You Keep Using that Word. I Don’t Think it Means What You Think it Means

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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

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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44 Responses to You Keep Using that Word. I Don’t Think it Means What You Think it Means

  1. hgordon4 says:

    Inconceivable!

  2. beshriver says:

    Mr. Shinkle Gymnosperm… why can’t i have a cool name like that?

  3. fitz says:

    I can’t believe that croissant made it from Madeira to Ft. Mitchell intact. Excellent self-control. And now I’m regretting not joining you. Also, I am a Master Procrastinator. The A.B. and D. prove it.

  4. My name is Shinkle Gymnosperm. You killed my father. Prepare to die!

  5. Can I be a Woodworker Extraordinaire ? – that can cover a multitude…

  6. As part of the process of becoming a master in Germany, you have to produce a master work as well (depending on the field).

    Slightly off topic: stackexchange.com has started a beta woodworking Q&A forum (non-commercial, not affiliated with any company, free) . http://woodworking.stackexchange.com/ This style of q&a is site is very useful with the IT crowd (for it topics).

    also John Whelan’s books on wood planes are back in print at reasonable prices:
    http://www.astragalpress.com/John_Whelan_Books.htm

  7. Thanks for calling out this sort of self proclaimed egotistical nonsense.

    >

  8. rwyoung says:

    Has anyone considered a career in baiting fish hooks?

  9. diondubbeld says:

    So this is why I’ve always been confused about that term and how it is earned!

  10. drewstout says:

    I always suspected a certain Master Carpenter’s title as stated on a popular public television show in the 90s was based on sawdust-tinged fraudulence.

    Well played, PBS. Well played.

  11. freonguy says:

    Yes, here in North America, we are too generous with the word ‘ Master ‘. The title is often self applied I am afraid.
    In Japan, it means something. Our son worked at a tiny 15 seat bar in Fukuoka called ‘ Smoke ‘ and the owner, Obukuro – san , went to great lengths and expense to hire a ‘ Master ‘ bartender. It meant something there, and people would come from great distances to have drinks made by a Master. As a recipient of the title, he was able to maintain the title for life.
    As for woodworking, they ( the Japanese ) also use the work Master, but you are really something if deemed a ‘ National Treasure ‘, a government sanctioned honour.
    I am a Journeyman ( more Canadian term ) in my trade for 36 years now, am pretty good at it I suppose, but would never consider myself a ‘ Master ‘ .

  12. I always wanted someone to say something about this topic. Here in Switzerland you do 5 years of studies (while working full time in a shop) after the apprenticeship to become a “master” in cabinetmaking. The title is recognized nationwide and is on the same level as a bachelor degree in university.

    • I don’t know why any craftsman would want to be on the same level as a bachelor degree from any university. Universities are for academic studies, craftsmanship should be considered a different ‘thing’. A university’s bachelor might be unable to hold a hammer in his hand firmly, you don’t want to be on that same level I think.

      • I don’t really like the comparison either, it was to give an idea of how the title is recognized by the state. We don’t control how firm the hammer is held, that is considered accomplished during the apprenticeship. In fact the actual practical exam, is at the end of the first year and lasts between 6 and 8 hours. It is graded mostly on speed, security, and precision. The rest of the cursus includes production techniques, c.n.c. machining, cad drawing, pricing, business management, security, electrical notions,physics , surface treatment, human resources, descriptive géometrie, theory on machines, and the list goes on. Of there are always people that are great workers and have less (or no) certification. It is nice to be acknowledged for your hard work. The title ensures quality work. Or you can call the hammer holder.

  13. There is at least on caveat on this post, if you ask a master gardener for their papers, if they are really are one they can produce said papers.

  14. Went shopping today on my lunch break. After reading this, I figure I can call myself a master plumber, because I have toilet papers.

    No? How about…

    Anybody here in the US says they’re a master, I’m just gonna take their word for it, ’cause I ain’t askin’ to see their briefs.

  15. Ryan McNabb says:

    The tradition is carried on at Colonial Williamsburg, where you can earn your journeyman’s papers after years of apprenticeship. And if you rise to the top and take over the shop, you will be entitled to call yourself master. Mack Headley, Peter Ross, Wallace Gusler. Some guy named Underhill. Strong company.

  16. kendewitt608 says:

    Lot’s of great comments, Do not care I just want the croissant !

  17. Remind’s me of St. Roy’s appellation, The “Woodwright”.

  18. Morgan Reed says:

    The USCG oversees the certification of Merchant Marine Captain’s licenses. Based on tests and time at sea, you can earn a “Master Captain’s license”. Like the narrow definitions you discuss, a Master Captain’s license is grade by tonnage, as well as where you can Captain a vessel. With enough time and training you may earn an All Oceans Master Captain’s license. That’s the equivalent of the “master woodworker”.

