Lessons… from woodworking school

11 Feb

So… what was woodworking school like? I thought I’d go into some detail on the topic. I know that not everyone that wants to take a woodworking course can do so, for whatever reasons. I was fortunate enough to live in a place where woodworking courses (cabinet making courses to be specific) are subsidized by the Government (as part of an initiative to create more jobs in the trades), and it cost me only $240 to register for a full 12 months of education. I’ve heard that equivalent courses cost up to $10,000 elsewhere.  So why not get a little insight- for free.

I’ll go into:

  • the projects we tackled and why they were useful learning vehicles (pictures included)
  • my personal learning curve as I experienced it
  • safety procedures we learned
  • notable techniques we used and were taught
  • the approximate time it took us to complete projects
  • AND more

My school

As a little precursor I’d like to give a brief description of my school. I went to a vocational school that had many different trades and professions to choose from. We would walk down halls and see electro-mechanics frowning over complex machinery, graphic designers chained to their computers and printers wearing aprons covered in cyan and magenta splotches. The cabinet making course was held in a shop right next to the machinist’s shops, and we shared the tool crib (all the tools were stored there, and lent out as per your request/needs) with them- always warring to beat them to the line for tools. We tried to stay on the good side of the tool crib manager.

The Cabinet making program itself was comprehensive yet we never had quite enough time to master any one thing. This was a program put together for individuals with absolutely no experience in woodworking. We weren’t there to refine skills we already had, or to learn master joinery and build fine furniture within a month of starting the course. We were there to learn from A-Z about anything a woodworker might find a job doing in industry (including cabinet making). In this sense it was no frills, we were not given a list of fine tools to purchase, in fact we only had a few marking and measuring tools to buy and the rest were provided by the school. More on that soon!

Let’s jump right into Lesson 1

So, what was the first thing we were asked to do? Well, it wasn’t what I had expected. I thought maybe we’d be thrust right into the thick of things and begin building. I feared that I wouldn’t be prepared and wouldn’t feel comfortable with the tools yet.

Lo’ and behold we didn’t pick up a single tool the first days. We were instead asked to assess whether woodworking was a career we really wished to pursue. Our fist assignment was to seek out and visit a minimum of three woodworking shops and gather basic information about them. What was the size of the shop, what did they specialize in/produce, what were the machines used, who were their clients and were they hiring or accepting apprentices? We were told to each go alone. This terrified me. But I did it, and so did most everyone in the class. Next we were asked to draw up reports on each visit and give an oral presentation on what we found. This terrified me…again. I hate public speaking. But I followed through yet again and felt a new confidence about my decision to become a woodworker. If I could be moved to do things that I normally would avoid at all costs, then obviously I’d found something that motivated me in a positive way. I also mostly liked what I saw and heard about the various shops.

What I learned

The first place I visited sobered me up, it was a small dimly lit shop dedicated to slapping together white melamine cabinet cases.  The work looked soulless.  I knew then that I’d have to be careful to choose the right job, or I might end up trapped and unhappy. I also was instantly aware of how inherently dangerous woodworking is as a trade. One man was missing two fingers.

The next shop cheered me up. They produced very high end solid wood furniture and had a product line. This made me realize that woodworking could be anything I wanted it to be, I didn’t have to work  in a bad environment, or produce stuff that I didn’t feel any connection to. AND I could make money. This shop had a front office that looked very sleek. The owner himself took me on a tour, he was in his thirties, also encouraging. I could envision myself being successful sooner rather than later looking at this shop.

The last shop I visited was very impressive. I think they had about twenty employees. Each was dedicated to a certain machine, working solid wood.  They made fine furniture AND had a very professional show room a block away that I visited. The most impressive part was visiting all of the different production stages, the furniture was made from start to finish on site- including upholstery, any other fancy detailing and finishing. They never bought pre-made turned legs or other furniture parts, it was all done in house. I realised these were huge selling points to their clients. I liked the thought of quality being much more important than cutting corners and producing a product the cheapest ways possible.

Needless to say I was convinced that there were all kinds of opportunities in the market place after hearing the presentations of my classmates. Together we had captured a mini picture of what the woodworking landscape was like in our own city. And the results were encouraging.

I had a sense of things falling into place. I was embarking on a path that felt right.

I’d encourage anyone who’s planning a new career to do their homework on what the work is really like, get an inside peek.

Stay tuned for more lessons from woodworking school!

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