Four cheerful and brand new-looking Adirondack chairs sit in the sun outside Gloucester High School’s Cabinet Design and Innovation shop, with four smiling senior girls busily painting and varnishing them.
They know they’re lucky: They got into this class. Most students can’t.
While the year-long elective class, taught on three levels of difficulty, has been presented at the school for over 50 years, there is a strict 75-student limit for the five-class-per-day, 15-student enrollment total, explains teacher Tim Rose. And every year, more than 200 GHS students request to join the class, he says, with most being turned away because their schedule and the class size limit prevent it.
“I love this,” said senior Brianna Saputo, as she painted her pine chair white, while the other girls chimed in with similar sentiments. “I didn’t think I’d like something like this, but I do,” Saputo said.
She was painting white the wooden chair she built. She and the other four girls are new to learning about carpentry this school year, but they’ve already built shelves and step stools as well.
Rose said a lot of his seniors who try his class in their last year at school wish they’d known about it earlier in their high school careers.
Senior Ian Richards said he’s very excited about using a free Google software program called SketchUp that the class uses to design three-dimensional objects he’s working on, from his shelving to a step stool he already completed. He was playing around with variations on his step stool design. The step stool design is deceptively simple: it utilizes every single machine in the shop, Rose said, so the students learn how to use each one in turn.
The well-appointed, spacious shop has computers, many kinds of woodworking machinery, is full of natural light and room to spread out and work on projects large and small. Wooden furniture pieces are scattered all around the shop - from grandfather clocks and coffee tables to an oak baseball bat in progress on a lathe. Once completed, the bat will be used at an upcoming varsity baseball game, Rose said.
The smell of paint and freshly cut lumber permeates the air as students sweep up the sawdust and curling wood shavings they’ve created while working. Fans whir, machines hum, students sand and plane, hammer and measure, pausing frequently to look at the work of their classmates.
Many students work in pine, but they can also use oak, cypress, cherry, walnut and other wood available there. Some students try more complex techniques to decorate their work, such as inlay. There is a specially enclosed and ventilated paint room, too.
Not only do the students learn about how to work with wood safely — using a large array of handtools and machinery —they also learn about being an educated consumer. They learn how much it costs to build a step stool from scratch and what a commercially-made version comparatively costs, Rose said.
For example, a bookcase a student makes costs roughly $9, but a commercially made brand name bookcase could cost up to $900. A step stool made in the shop can cost $3.85 to make, but could be sold for $75 if commercially made. The students also learn about the value of manual labor and skills hewn in this craft and how that adds value to something they’ve made.
Rose said he never touches a student’s work to correct things; he offers advice about their projects, which he encourages them to design themselves, and then sees how they turn out. He calls this approach their “journey,” because it’s more about the processes and problems they need to solve along the way to building a completed piece.
Rose is currently applying for a grant through the Gloucester Education Foundation to get a new router that could be operated in conjunction with the shop’s computers wirelessly.
He aims to bring even more technology to the course, while at the same time continuing to make available hand-wrought techniques, blending them seamlessly.
Allegra Boverman is the chief photographer and a staff writer for the Gloucester Daily Times. She can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3448 and at firstname.lastname@example.org