  19. Of course, he is a true “Woodwright”!

  20. durbien says:

    I understand the rant against boastfulness, but to discount the trade union designations (which do indeed require a significant amount of study, practice, and dedication) just seems like snobbery to me.

    Now excuse me while I hone my Japanese chisels.

  21. woodworkerme says:

    well I call my shop The Country Woodwright I think after almost 40 years I can call myself that. but I don’t think I could use master it’s just not right…

  22. Meta Tron says:

    Hello Christopher,
    I think that I have to disagree with you on that matter.
    In germany you couldn´t open a workshop without your masters degree or “Meisterbrief” in the first place. It´s like driver’s licence for quality work.

    Is there a law that prohibit the use of the term “master” in north America? I don´t think so.
    So … No law, no blame 🙂

    In germany every craft have this laws and in a masters workshop you will see the masters certificate on the wall. Just visit a german hairsalon, really. You cannot open a Barbershop in germany without a “Meisterbrief”.

    In germany the term “Meister” is defined by law and describes your level of schooling and education in a field of craftsmanship. It´s the highest title you can get in germany without visiting an university. And without it you can´t open a shop or teach apprentices (we have special laws for the protection of apprentices).

    We have a hierarchy in germany in education and craftmanchip. Structured by laws. Beeing an diploma industrial designer myself, with an university degree, I´m higer in the hirachy, so I could work at a master school and teach technical drawing or could open an office. To show that I have a university degree to people, I can put “Dipl.Des.” in front of my name when I sign letters or emails, too.

    Love your blog, best wishes!

    Dipl.Des. Timo Rybicki

    🙂

    • I’m not sure what you are disagreeing with I’m afraid. Your points, which are correct, are the same points I was making about the system in Germany.

      Perhaps no law, no blame?

      I suppose I can say I’m an antelope all day long and not break a law. But it doesn’t make it true.

  23. Meta Tron says:

    But if you can build a chair in america and you are very good at building chairs and if you do so for many years, you are masterful at building chairs, are you not? Why not using the term?
    For me the term “Master Chairmaker” sounds very british and artistic. Good for business!

    In germany if you are 15 or 16 years old, after 10 years of school (we have a diffrent school system) you can get an apprenticeship in a chair masters workshop. After 3 Years you get your “journeymen” and after 3 more years (I think) you can go to a kind of private master school. And after 1 year fulltime or 3 years pasttime you have to build your formal master piece and then you get your masters degree with, let´s say, 24 years. Can you build a chair then, of course. But is it the best chair you can build after 40 years of work? No, of course not.

    I think master laws in germany are a market restriction. A kind of monopoly in trade. But the apprentice protection that comes with it are very good.

    I´m not really disagreeing with you. I just wanted to tease you a little. It´s apple and bananas.
    You don´t have the laws and Armin Hack don´t have to show his “Meisterbrief” because there is no law. For him it´s marketing and it´s the way he knows it from home.

    In german you can be more or less bad at something and just getting your master degree and call yourself a master. But in america … you are free to do so when you are really good at something.
    I like that.

  24. Very sensible post Chris. “Woodwork” is indeed so huge and it would be impossible to become a master at it unless it was self proclaimed. Interestingly I’m not sure if the UK has the term “master” before the trade description. My Great Grandfather became a “Wheelwright” after his indentured apprenticeship. Is the term master more continental Europe?

  25. Niels Cosman says:

    Last time I asked to see someones Meisterbriefs, I got slapped in the mouth. I had it coming.

  26. jacon4 says:

    WOW, the term “master” generated lots of comments! There are a few trades where master is still used & means something in america, plumbers & elect. for instance. Without a masters license in those trades you can’t engage in that business or pull a permit. The master exams typically take 8 hours to complete so it is not a simple thing plus one has to qualify to even take the exam, usually 4 years working under a licensed master who must certify that you have done that.

  27. nvmepeter says:

    As explained to me via english master saddler/ harness maker, who was invited to Australia because of. It was relayed that one done his origanal apprentiship. Then did his/her time as a journey man. That person then went back to a education period, ( bit fuzzy on the guts of that ). After exams one passed, that person was titled MATER of which ever trade. Cheers peter Australia

  28. mylordsladiesandgentlemen says:

    A well-respected boatbuilder of my acquaintance in the UK, sadly no longer with us, described himself as ‘time-served’. This signified that he had served a traditional apprenticeship and had been properly trained in all aspects of his trade. Among boat builders especially I have noticed something of a divide between those who have ‘served their time’ and others who have taken it up after, say, a career in banking or journalism.

  29. Well it’s about time someone said it. Master…the ‘m’ should be for marketing. Nice post Chris.

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