.

As things are, the more individually directed learning modes remain viable as traditional educational pathways for those who have the opportunity and capital resources to pursue their individual dreams. This leaves these pathways unavailable to many who are in serious need of them.



Rudy Christian

So Now What?

November 17th, 2014
Willa serves a crab boil for the instructors at the workshop at Savannah Technical College. One of the perks for tradespeople teaching!

Willa serves a crab boil for the instructors at the workshop at Savannah Technical College. One of the perks for tradespeople teaching! 

Having received some really good comments on my last blog, I have decided to stay on the same tack for the time being. We have been talking about the failure, for the most part, of today’s educational system(s) in addressing the continuing demand for qualified tradespeople. As a point of reference I have also pointed out that, at least as far as public education is concerned, the failure is our own, not the school system. How can we cast blame on anything for failing to do what it was never designed to do in the first place?

I have been spending a lot of time ruminating about this quandary, as you might imagine, and I have come upon an interesting (to me) hypothesis: Is the reason we have such a hard time seeing the solution based on the fact that we are it? Aren’t most of us already aware that passing down knowledge requires participation? Have we been ignoring our own responsibility because we spend almost no time at all being aware of its existence?

I have talked before about how much I enjoy being involved in workshops that have been organized by the Timber Framers Guild or the Preservation Trades Network. I have also received great pleasure from instructing at institutions like Palomar College and Savannah Technical College, but when I think about why I am so rewarded it clearly has a great deal to do with fulfilling my mandate to pass along what I have learned.

What is important to realize here is that when a student becomes aware that they are being empowered to do something they never thought they would, or even could do, at that moment a bond forms between the instructor and the student. That bond is not dependent on a teaching certificate, or degree or tenure. It does not require the instructor to be educated in educating. It simply requires the person who holds the knowledge to freely give it to the person who desires it.

This simple elegant process is deeply embedded in human culture all over the planet. The opportunity to engage in the process may seem less apparent in today’s educational environment, but it does require someone who has the knowledge, and someone who desires it to interact in order for it to take place at all. And, knowing that learning the trades is an experiential process means that, in its purest form, it requires a tradesperson to be the instructor, plain and simple.

I have spent a great deal of time talking with Steve Hartley, Director of the new Center for Traditional Craft and Department Head of Historic Preservation at Savannah Technical College, where the next International Trades Education Symposium will take place May 14-16, 2015, about the topic of process in traditional trades education. Steve has, for several years, included a “Visiting Artisan” program in his curriculum. Beginning in 2015 he is expanding that to feature “Artists in Residence.” The program will actually bring in qualified tradespeople to teach for extended periods at the college.

I think Steve’s idea is a solid step in the right direction. Creating any environment where qualified tradespeople are paid as instructors is an important step in getting from where we are to where we need to be. What I find interesting is how challenging it is for Steve to get qualified trades instructors to set aside large chunks of time to teach. The reality is we need a paradigm shift to take place in order to make this whole concept begin to function as part of the solution to the trades education problem. We need to learn how to do something old again. This is not a new idea; it’s a long needed revival.

Obviously spouting off ideas about how to make this all happen, provided we want it to happen in the first place, would be pretty pointless at this juncture. We are definitely just stepping into the trial-and-error period of development, but I have taken it upon myself to start getting some feedback from the people I know best, tradespeople, and I have been getting some interesting answers.

I have two subcontractors working in my shop currently, one a relatively young (compared to me) carpenter and one a more well-worn in (like me) carpenter who has been specializing in timber framing for many years. I asked the young carpenter Andrew what he thought of having tradespeople as instructors in public and private education and he reminded me the reason he pursued working with me was to try to learn from me some of what I know. He knows he can’t learn it in college, but if it were possible to learn from tradespeople in college, he probably would have stayed in school longer.

When I asked Arvel, the carpenter closer to my age, what he thought of this idea, he said it sounded like a great idea, but immediately realized the difficulties. After a little after-dinner conversation over barley pop and wine, we both began to realize just how attractive a retirement option professionally teaching the trades would be. If situations were to exist where we could actually teach in an environment where we didn’t have to employ our students, run the business of educating them or provide them with tools, we both agreed it would be something we would strongly consider.

