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So near the end, where to begin. I find it hard to truly define an experience. Simple things and feelings could easily take up words that escape understanding. To attempt to describe the five months I spent as a resident apprentice at The CAT is big. There has been so much skill and information and philosophy to take in, I will be processing and working with my experience here as a base for many things throughout the rest of my life.
To see a garden at harvest is to look backward, at the lives of the plants and the land and the care of its tenders. And what a garden it was. Not ever perfect, but always bountiful. The work was not always easy, but it is the unease that clarifies what sort of force we are in the world. Then we know how much earth our hands can turn, what bends we can bring metal to, and with what stillness of heart we can direct an arc of energy join together two pieces before unmet, as they find realization together that a single tube never could.
It is in the mind of harvest that I look back at my time here. I can see where the compost lay heavy, what beds have gone to weeds, where the mulch is piled for the next year. And I can see abundance, the fruits of energy and experience. The heaviest fruit is the cargo frame, of course. I came here for the love of bikes, and with the notion of building a machine that could move more than just myself and a few panniers full of goods. Now my frame hangs, raw, ready to paint. Straight and true and robust, a cargo bike well built, by my own hands. Careful oversight and direction throughout, but carried out by me. Welding, brazing, bending, and machining are no longer daunting or unknown, but useful tools. My poncho is ready too, in good time for the season, waxed canvas built heavy and right. I was able to learn the rhythms of industrial sewing machines, and see yards of fabric become something good and useful. The creative space there, from garments to bags to coverings, seems near endless. It was in building my first wheels that I learned to understand the forces involved with their centeredness, and how to listen to them until they are true. And there is the garden, now mostly laid to bed. My body feels right with another rich season of vegetable fortification. The kale, collards, and cabbage still grow past the frost, as the chard and mustard slowly begin their turn to mulch. The shallots and onions grow for later harvest, and the seeds of the season are saved to begin anew in spring.
So, too, are the seeds of the time spent here saved in the garden-shed of my mind. The skills practiced in the shops, the garden, and the sewing room are there for me. The ideas of conscientious process and craftsmanship will continue to grow in my life, and I will forever be more adept in a communal living situation. The pieces of philosophy tied in to everyday life are something I will carry, a reminder of the great depth of life, should we only look.
Needless to say, I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here at The CAT. I’ve learned a lot of valuable things from great people in a good manner. In writing this conclusion, I have only a few days left in my residency. So near the end, where to end. My bike is built, and I am deeply satisfied with it. It is elegant in its design and function, and quite beautiful to look at. The handling is smooth and precise, though the ride doesn’t really sing until it has about a hundred pounds in the front. Then it’s a smooth sailing cargo moving human powered machine flying just where you want it to go. It begs the question, where do you want to go, and what would you like to take with you when you do?
“You’ve gotten a pretty legit skillset in the past few months,” my friend Jonah tells me as I show him the stain on my pantleg. It’s bright white screenprinting ink, one of many souvenirs from learning how to make t-shirts for Human Powered Machines, the line of bikes that we make at CAT. The hours of messy learning by trial and error and four trips to Oregon Art Supply certainly weren’t part of the apprentice’s job description – but then again, that’s what’s so great about CAT (plus, I got a sweet new t-shirt). Whether we’re pausing a weekly meeting to excitedly learn how to use a rocket stove, making 15 gallons of sauerkraut, touring the shop of a local cobbler, brewing Brown Ale, learning the different kinds of polar fleece, or fabricating an adult-sized big-wheel tricycle, the time at CAT has been full of new and unexpected skills. Not to mention all the skills I expected to learn, like TIG welding, brazing, farming, machining, sewing, CAD drawing… the list goes on.
I usually like to have everything all figured out before starting a new task (especially when 2,000-degree temperatures are involved), but Jan and the other staff here have consistently erred on the side of pushing my comfort zone, showing confidence when I didn’t feel it. “Get in there!” could easily be the apprenticeship’s mantra. (Either that, or “don’t bump the stop,” but that’s another story.) Every new skill I’ve learned makes me excited to dive into making more things when I leave; in other words, I think the days of buying birthday gifts are over.
I’ve also learned another language here without even trying; you could call it fabricator-ese. I learned a lot of it the first week here, as we went around the shop, in awe of the tools around us, naming and labeling all the machinery. (As I was the Sharpie scribe that day, untold generations of apprentices will have to reckon with my squint-inducing handwriting on all the equipment.) The lexicon of fabricator-ese includes technical phrases like socket head cap screw and three-fluted carbide-tipped end mill, and besides being a source of amusement for language nerds like me, it’s pretty useful for communicating complicated ideas with precision – at least to seasoned fabricators and the staff at Home Depot. But what’s so great about CAT is that you never lose sight of making the work relevant to those who don’t argue about the benefits and disadvantages of square-taper bottom brackets. We’re making bikes that people can understand, fix, and use day in and day out, whether they’re transporting kids or delivering compost. They can even come to Open Shop on a Thursday night and make their own. Which is what it’s all about. As Jan says, the best customer is the one who makes the bike themself.
