There are few trades that have been going for as many years as joinery and carpentry yet they’re still ones that many people go into today. From being hands on with wood and creating items people can really use, to keeping fit from the manual tasks involved, it’s easy to see why – not to mention the salaries that can be garnered by those that become masters in their field.
To really understand the industry though (and here on the all female editorial desk, we have to admit we don’t have much knowledge in this area at all), we realised we needed to chat to someone who had not only worked as a joiner themselves but had mastered the trade to a point where they could pass it on to others. Enter Kevin Batten – a man who has been working with wood since he left school and has served on a plethora of construction sites, not only in the UK but abroad as well. Now teaching carpentry and joinery to students studying at Able Skills, he is living proof that with a bit of hard work, passion for your subject and being handy with the right tools, anyone can reach the top.
Can you tell us a bit about what made you go into carpentry/joinery and then into teaching it?
Well I started by doing a carpentry apprenticeship at a young age. I then went into supervising and site management for ten years before I decided to get into teaching. It was actually getting involved with the assessors when they used to come on site that really put my mind to going into it as I used to train the apprentices that were on site.
It was during that time that one of the assessors said, ‘Wow, they really do learn a lot from you, they love working alongside you, have you ever thought of teaching it?’
So what made you initially study it?
Well when I first left school I actually went into an apprenticeship as a welder. I actually loved welding. One of my neighbours was a welder and he got me a job with the company that took me on as an apprentice. He went onto doing underwater welding – which is all the deep sea diving and seems really glamorous. I did that for three years but working with steel on site just really wasn’t for me. I realised I’d much rather work with wood than big heavy steel girders and things like that so I managed to then get another apprenticeship with a company as a carpenter and it pretty much escalated from there.
What do you think is the hardest thing to grasp when starting a joinery course?
It depends on the individual really. Some come on site with a little bit of experience but I suppose mainly it’s the accuracy with the hand tools. When it comes to using them, people are sometimes a little bit nervous. It’s all to do with demonstration though and some people might need a bit more prompting than others.
What do students come away with when they complete one of your courses? What are the skills they learn?
There are students from different backgrounds, different ages, we have females come and do our courses as well. What they get from it, obviously depends on which course they decide to take. There’s bench joinery, carpentry, which is site work.
It’s quite a male-dominated industry, what advice do you have for any women who might be reading this and might be a bit unsure about taking a course?
The main thing is don’t be put off by that! It IS a mainly male trade but to be honest as a supervisor, working on sites for many years, I did see quite a few females come and go. Most women go for painting and decorating if they do choose a trade but that’s not to say joinery or carpentry isn’t for them. I do find that women are very particular with their work which is good. They seem to be a bit more precise and take their time a bit more. Definitely don’t be put off though just because it’s seen as a ‘man’s game’.
Do you think you have to be physically strong to be good at joinery and working with wood?
I suppose in a way you have to have a bit of physique about you and there’s obviously health and safety considerations that say you can’t lift anything too heavy. You do have to have a bit of strength though, yeah.
So you’ve worked in the industry and now teach it, what has been the highlight of your career so far?
I’ve travelled abroad – and this is what I say to some of the student – getting your qualification means you can work abroad if you want. I’ve worked in Canada myself and San Francisco, and the South of France – so those were highlights.
So it’s a job with skills you can use globally then?
Definitely. There’s not a country in the world that doesn’t need doors!
Is the work very different?
It’s pretty much the same. The terminology is usually different, for example, we call it timber, they might call it lumber, that sort of thing.
Do you get called up on by your friends and family to do a lot of jobs?
All the time! To be honest it’s not so bad since I’ve been teaching but yeah, when I was on the tools, I was always asked. It got to the stage where enough was enough!
What advice do you have for someone considering a career in joinery?
Do it, definitely! It’s a great trade to go into because it’s one that can’t be replaced by robots. They’ll always need people who can work with wood. Trees are still growing and you only have to walk through London to see how many cranes there are and how much work there is out there for people who know how to work on site. There’s no reason why anyone qualified should be out of work.
My two sons are carpenters and I’ve always said, whatever you do, try and be the best at it. If there are ten carpenters on a site and they’ve got to keep two of them on then try and be those two.
So your sons followed in your footsteps then?
Yeah, I was a supervisor and I managed to get them both apprenticeships with the company I was working for. It was lucky and now they’re probably earning more money than me!
Lastly, have you got any DIY blunders that you’d like to confess to? (We like asking trades people this as they usually have at least one in the depths of their closet!)
Um. Well it’s not really DIY but I remember working up in Sloane Square and a guy came onto our site and said he wanted a little bit of private work done and I finished at one o’clock that Saturday so I said I’d come and put some floorboards down. So I popped round and there were floorboards all over the place, but there were some in the corner that had been half nailed down with the nails poking out. So I finished the floor and I was just finishing up, right at the very end of the job and I was going to get paid, I think he was going to give me £50 for just half an hour. Anyway, there were these couple of nails sticking out right in the corner, right by a base kitchen unit. So I’ve reached over and I’ve sort of tapped it down and all of a sudden I’ve heard, ‘SHHHHHH’.
Yeah, the nail’s gone through and it’s almost split the pipe in half. He had a big town house and this was right on the very top floor. So by the time I had found the stopcock and turned the water off, the water had actually come down to the lower level, on the carpet and all that. Obviously the guy was good about it. He said, ‘Don’t worry about it mate, it’s one of those things, an accident.’ But yeah it was a blooper and the thing I learnt was make sure that you check any pipe work under the flooring!
I bet you never made that mistake again!
Yeah, it could have ended up really costly but I managed to find the stop cock quickly enough that there wasn’t too much damage.