Coach builder examination

“Your training period, Ole, has not been without its problems, since both your original craft masters unfortunately died. Luckily Mr. Drengsgaard and others took over the task and today we are gathered here for your closing apprenticeship test. The Simon Spies Foundation is proud to be able to contribute to helping proud Danish handicraft traditions to survive and be continued.” This was part of the address by the chief sponsor, Janni Kjær, of the Simon Spies Foundation, to Ole Jespersen on the occasion of the first final apprenticeship examination for a Danish coach builder in more than 50 years.

by Dr. Per Ole Schovsbo

On Tuesday 17th October 2006, the inspecting masters of the Danish coach builders trade were gathered at the open air museum at Hjerl Hede to assess apprentice Ole Jespersen’s test piece, to build a wooden wheel for a horse drawn coach. Of course, there was a good result. Ole received a total of 33 points out of a possible maximum of 36, plus a well-earned bronze medal. He had had an apprenticeship with many hurdles to cross. His two craft masters, John Nielsen and Helge Jakobsen, died during the course of it. So other masters had to prepare Ole for the test, explained the director of Hjerl Hede, Poul Buskov, to an invited audience, who had met over a lunch of traditional dishes, before hearing the judgement of the two masters of the coach builders’ craft. The award of a bronze medal was a little ungenerous, thought the assembly after they had inspected the piece of work to be tested. The inspecting masters might well have awarded a silver medal, but as the only apprentice on the team, the winner could only be the best of his year.

Creative innovations or the precious, old traditions?

The question now is whether the new coach builder journeyman and bronze medallist favours creative new constructions, the introduction of new materials and efficient working methods as many of the stern members of the sport of carriage driving believe are needed – or the continuation of precious, old, traditions surrounding the ancient forms and techniques which the more romantic followers of the sport, with their top hats and bowlers, prefer. Can we expect that Ole Jespersen will begin to modernize the craft or prefer to seek after the richness of cultural traditions and bring much needed clarity, understanding and quality into the work of preservation to the benefit of the nation, collectors, museums and the carriage driving sport itself?


The recent articles and books from Ole Jespersen hint strongly that it is the richness of the cultural traditions that will come to mark his work,  just as the exhibition at Hjerl Hede, "Coach Building – Past and Present", is largely a result of Ole’s broad historical knowledge, collecting ability and good networks. Several reprints of old catalogues are included, the latest is the coach catalogue from N. Larsen’s coach building works, published on the same day as the apprenticeship examination was held.

As Janni Spies said to Ole in her warm speech, we are glad that he, who has been supported by the Simon Spies Foundation as well as the Concordia Foundation, will be able to take on the responsible task of developing this craft and training new apprentices. There is a reason why the craft has been on its way to the happy hunting grounds, that reason is declining sales. It will need extremely good business sense and some very willing private foundations, if we are to preserve even a minimum of the old Danish handicrafts in the years ahead.  We believe, along with Ib Møller, the President of the Danish Driving Association and creative member of the Hjerl Hede presidium that Hjerl Hede is the proper place for this to happen.


In 1999, a cooper was trained here and has experienced good sales, and following the coach builder, consideration is being given to the training of a millwright. We must hope that the investment that Ole, and not least his family, have made in two and a half years will persuade a broader group to provide skills and financial support for the coach building workshop of the Knowledge and Skills Centre in the years ahead, so that Danish lovers of the horse carriage may finally see established skilled preservation work of quality. Many attempts have failed in the past 30 years, and the numbers of elderly master craftsmen nearing the end of their days gives the historian bad nerves and sleepless nights. Two master craftsmen in two years is too many! With Ole as a journeyman and soon a master in the trade, we can hope that it will be many years before the craft of coach builder in Denmark again finds itself in such a situation.


About Ole

The newly-qualified coach builder, Ole Jespersen, is 40 (2006) and was originally trained as a skilled woodcutting machinist. Among other things, he later spent some years in computers before starting his apprenticeship as a coach builder in 2004. He is editor (1997-2010) of "Koresporten", the journal for the members of the Danish Driving Association, and author of many articles and books on the history of the horse-drawn carriage and coach.


About Hjerl Hede

The renowned Hjerl Hede is one of Denmark’s important and exciting attractions, well-known for its living history, and well worth visiting for the whole family. The museum shows the development of the Danish village from the year 1500 up to about 1930 and includes a forge, an inn, mills, a school, a vicarage, a dairy, a grocer's shop and farms as well as various ancient country crafts.


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