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Don Willson’s Woodshop empowers students with skills useful beyond the classroom

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Chelan High School Senior Christian Taylor assembles a backpack rack to organize the shop in Don Willson’s woodshop class. (Photo by Dillon Morrison)

Chelan High School’s (CHS) Don Willson teaches classes in both woodshop and digital design. New to CHS, Willson received his undergraduate degree from Evergreen State College and a teaching degree from Western Governor’s University.

Post-graduation, Willson was a contract builder in Winthrop for 16 years, where he raised two daughters. He taught three years of Science and History at Friday Harbor before coming to CHS in 2015.

His two woodshop classes are block classes, meaning class structure requires greater daily hours for less duration. Classes are divvied between the freshman morning class and the upperclassmen.

“Everybody makes a push stick. That’s the first thing we make.” Willson said. “Just to see how comfortable they are with their tools.”

Freshman primarily focus on building a foundation of safety, basic know-how and implementation of new machinery. Seasoned woodworkers are allowed seniority to pursue individualized projects. 

Teacher Don Willson explains a diagram to his students. (Photo by Dillon Morrison)

Once students complete core material and refine their skills, Willson dedicates class time for personal, creative furniture projects with the upperclassmen.

“Framing 101” he labels it. Drawing/interpreting blueprints, mathematics, precise measurement and careful instrumentation of heavy machinery; students are taught the skills that any “DIY” fan of home remodel/ construction might know. Willson’s curriculum also includes framing, wiring and sheetrock.

Many of the students are attracted to the practicality involved. The general consensus from students is that the skills taught in Willson’s classroom are useful in daily scenarios.

Senior Christian Taylor values the class. “(Willson) teaches us while we’re working. The hands-on approach is my favorite,” Taylor admitted. “Learning to build is a very valuable tool once out in the real world. You’ll have to spend less on carpenters when you break stuff at your house. It’s a great skill to know.”

Junior Esme Vera works the chop saw. (Photo by Dillon Morrison)

Junior Esme Vera said the class is her favorite. “This is actually the first class I’ve taken that is hands-on, rather than just designing on a computer. My favorite tool is the chop saw,” she said. “I actually have a model of a tiny house I designed. Hopefully, I can build it one day.”

Vera signed up in hopes to pursue architecture post graduation. “I want to be in architecture. It’s an interest, and I really want to learn more. How to design and build your house is an empowering skill, and I hope to be able to build my dream house while helping others (do the same).”

Meanwhile, Vera explores the possibility of studying abroad at an architecture school in Spain. “I would really love (to learn) how to make (circular roofing) techniques taught there. I’d really love to own my own architecture firm.” she said.

Willson aims to empower students with the know-how to integrate imagination through engineering and help them create their own structure, furniture, toy or trinket. It’s not all fun and games, though, as the class also is tasked with providing solutions to problems, like filling needs and projects around campus.

Don Willson provides guidance while students lift the structure’s frame. (Photo by Dillon Morrison)

Taylor signed up a second time after enjoying the first class so much. He’s currently assigned an advanced project to help organize the woodshop by crafting a wall-mounted backpack rack.

“Last semester, our final grade was on a little table,” Taylor said. “I’ve already taken mine home. Now I don’t have to buy one.” He is enjoying framing similar walls to the class’ current project last semester. His favorite part? Demolition.

It isn’t all smooth sailing, however, as the class isn’t exempt from the occasional road block.

Vera said the class taught her that building isn’t as easy as the computer diagrams look. One challenge involves measurement variation when schematics are transferred from the computer to the woodshop floor. “The exact measurements are (on screen) but here a 2 x 4 is actually a 1 x 1/2,” she claimed.

These walls are soon to be adorned with sheetrock and fixed with wire. (Photo by Dillon Morrison)

Taylor explained that his project took 3-4 weeks with the class size, noting that the large student turnout and running out of wood were obstacles to productivity. To combat this, students occasionally auction products they make.

“It costs money to build all this stuff, so it’s nice to recuperate some of that money by selling it,” Willson said. “We mostly need supplies. I pretty much have all the tools I need right now. Material is expensive, and sometimes they (students) make a lot of mistakes, and we’ll have to order more wood.”

“One of my students from the gay-straight alliance is building a food drive box to go on a post, open to anybody.” Willson demonstrates.

“A bunch of kids built different kinds of tables,” Willson said. “One kid built himself a desk and painted it. Another student built a really fancy wastebasket using the plunge router with a Goat symbol on it.”

Students use a wide variety of hand and power tools alike. Here, a student uses a tape measure to assess markings. (Photo by Dillon Morrison)

Growth and optimization seem to be big motivators in Willson’s classroom. “When I moved in, this was full of old unfinished projects.” Willson recalled. “I built that chop saw table. There used to be a couple of lathes in storage. I’m gonna try to get those back in the shop.”

With many projects currently in progress, the possibilities seem endless for students who what to take full advantage of Willson’s woodshop learning environment.

(By Dillon Morrison)




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