Having to deal with a new system of measurements made the first few classes of machining class challenging. But machining turns out to be my favorite. “Listen to the machines, they talk” and that is the new language one gets to learn here. It is great to learn how to work powerful and robust machines like lathes, horizontal and vertical milling machines. Jan even has an exciting project on his mind : to forge a small, bicycle specific horizontal mill in India, says its the best place to make one. Sure!
The apprenticeship is all hands-on. Getting your hands dirty, be it with grease and metal dust or organic nutritionally rich soil. ‘Gardening’ for three hours every week and watering plants every day in the summer is the best stress buster. Sewing and learning how to sew from Glynn, who made it fun, is something that is going to help me in many ways going forward. A super-busy five months, the best of which is that it is going to last forever.
On the table are pieces of metal: round tubing, flat bar, square tubing, all of various widths, diameters, and wall thicknesses. Our task is simple, to use the calipers to measure each piece. Yet once we begin, the decimals, the fractions, the standardized notions start to get confusing: .049” or 1/2”? Flat bar or square tubing? This was the first week of my apprenticeship and I knew next to nothing about bicycle fabrication. Fortunately, our teacher patiently guided us through the process and eventually we were able to accurately measure the pieces of metal on the table.
I hardly even noticed that our teacher was a 14 year old.
Yet at CAT, this is what I have come to expect.CAT is a community that has many different teachers: welding teachers, machinist teachers, seamstress teachers…and teenager teachers. Sometimes apprentices are teachers as well. Many people would agree that students should be able to teach and teachers should be able to learn, but CAT this is not a theory but an everyday practice.
It did not take long to master the use of the calipers, and since that time, the basic skills of bicycle fabrication have become routine to me. Every day I use the TIG welder, turn down a piece of round stock on the lathe, or cut a miter on the horizontal mill. Soon, my Long Haul will be complete. Yet through this process, I have come to realize that being an apprentice at CAT is more than just about the technical skills. Bicycle building at CAT exemplifies the idea of “Human Powered Machines”. Any bicycle, one could say, is a human powered machine. However, a bicycle made at CAT is “human powered” in the sense that it celebrates the human power to create, connecting people and building new skills in the process. It involves bicycle design, fabrication and sale that happens on a human scale, rather than an industrial, corporate scale. I may have gained a wealth of skills in bicycle fabrication, but more than that, I will take away from the apprenticeship new insight into how we do business, how we live in communities and how we learn.
Using calipers to measure a piece of metal is a simple task, but I will always remember that I learned from a teenager, and I think that is the important part of the apprenticeship.
Most people are surprised when I tell them that I didn’t come to CAT’s cargo bicycle building apprenticeship to learn how to build cargo bicycles. I came to CAT to learn an approach to life that differs from the mainstream view that profit is the beginning and end to all things. CAT’s emphasis is on a broader and more direct set of life coordinates: a system that hopes to improve society, its jobs, its environment, its food and natural resources as opposed to a system that views these things as commodities to monetize regardless of the consequences.
The program is a practical opportunity to learn and participate directly in the processes that contribute to true life goods and their enjoyment.
Perhaps the most important lesson learned at CAT is summarized by a quote by Robert Kennedy you can find hanging on the wall,
“It is not enough to understand or to see clearly. The future will be shaped in the arena of human activity, by those willing to commit their mind and their bodies to the task.”
All this and I got one hell of a bike out of the deal.
I first learned about CAT’s cargo bike framebuilding apprenticeship a few years ago surfing the web. I read the website and informed myself about this one of a kind program and the wheels started to turn. The program offers education in areas that I think are really interesting and important to be a fabricator of bicycles.
The most important component to the whole program that really separates it from any other bike framebuilding course is looking at how the current structure of manufacturing and production can be changed, whether if be bicycles, food, clothing, et cetera. The program emphasizes a decentralized system of production where the things that a community needs can be made in that community. This is the kind of model I feel should be emphasized and supported, not the current one where everything is made as cheap as possible, no matter the consequences.
Apprentice Dexter Howard stayed around CAT for awhile after his session (as do many apprentices) and with CAT staff created this one of a kind bike.
CAT’s extensive experience in recumbents and cargo bikes shows as does Dexter’s ability to think out of the “baks”.
For more info: http://hpm.catoregon.org/?page_id=534