Reinventing the apprenticeship: looking at new learning models for craftspeople with Aaron Barton

Reinventing the apprenticeship: looking at new learning models for craftspeople with Aaron Barton

We recently caught up with Aaron Barton of Backwoods Originals to discuss his journey as a furniture maker and how he was able to establish a successful artisanal furniture business in today’s economy.

As a fourth generation maker, a woodworking apprenticeship seemed inevitable for Aaron Barton; but his journey into furniture making is not your typical story that starts with the usual apprenticeship. While the structure of traditional carpentry and joinery apprenticeships do still exist today, the focus on mass production has reshaped such apprenticeship models to adapt to the needs of today’s fast-paced society. After looking into existing apprenticeship options, Aaron felt they could not offer him a viable income or the specific traditional skills he sought. Still determined to become a furniture maker, Aaron tailored his own ‘apprenticeship’ to gain the skills and knowledge he desired by travelling in search of mentors and through his own research and trial and error. After three years of self-guided learning Aaron has established a successful business specialising in handmade bespoke furniture and site-specific designs. Aaron applies his skills across a range of products, from furniture and homewares to theatre sets, creative fit-outs and installations. He is passionate about extending the furniture market beyond the mass-produced by making handmade, bespoke furniture more accessible.

When Aaron originally came to us with the idea to tell his story through an exhibition we were immediately curious about how other artisans from different mediums might be reinventing and creating their own ‘apprenticeship’ models to revive traditional crafts in a contemporary context. Together, Aaron and artisan curator, Richard Stride, sought to tell these stories through The Apprenticeship exhibition.

We recently caught up with Aaron to discuss his journey as a furniture maker and how he was able to establish a successful artisan furniture business in today’s economy.

You can see Aaron’s work in The Apprenticeship until June 25. You can also hear Aaron discuss how learning pathways can evolve to better serve craft practice in The Apprenticeship closing event on 24 June. Register here.

Check out more of Aaron’s work here.


How long have you been making furniture, and what drew you to it initially?

I quit my job and officially started making for a living in 2012.  I felt the furniture available in the market was generally built poorly and from questionable materials.  So I set out to design well considered products that I needed; as a result, others began to ask me to apply that ethic to their needs. From those beginnings the spectrum and scale has grown from localised design solutions to all inclusive design directions in spaces like retail, set design in theatre and public works.


What has been your favourite project and why?

My favourite projects are where I’ve said yes knowing full well that at the time I would be pushing the limit of my skill set.  I actively pursue this kind of work and it’s the basis of how I’ve learnt my craft. In most cases this approach has produced the work I’m most proud of.


Custom furniture made by Aaron Barton of Backwards Originals. Image courtesy of the artist.

Image: Custom furniture made by Aaron Barton of Backwards Originals. Photo by Porfyri Photography.


What does a normal work day look like for you?

It depends on what period the projects I’m working on are in.  If we’re in a conceptual stage and I’m spending a lot of time in front of a computer. I try to break my day into 2 hour blocks with breaks in between. If we’re rolling out a project, it’s an early start and all hands on deck, lots of coffee and sawdust.


How was furniture making traditionally learnt in the past, and does this path still exist?

Traditionally both furniture makers and designers did an old school apprenticeship. Furniture making apprenticeships do still exist in the form of a joiner or cabinetmaker. When I started I was offered a more traditionally structured apprenticeship but it just wasn’t economically feasible, and the skill set being offered felt too specialised. The kinds of joinery and the types of materials I was interested in are not a large part of the contemporary commercial furniture maker’s toolbox, and so an apprenticeship in the traditional form didn’t feel true to my initial motivations for choosing to do what I do.


What pressures do you think have led to the traditional pathway becoming problematic?

Gradual economic pressures and public perception of value over the previous 30 or so years have made it difficult for local furniture makers to remain viable.  So there are fewer masters remaining to pass on the knowledge. However, there is an almighty change in the air and I feel confident that future generations of makers will have the resources available to carve their own paths if they so desire, but I’m not so sure the traditional apprenticeship will be the vehicle.  I hope to see more access to communal workspaces and then maybe a more community-based apprenticeship could follow.


Backwoods Original 1

Image: Aaron in his studio. Photo by Tarin Glazier.


How did you learn the techniques and theory behind your craft?

I sought out other people who inspired me in one way or another and made a lot of effort to set up workshop visits so I could pick their brains. Initially those conversations were to find out how those makers learnt what they knew but along the way I picked up a lot more, from business and marketing ideas to actual fabrication techniques. From that base, I read a lot of woodworking manuals and researched specific skills when a project came along that required something outside of my knowledge.  Fundamentally woodwork is an accessible craft and anyone can learn the basics but it takes years of persistence and refining those skills to become good at it. You need to be hungry for it then nothing will stop you.


What has been some of the main challenges in acquiring your skills and knowledge?  

The main challenge in teaching myself how to be a furniture maker was establishing a support network or brains trust around me.  As a self-taught maker it’s hard to know sometimes if you’re on the right path or if you’re wandering down the garden path…


How long did it take to establish furniture making as a viable living? How challenging do you think it is for others to achieve this today?