It’s time we stopped pointing fingers and casting blame for the lack of trades education opportunities. We have to make them happen. Students want to learn and the demand for educated tradespeople is growing. If we tie that demand to the need for qualified tradespeople as paid instructors, everybody wins. There are a lot of educational programs out there trying to crack this nut, but they need the support of industry, and one simple way to make that happen is to build programs that provide tradespeople as teachers.

We may never see the day again where apprentices learn under the watchful hands of the master, as in years gone by, but we can create a day when students who want to learn are taught what the trades are, can see the opportunities that exist to learn them and do so under the watchful hands of the qualified men and women that make up today’s trades. When we accomplish that, we will be providing as great an opportunity to the tradespeople as their students.


Rudy Christian

Whatever It Was, It’s Gone

August 26th, 2014

Sorry for being away so long. Like my tractor whisperer recently reminded me, sometimes you just have to think about things.

Since my last blog I have had some interesting discussions about where we go from here. We as tradespeople, architects, engineers, cultural heritage managers and I dare to say, Mr. & Mrs. John Q Public, are becoming increasingly aware of a confluence of lacks; lack of availability of qualified tradespeople and lack of availability of qualified educational programs to help alleviate the unfulfilled demand. This, for any of you who read my blog, is not new ground for me to set a plow into, but where and why to set that plow seems to me to be the overarching questions. I think we need to do a more thorough assessment of what these lacks are, how they came to be, and whether we have the ability to do anything about them.

The more carefully I look at the problem of the lack of qualified tradespeople, the more I realize my friend Ken Follett is correct. It is not that they don’t exist. It’s the fact that as a culture, we have stopped seeing them, by choice. Clearly there has to be some explanation for qualified tradespeople not even being recognized as living within our society, but I believe we have marginalized the trades so completely that it takes one to see one. We have effectively removed the value of trades so completely that asking someone to see the importance of reviving them is meaningless. We have chosen to remove the trades from our lexicon.

What would explain this apparent attempted extermination? I feel that a lot of the blame can be placed on the rate we move in today’s world. Experience has proven to me that doing good work in my trade requires moving relatively slowly compared to how fast things move in the world of high technology. How much appreciation can you have of the stone carver working on the building you just flew by at 70 miles an hour? You can appreciate, if you choose to, fine craftsmanship on the internet, but how often do we take the time to actually watch it being created? We are much more interested in the product than the process.

Chase appears to be enjoying using the 130-year-old cordless drill (boring machine) we taught him to use at the timber-frame workshop the Timber Framers Guild and Friends of Ohio Barns held at the Pasco Museum at the recent Agricultural Progress Days held outside of State College PA. He also learned to use a pull saw and a chisel and mallet. A smile powered volunteer!

Chase appears to be enjoying using the 130-year-old cordless drill (boring machine) we taught him to use at the timber-frame workshop the Timber Framers Guild and Friends of Ohio Barns held at the Pasco Museum at the recent Agricultural Progress Days held outside of State College PA. He also learned to use a pull saw and a chisel and mallet. A smile powered volunteer!

I also am becoming more and more aware of the insidious nature of how we have degraded the value of craftsmanship by no longer building for our children. Our self-indulgent focus on more faster has completely blurred our vision of the future we are doomed to leave to those who follow us, but where are our footsteps for them to follow? Who among the tradespeople today is the person our children can look up to for guidance and to respect for their knowledge and conviction to build what will make a future worth living in? Who is the Lebron James of the trades?

I’m sure some of you are wondering why Roy Underhill or Mike Rowe don’t fit that category. With all due respect, we have chosen to make them “personalities” instead of role models. In order to give them visibility we have chosen to be entertained by them, more than to celebrate them for what they represent. If the young people of today are to become the tradespeople of tomorrow, they need to be educated by today’s tradespeople, not TV personalities. But the educational system that has devolved into daycare at the public level, and a financial burden for our college graduates has no place for tradespeople as educators.

There are, of course, a few exceptions out there, like Belmont Technical Institute, American College of the Building Arts and Savannah Technical College to name a few, but the valiant folks who have dedicated countless years to making those programs survive will tell you that too much work goes into satisfying the bureaucracy of higher education and not enough into putting tools in the hands of students under the guidance of qualified tradespeople. Effectively we have removed tradespeople from the much needed role of instructors by not recognizing them as such in the first place. The problem of invisibility manifests itself again for the trades when seen from the eyes of higher education.

