by Jackson Dubois
The term “journey” originates from the French journee, meaning “day,” and refers to the journeyman’s right to charge a fee for a day’s work. The Germans have the Wandergesselle or the “wandering journeyman.”
While we have members of the Guild that have taken part in both of these traditions, and many who know a great deal more than I about them, there isn’t an American equivalent. After spending just shy of ten great years working on the shop floor of the Cascade Joinery in Bellingham, Washington, and completing the Guild’s apprenticeship program under the tutelage of John Miller and Craig Aumet, I felt a strong desire to wander.
My experience as an apprentice on the Guild’s Gwozdziec Synagogue reconstruction project introduced me to craftspeople from all corners of the globe. One of them, Andres Uus of Estonia, was hosting a workshop on log sauna construction at the non-governmental organization he leads that is devoted to passing along the knowledge of constructing and maintaining Estonian vernacular architecture. I saw an opportunity in his workshop to reconnect with Andres and others that I had met on the Gwozdziec project, and set out to get out of my comfort zone and learn new things and meet great folks. I spent the next two and a half years working and travelling in Europe.
The number of projects I had the opportunity to work on and the individuals I have to thank would easily fill this page, but from working with Estonian production log builders (thank you, Andres) to working with the University of Copenhagen’s Forestry Program (thank you, Mikkel), I learned a great deal about how far one can go on a carpenter’s pencil, a folding ruler, and a willingness to learn.
I scribed and cut a boat building hall from reclaimed timbers and fit new ship’s knees for a non-profit focused on reconstructing Viking era river barges. I lived in a rural community on the Russian border and cut a frame for their village hall. I studied felling techniques, and the construction of crazy feats of engineering in Denmark, and built a log cabin in northwestern France (thank you, Julien). And I spent a few months with Germaine restoring an old log house in the Estonian countryside. After working on boats and making a few pieces of furniture, I came to refer to myself as a wood joiner rather than a timber framer: it was much easier to explain in some instances and opened up more opportunities.
In many (but certainly not all) of these instances I worked with minimal tooling and in rough conditions; but in all of them I found I had a useful skill and that somewhere, usually very near, there was a young person who was interested in learning something about it.
One of the greatest personal lessons though—other than how to operate a Mafell chain mortiser without its fence, work with a mason you share no common tongue with, navigate border control officers that aren’t happy with you at all, and the unwritten rules regarding the consumption of various moonshine—was that in most trades in the States we don’t have much available to us in the way of “inherited craft.”
This seems to me the blessing and the curse. Few immigrants reached these shores with the intention of doing exactly as they did back in the old country, and the ways in which we are unbound by how our forbearers worked leaves much room for innovative, efficient approaches. It also means that innovation and efficiency are our main aspirations in many ways that don’t seem to be serving us, or our environment, very well at times.
This is not to say that an older way of doing things is necessarily a better way, but there is much to be learned from approaches to craft that have developed directly from a place and had to stand in balance with their environment, both human and natural, in order to sustain themselves.
There is also much to be learned from wandering around dressed like a carpenter from a faraway place and hoping humanity sees you and puts you, fairly, to good use, putting something in your pocket, or your belly, for your efforts.
We have so much to share within the Guild membership as well, and I feel there would be much gained by working towards making roads for young craftspeople to wander, both domestically and abroad. It’s part of the making of a master journeyworker.