Michael Harrington spent five years in Germany as an apprentice in furniture restoration. He invited SoGerman to his workshop to talk about the years in the Black Forest that changed his life.

A furniture conservator remembers his time in Germany

Michael Harrington was 23 years old when he left a well-paying carpenter job in Ontario to move to the Black Forest in the South of Germany.

Good training in furniture restoration was difficult to find in Canada in the 1970s. Michael had written to England, France and Germany, hoping to hear back from a master who wanted to take him as an apprentice in the old craft. Weeks passed, no response.

Michael grew up working with wood. Most memories with his father, a carpenter, include saw dust, wooden boats or furniture. When the time came to choose a profession, Michael went into the same trade as his father. Woodwork engages the hands, but the mind as well.

As fate would have it, a family friend living in the German Black Forest heard about Michael’s quest for an apprenticeship and offered to connect him with a master in her town Freudenstadt. Soon, Michael received the good news: he was going to move to Germany!

Willkommen im Schwobeland!

In preparation, he took six German courses at an Ontario evening school; yet the German in Freudenstadt was nothing compared to what he had learned in class. Although Michael would soon fall in love with the Swabian dialect, the language became his biggest challenge in the beginning of his apprenticeship. Understanding work orders and consideration for detail were crucial in the workshop.

“The numbers were difficult,” says Michael today. “They’d give you the measurement and I’d walk back and I asked again. At some point, my colleagues thought it was pretty funny that I’d made two trips to the saw every time I needed to cut. But I wanted to be sure. It wasn’t difficult, but it was something that you really wanted to pay attention to.”

As an apprentice, he learned to understand the German language and the language of the wood. His master taught him to observe the piece of wood on the workbench. What techniques were used to create it? What marks did its owner leave? How did time change the wood?

I'd often thought about my training as the end of a 300-year-long chain of experience that went from master to apprentice over many generations. That knowledge, it's golden, it's wonderful, it's something you need to be able to understand if you work in my field.

Michael soon gained friends in the community who took him under their wing. He experienced Swabian cuisine and the subtle differences of German wine from the area.

“Often food is a good time for good conversations,” says Michael.

Back in Canada

When Michael returned to Canada in 1980, he had gained a unique skill set. Soon, he found work with an Austrian cabinet maker, then moved on to work on historic sites across Canada, including Parliament Hill. He also had the opportunity to coach others, which was a way of giving back what he had been given in Germany many years before.

Michael and his family remain in close contact with their friends in the Black Forest. Both of his children went on an exchange to Germany during university.

“We had an open offer to come into that community and that’s an offer that we’ve accepted and it’s been really rich for us. We’ve been very, very lucky.”


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