Callum McCaffrey, project joiner
Callum works for the National Trust, helping to maintain and restore historic properties. He has a passion for timber and his work brings him into contact with specialist materials that are not commonly found in less sensitive construction work.
I live in Ballyhalbert, Northern Ireland.
What job do you do?
I am involved in a restoration project at the National Trust’s Mount Stewart. The project’s objective is to bring the house back to how it was in the early part of the twentieth century when it was home to Lady Londonderry and her family.
I’m involved in a range of work throughout the project. Mostly it's the repair and maintenance to the house, which means structural work such as repairing windows, shutters and other joinery.
I work with two senior joiners and an apprentice. Our work often starts with a survey, opening up access to damaged parts of the house – maybe very carefully lifting floorboards.
We have to use special conservation techniques. A lot of the work we do is protection work: for example, boxing around fire places or sinks so they are safe while work is carried out around them.
We repair windows, both inside and outside, and have to be very sensitive to how things were originally made. Sometimes we recreate faults that existed in the original feature.
We are repairing and replacing things that I know will be looked after for years to come and the knowledge I’m gaining is priceless.
The timberwood we use has to be, wherever possible, the same as the timber wood we are removing. This means using timber that isn’t necessarily widely used today and can be hard to find.
We use reclaimed timber when we can. I’ve always been interested in timber and have a good knowledge of wood. The work I do has helped that knowledge grow through working with the senior joiners and through ongoing research.
It’s fascinating work. You can be using a piece of pitch pine that’s been growing in a forest for over 300 years. Wood is constantly changing, fluctuating with the seasons and with the moisture in the room.
How did you get into joinery?
After I completed my A-Levels, I knew I didn’t want to go to university. I wanted to work with wood, but I also knew I didn’t want to work in construction, on new build sites.
I got a job in a wood machining workshop in Grey Abbey that made stretcher frames for artist’s canvases. At the same time, I went to technical college to get my NVQ.
After completing my Level 2 Diploma, I realised the work I was doing was not varied enough to complete the NVQ.
Then I had a lucky break. An apprentice joiner position was being advertised at Mount Stewart as part of the restoration project. I applied and got the job.
What qualification do you have?
I have NVQs and A-levels in Design & Technology and Art & Design. I also have now completed my NVQ Level 3 in Carpentry and Joinery, as well as completing certificates in Heritage while working with the National Trust.
I hope to do another NVQ Level 3 in Heritage Joinery before the end of the project.
What do you do at work?
At times, using a more modern technique would be better, but we can’t.
The work is really varied. I have machined and constructed curved sash window boxes to replace rotten ones, reinstalled windows and replaced panelling.
We are also responsible for the protection of the house and its collection. We have a large and very well equipped workshop in the grounds of the house and spend a lot of time in the various rooms being restored, either repairing and replacing joinery or protecting features while other work is being carried out.
What’s the best thing about your job?
The experience I’m gaining is fantastic. I’m working with different, specialist native timbers like Irish Oak as well as reclaimed imported timbers like Pitch Pine, that are very expensive.
It’s a rare opportunity. There is history in everything you touch. And we’re also making history. We are repairing and replacing things that I know will be looked after for years to come and the knowledge I’m gaining is priceless.
What’s the hardest thing about your job?
Sometimes it can be difficult to follow the correct conservation techniques. Perhaps something wasn’t made the best originally but we have to replace like for like and restore things to how they used to be – any discrepancy might have historical significance.
That can be frustrating, but doing it right is the most important thing. At times, using a more modern technique would be better, but we can’t.
How can I get into conservation and heritage work?
There is a shortage of skills in conservation and heritage work and there are opportunities. There’s a higher percentage of skilled joiners retiring from this kind of work over the next few years than are entering it.
There is a shortage of skills in conservation and heritage work and there are opportunities.
They learned through apprenticeships that don’t exist anymore, so the knowledge isn’t being passed down like it used to be. But you can teach joinery, while you can’t teach enthusiasm.
If you have a passion for the materials and joinery then you can learn the skills.
The important thing is that you have to care. I’ve developed an interest in history since being exposed to heritage work and that’s made the job even more interesting.
How do I get into joinery?
1. Be enthusiastic
You can’t fake that, but you can work on it. I am passionately interested in wood and am constantly finding out more about it.
The National Trust relies on volunteers and it’s a great way to gain experience and see things from the inside. It’s a foot in the door.
3. Develop your own knowledge
Don’t rely on your teachers or employer to teach you everything.