Danish furnituremaker Carl Hansen & Son has established its own apprenticeship workshop, The LAB, to train more cabinetmakers – meeting growing demand and preserving the craft, while ensuring a steady pipeline of skilled staff. Knud Erik Hansen (pictured), CEO and third generation owner of the business, tells us more …
“Machines take care of the heavy work in our production, so the cabinetmakers can focus on the details and ensure the wood has soul,” says Knud Erik, who has spent the past 20 years turning the family business into a global furniture manufacturer, that has helped put Danish design on the map thanks to names such as Hans J Wegner, Børge Mogensen, Ole Wanscher, Poul Kjærholm, Arne Jacobsen and Kaare Klint.
“The human element of a piece of furniture is very important. in my opinion,” he continues. “Where you can see that it was created by a human being – this is the essence of what we want to train our apprentices.”
Knud Erik celebrates his 20th anniversary at the business’ helm this year. With annual revenues now approaching DKK1b (£120m), his grandfather’s name displayed on the store windows at 20 locations across 12 countries, Knud Erik has worked hard to demonstrate the ethos on which the company was built – to create quality furniture, based on diligent craftsmanship, classic design and good materials.
Some 600 employees work at Carl Hansen & Son’s 60,000 sqm factory in Gelsted, Denmark. Knud Erik says the factory is the most modern furniture production centre in Northern Europe. Thanks to a focus on craftsmanship and sustainability, each piece of furniture requires hours of handicraft before it leaves the factory – and, as is the case for the majority of furnituremakers, skilled craftspeople are not always easy to come by, says the CEO …
Why did you set up The LAB?
Quality craftsmanship is the foundation of Carl Hansen & Son, which is one of the reasons why we established The LAB apprentice workshop.
Having an apprentice workshop is in our own interest, because we need skilled cabinetmakers. We are one of very few furniture manufacturers still producing in Denmark, thereby creating jobs and growth, and the global demand for our furniture is high. It is therefore extremely important that our production can keep up, by having skilled employees who can deliver the quality and finish that Carl Hansen & Son produces. But they are hard to find. Training new cabinetmakers is therefore crucial to fulfilling our future growth aims.
Secondly, the trade is the beating heart of the company. By training our own cabinetmakers we are helping to preserve and carry on the trade and design tradition that Denmark has become so well known for.
How is the apprentice training structured?
The programme is structured as a modern apprenticeship. The training takes three years and nine months, and combines periods at The LAB apprentice workshop, periods in production and periods at technical college.
In The LAB apprentice workshop, our apprentices are trained to work with projects that they have to manage from start to finish. They learn to make different kinds of joints, such as finger and dovetail joints, sanding methods, cut-outs, weaving and many more machine and hand skills. They thereby gain an in-depth understanding of the possibilities and challenges of the cabinetmaking trade.
The apprentices also learn how to make fixtures for internal use, and how to restore vintage furniture and create commissioned pieces. The combination of these tasks helps to train some very versatile cabinetmakers.
After completing their training, our apprentices do a journeyman’s exam, and it is very satisfying to see them master their craft to perfection. After that, we naturally hope that our newly fledged cabinetmakers will continue to work with us and help add soul to our large collection of iconic design furniture.
What is taught?
When you start as an apprentice at Carl Hansen & Son, you spend the first three weeks in The LAB. Our apprentices work in workshops here, where they are taught the craftsmen methods that have been part of Danish cabinetmaking for over a hundred years. For example, it might be the characteristic dovetail joint – one of the cabinetmaker’s best known signatures, which requires an incredible amount of practice before you can master it. They also receive tool training, where they learn to sharpen their chisels and plane, and are instructed about machines and safety.
After the first three weeks at The LAB apprentice workshop, the apprentices go to production, where they rotate for eight weeks between different workshops – the joinery, the table department and the machine shop. Our apprentices also get acquainted with weaving and surface treatments. During the training, apprentices also attend technical college six times, for a total of 30 weeks.
What is the scale of the operation?
Right now, 22 apprentices are linked to The LAB. Two of them are upholstery apprentices, while the rest are split fairly evenly between the cabinetmaker and machine joiner trades. A cabinetmaker apprenticeship normally takes three years and nine months, so what we’re doing is very much a long-term investment!