What does it mean to be a master craftsman? The answer varies a little depending on where you live. Hundreds of years ago, master craftsman was a title earned by members of guilds. It indicated that you had achieved status in your handiwork community (wood, silver, glass, etc.) through extensive training and apprenticeship. Today, in some countries, New Zealand or Germany, for example, the title of master craftsman is still earned in much the same way.
Individuals pursue a formal multi-year training and apprenticeship program in a specific trade. At the end of that apprenticeship, trainees take a test to become certified joiners, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, etc. In some counties, an additional, optional test is available for any student who wishes to be certified as at the master level, e.g., master joiner, master carpenter, and so forth.
Currently, in the United States, the highest available certification for woodworkers is journeyman. This term typically refers to someone who is in training to become a framer or carpenter, though it can apply to furniture makers as well.
So, how does someone become a master craftsman in woodworking in the US? Typically, by reputation and the esteem of your peers. Master craftsman is an honorary title given to those who have avidly pursued woodworking either as a hobby or a career. For example, Laura’s neighbor growing up is someone we would consider a master craftsman. Mr. Hayward ‘tinkered’ with woodworking in his garage. After more than a decade of tinkering (several decades at this point), he produced—and still produces—impeccably made, beautiful furniture.
In a similar vein, Sean never formally studied furniture making. He studied landscape architecture in school, decided he didn’t want to work behind a desk, and opted to channel his design training into woodworking. His formal wood trade-craft began when he went to work for Dahlquist Studios, a custom cabinet maker in the DC area, in January 2001. Working alongside other skilled woodworkers in a co-op space, including John Benson who wrote the book on veneering, Sean learned skills and techniques from certified master joiner, Campbell Wood (Kiwi Custom Carpentry), as well as from Samoan carvers, a guitar maker, metalworkers, and other builders and artisans who moved through the co-op. The shop offered him space, tools, and opportunity to learn and practice on his own time.
Applying the diligence he learned through landscape architecture studio courses, Sean developed skills in joinery, veneer, carving, and finishing relatively quickly. He started small with a veneered chessboard, then experimented with shapes and carving through small boxes, eventually working his way up to furniture. After a little more than a decade practicing his craft, Sean’s co-op peers began recognizing the quality of his furniture, referring to him as a master craftsman.