It probably took me up until recently; maybe 3 years in or so.  The main challenge, as with any handmade craft, is getting your hourly rate right. In the early days you base your prices of what feels fair and you do everything you can to make the piece exceed your clients expectations and this usually means working almost double what you had planned (because your still figuring it out). Now days I’m just quicker at making things, I have acquired more machinery which is accurate first time with minimal set up and that goes a hell of a long way in maintaining a viable living.



Photo by Tarin Glazier. 


Have you had any mentors? Or have the skills of your trade dissipated and needed to be relearnt?

My main mentor has been Greg Hatton from Newstead, Victoria. He was one of the first people I visited when I decided to start this whole thing, and more than anything he inspires me. I try and visit his workshop at least once a year, catch up and talk shop, and I always come home with my buckets full and ready to get back into the workshop.  In the first two years of starting my business, Greg was an invaluable brains trust and I would often call him and ask him for advice, mostly on how a furniture business should be run. We both have different ways of making furniture but the reasons behind the furniture are where we share a common thread.


Are there any speciality tools required for furniture making, and if so has it been challenging to find and learn to use them?

The more you get into furniture making the more specialised the tools become. This is mostly in regards to machinery – you need big machines like bandsaws, jointers and thicknessers, cabinet saws and spindle moulders.  These machines aren’t as rare as some of the equipment in other crafts but they are expensive so that has been the main challenge. It means as a business we are constantly reinvesting profits into equipment to increase efficiency.  It’s a challenging thing to balance.


In hindsight, what resources would have been useful in developing your skills and establishing your business?

More Queensland furniture makers making exciting things! When I started this journey I didn’t feel there were many furniture makers pushing the craft in Queensland. I don’t know if that’s true or the fact that we don’t have any significant design fairs or exhibitions related to furniture in this state made the people out there less visible.  That being said, I definitely feel there has been a big growth in start-up furniture companies in the last few years. So I would love to see an annual programmed event in Queensland that showcased the best of Queensland makers to both promote value of the work and the sharing of ideas and skills.


Custom furniture made by Aaron Barton of Backwards Originals. Image courtesy of the artist.

Image: Custom furniture made by Aaron Barton of Backwards Originals. Photo by Porfyri Photography.

What do you think the future apprenticeship model for furniture should look like if it aims to give makers the skills they need to establish themselves today?

I’d like to see a structured apprenticeship that embraces and supports the journeyman process of acquiring skills, a community-based apprenticeship;  a system with registered mentors who are supported in teaching specific skills for intensive periods so that “apprentices” can tailor their own learning for their own career goals. I believe a system like this would increase participation, save traditional skills and produce a new kind of dynamic tradesperson with a skill set relevant to the contemporary clients needs.


Obviously, furniture is produced on a large scale. What has this mass production meant for the design and quality of the products?

This is a hard question for me to answer subjectively.  Let’s face it, custom handmade anything is expensive and takes an investment of time and trust, which that doesn’t work for everyone’s situation. I do believe the two worlds can co-exist and there are some huge possibilities that mass production can take advantage of. I think mass production should stick to its strengths through using materials and creating designs that are favourable to the process. Where mass production often fails is when it tries to replicate traditional joinery with inferior material. This just creates an obscene amount of waste and landfill and as mass production in furniture is here to stay they have some large social consequences to deal with.


How has today’s marketplace, with abundant mass-production, affected what you make and how you make it?

When I decided I would jump headfirst into the furniture making world it was as a direct response the products I saw available in the mass market and I personally didn’t have the time or money to buy ten plus bookcases over my lifetime due to failures in available designs. So I decided to make my own, pieces that had integrity and would outlast me.  I will say that the mass market has forced us to continue to look for efficiencies in our production process, we have no interest in being competitive with “big box”, but it’s important to us to give value to our clients.

The main effect the mass furniture market has on the furniture making industry is the middle market of replica furniture.  Unfortunately Australia has its fare share of dinky di, true blue “entrepreneurial” bottom feeders and this has both diluted the meaning and had a disastrous effect on the perceived value of custom furniture.



Image: Exhibition furniture designed by Aaron Barton for our Marketplace exhibition (2015) curated by Melinda Gagen.



As you said, there is a revival in the traditional production of furniture. Why do you think that is? Are makers creating new value in traditional production methods or are consumers now simply perceiving value in it?

I definitely think there has been a bit of energy around small furniture making business over the last four years. I’ve noticed the industry really grow over my time and I think it’s a really exciting space to work in.  The fact that so many people are doing it now really pushes the industry to innovate and make exciting work. It’s even better to see that a lot of people are still basing their craft around traditional techniques and building on that by adding new technology. I really feel it’s a balance of this authenticity and efficiency that will help our industry continue to grow.


What skills have been important in contributing to a revival in the artisanal furniture making economy that were not historically a part of this work?

I think the way makers engage with the community to share our work is the most influential change.  I mean maker videos are a genre now, and social media has helped us open a dialogue with the public about what goes on in workshops all around the world. I think this gives a whole new depth into the experience of working with a craftsperson and ingrains so much more meaning into the work that’s created. After all, people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.


The artisan table

Image: Exhibition furniture designed by Aaron Barton for our Marketplace exhibition (2015) curated by Melinda Gagen.