In North America, we are too cavalier in using the word “master” to describe an artisan. Many times, it’s simply BS advertising copy when a publisher tries to puff up one of its authors: “Mr. Shinkle Gymnosperm is a master cabinetmaker.”
I think we can pretty much ignore that as over-heated hyperbole. But when I see a woodworker describe himself or herself as a “master carpenter,” “master turner” or “master carver” I have one reaction.
Show me your papers.
Today I stopped by Frieda’s Desserts to get some croissants after picking up a plank of hard maple. I’ve eaten at a lot of bakeries; Frieda’s is the best I’ve had in North America. It’s run by Armin Hack, a tremendous and friendly German baker. His “Meisterbrief” – or master’s certificate – hangs above the cash register for all to inspect.
He earned his certificate in konditoren-handwerk – confections – on 23 Jan. 1986.
As I said above, his pastry is amazing, but the paper does not make it so.
The term “master” in Germany and many other European countries means you have studied a curriculum for several years in both your craft and in business. You have passed a series of official state-sanctioned tests and are therefore permitted to set up shop and sell your wares. There are also obligations that come with the title – you must be willing to teach journeymen and apprentices what you know.
The certificate typically applies to an area of the craft that is quite narrow. For example, I have met many German joiners who know nothing about carving or turning. Those are other crafts. So applying the term “master woodworker,” to someone who has mastered all aspects of the craft is also a bit odd to my ears.
Plus in North America, the terms such as “apprentices,” “journeymen” and “master” never really had much weight here. While there were attempts to set up a formal European system here, they failed for the most part. There was simply too much work and not enough bodies.
We’re Americans. We don’t use those terms.
Yes, I know that some of our trade unions have a formal system that mimics the European system. They have titles. They also have coursework, a series of tests and – in the end – a piece of paper you receive that means something.
So the next time you see that term “master” before someone’s name or their trade, ask to see their “Meisterbrief.” It should be right above the cash register.
— Christopher Schwarz