Give and take to train new filers

Trevor Shpeley
August 17, 2018
By Trevor Shpeley
Aug. 17, 2018 - Getting sawfilers to agree on anything is a challenging proposition at best. Name any aspect of the trade and the filer from the mill by the river will tell you that the filer from the mill by the lake is out of his mind. The one thing that almost any head filer will agree on: the trade is in danger without an excellent training program for new filers.


In B.C. we are lucky to have a sawfiling school where employers can send their apprentices to learn the basics of the trade, but the school alone is nowhere near enough. Here are a few thoughts on bringing new people into the trade and how to avoid churning out ticketed filers who know little more than how to run a saw-sharpener.

The first step, and perhaps the one that matters most, is to pick the right trainee for the job. In some mills there is no choice; a posting is put on the lunchroom wall and the person with the most seniority gets the job. Most times that works out just fine, but other times the person who has walked the work-floor the longest is not the best pick and companies are reluctant to sink years of training into an employee with six years of service left. As a result, they hire from outside.

These days most mills use a culling process that counts seniority as only part of the criteria. Applicants are tested on basic trade aptitudes, the ability to perform trade-math, and psychological suitability. It can be argued that this process often excludes people with the skills to do the job, including workers who have helped in the filing room for many years, but you must have some sort of a filter and I doubt there will ever be a perfect process.

Once you have selected your new filer, it is not enough just to throw somebody on a bandsaw grinder for a few days and then turn him or her loose. From the very first day you must instill the fact that this is a trade and not just a job; you always start with safety. The first words of my head filer on the day that I started were, “If you drop something, let it fall. Do not try and catch it, ever.” That was good advice and I still repeat those words of wisdom to every new filer I help train.

After the new apprentice has learned to work safely among the many hazards of the filing room, it’s time to help them understand the difference between a job and a trade. One approaches a job with the idea of getting it done to acceptable standards and going home. A trade is where you do the job in the best way possible, not the quickest or the easiest way. You don’t say good enough. Instead you take the extra time to do it in a way you feel proud of, where you know that whatever happens, you can look the mill superintendent in the eye and tell him that you know with absolute certainty that the saw that went out on the floor was as perfect as it could be. That can be a very difficult concept to instill in a new person. The temptation is to squeeze out another point-up when the teeth would be much stronger if you swaged it today or to punch a crack that is technically of a legal size when you know you have the time to weld it properly. You keep your equipment, clean and well maintained because you should, not because your head filer will give you the evil eye if you don’t.

Head filers should always be willing to teach what they know. If their plans to become a consultant after retiring or their general crustiness prevent them from teaching anything but the bare necessities to do the job, then they have no business taking on an apprentice. A new filer needs to learn from the old guard. An apprenticeship is an agreement. The fledgling filer pledges four years of supplication at a lower wage and in return, the master pledges to teach everything that the apprentice can absorb. If each does their part, then the arrangement succeeds.

Just throwing a new guy into the mix and having him learn as he goes will never produce a good filer. The schools will never on their own produce a good filer. Continuing to train somebody who just doesn’t have a good aptitude for the trade will never produce a good filer. Take your side of the covenant seriously and you will reap the benefits of having proud knowledgeable tradesmen instead of just a bunch of guys doing the job.


Trevor Shpeley is a filer at Kalesnikoff Lumber in British Columbia, and a former executive of the BC Saw Filers Association.

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