I have been asked to make suggestions as to where we go from here, and as the title of this blog infers, that is a daunting request. Cultural change is not easy to steer. But a phone call from my friend John C Moore, who heads the Construction Technology program at West Kentucky Community & Technical College, affirmed something I have been thinking is a possible important first step. We need to align industry and education. John nearly lost his program due to underwhelming enrollment and budget tightening. It took input directly to the college from local construction business owners to highlight the importance of educating tomorrow’s construction tradespeople to persuade the college to keep the program alive for now.

As long as higher education is a competitive system which enriches educational institutions at the expense of tomorrow’s workforce, who start off their carriers deeply in debt, the idea that a degree is the only way you can pay off your education will steer tomorrow’s graduates towards what they consider to be “high paying jobs;” the focus becomes the money first and the education second.

What would motivate a student to pursue an education in the trades under these circumstance? If our educational system were to be subsidized by the businesses who need skilled workers, it would be a potential step toward killing two birds with one stone. Imagine what would happen if the government offered some real tangible financial support as well!

I have heard some feedback that tradespeople aren’t cut out for, or even interested in, teaching tomorrow’s tradeswomen and men, but I can tell you from my years of experience teaching workshops and working shoulder to shoulder with other tradespeople in teaching environments, more often than not it’s hard to tell whether the teachers or the students are having more fun. Several stories on NPR recently have highlighted grass roots education programs started by men and women in the trades and aimed at elementary or earlier level students. The demand for those programs has been hard to fulfill and the people who have ventured into this self-made educational programming only have praise for the intense interest shown by their students.

I have also heard, as I am sure many of you have, that today’s students aren’t interested in learning much of anything else but modern technology. I’m here to repeat that is our own fault. If we don’t even recognize and respect the tradespeople in our society, how can we possibly instill interest in the trades in our children?

To me, this is the worst form of future blindness imaginable. I have said before, and will say again (you have been forewarned) we need to give our young people the tools and skills to build and conserve their own future. We sure aren’t doing it. If we want to see progress in education, we need to participate in it. It’s one thing to be irresponsible about what kind of world we are leaving behind us. It’s another entirely to allow a failed educational system to damage our children’s ability to do something about it.

Yes, a lot of technology has been good for our world, but much has been quite damaging. By limiting our view of what we think is important to teach our children, we cripple much of their creativity. Kids can be really creative with tools and materials long before they become adept at technology. We need to teach them how to do both.




Rudy Christian

Are Tradespeople the Canary in the Cultural Coal Mine?

April 30th, 2014

Since my last blog I have had quite a few conversations with friends and acquaintances about the economics of trades education. As you might expect, it sent me on a bit of a wild goose chase trying to figure out just what the source of the diploma/debt marriage was. After all, isn’t getting an education supposed to be about learning skills which enable you to go out and make a living, not pay off a debt you incur before you start using what you have learned? NPR recently did a series on this subject, but as I listened to it I realized there was something missing. The topic of trades education was not included in the discussions.

Highly skilled and respected tradesperson Robert Yapp Jr. (top right with glasses) teaching a class at his grass roots “Window Restoration College”

Highly skilled and respected tradesperson Robert Yapp Jr. (top right with glasses) teaching a class at his grass roots “Window Restoration College”

Why? Because in the world we live in today, and in particular in the United States, trades education is as good as nonexistent. I didn’t say completely nonexistent. There are several higher education institutions out there valiantly trying to survive in the highly competitive world of higher education, several of which I work with as much as possible. But they themselves will tell you, in the big picture, they can barely even be seen by students graduating from our public school system. Nowhere in the mandate of today’s public schools is there a directive to help young people find their inner tradesperson. Why is that?

I myself have been guilty of lamenting the loss of shop class from the K-through-12 school system, but of late I have begun to question the validity of that lamentation. What was the purpose of shop class in the first place? It didn’t exist in the one-room schoolhouses that were the roots of today’s massive public school system. At school you learned “readin’, writin’ and rithmetic.” At home you learned how to plant a garden, sow a field, weed, milk a cow, change a tire, hammer a nail and everything else needed to eek out an existence. Whether you liked it or not, some of the most important lessons in life came from “doin chores.”

