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.