In Early America children were sent to school, if there was one, to learn the things their parents couldn’t teach them at home, didn’t have time to or didn’t feel qualified to. But when it came time to teach a young person to drive a team, swing an axe or push a hand plane; that was done under the guidance of a family member or friend of the family who had those skills. If you think about it, there was a very logical separation of the education of young minds with books and blackboards and the education of young hands and minds with hands-on experience.

A lot has changed since those early days, and the more it changes, the faster it changes. Industrialization was a key component in the changes that took place during and after the American Revolution. As industries grew, fathers, mothers and even children became laborers in the mills and factories that drove the growth of the capitalist economy. And as the roles of early Americans changed so did the role of the public education system. Sending your children off to school became an important option for parents who themselves were going off to work, and as the incomes of entire generations increased, the decision to purchase what you needed, rather than grow it or make it yourself, became part of daily life.

With that transition to buy instead of build came an insidious change in the education of our youth. Parents who used to be able to teach their children how to sew, grow or hoe were losing those very skills and becoming dependent on an education system to not only care for their children while they were at work, but to teach them virtually everything they needed to know. That was when the education train jumped the track. It was being asked to do something it was never designed to do to enable the parents of the children attending the schools to go off and work in the factories.

Don’t get me wrong. The Industrial Revolution didn’t eliminate the need for tradespeople. In its early stages it created a great demand for them. People who understood blacksmithing, building construction and use of hand tools where a valuable asset to the industrialists who were competing to get as much of the money this new economy was creating as they could get their hands on. But the steel we were forging, the buildings we were building and even the tools we were using to do it were changing to suit the needs of industry. And coal was driving the steam engine of that industrial world.

The problem, as it relates to trades education, was the opportunity to learn, standing side by side with a father or friend, how to true a board, forge a latch, sharpen a plane or fix a broken wagon wheel was slowly being lost. If young people were going to learn trade skills it would have to be at school, but schools had never been designed to do that in the first place. Schooling was about studying, memorizing and passing tests. You can’t teach trades that way. Learning a trade requires the experience of doing things wrong so you can learn to do them right. It is a slow and tedious process of teaching both the hand and mind to work together to accomplish something. It is experiential.

As schools began to try to pick up the pieces of the education puzzle, attempts were made to understand just what skills it was important to teach. But the world around them was now much more focused on the need for good factory workers. By the end of the 19th century public educational systems were including a form of trades education called “industrial arts.” Go figure. For a time industry and education were strange bedfellows. The tradesperson of that period was more of a Frankenstein than a master of a trade. Trades education had been co-opted to suit the needs of industry.

Is it any wonder that when America finally started to wake up to the need for preservation it was not an easy task to find tradespeople skilled in traditional building? The tradespeople who built the buildings we endeavor to preserve today had little opportunity to pass that knowledge along to their prodigy. Learning at the side of the master was no longer the norm, and the number of young people who realized the value of doing so had become fewer during the heyday of industrialization. It is little wonder that the group tasked with writing the Whitehill Report came to the conclusion that the traditional trades were dead.

Luckily the move to preserve more of our past has been bringing traditional tradespeople out of the stonework. The damage done by the whole “blue collar/white color” mentality is slowly being reversed. But can we fix the problem by putting shop classes back in public schools? I am here to say no. Today’s factory workers receive on-the-job training provided by their employers. It isn’t the place of the public schools to do it, and the fact is, the type of education provided by them isn’t even suited to teaching trades. Both learning trades and the people who are best suited to learn them require a completely different educational environment than the public schools can provide.

If we want trades education to be available at all age levels we need to build the institutions to make that happen at a grass roots level. People teaching people is in itself a revival of how trades were traditionally taught. If we can make that happen we can sidestep both the daunting task of rebuilding the public school system and the need to buy a diploma with money you haven’t even made yet. I know for a fact this is already happening in many local communities and many well respected tradespeople have joined in to ensure they are part of the revival. We used to know how to teach trades. If we are lucky, maybe it’s similar to riding a bicycle.



Rudy Christian , , , ,