Modern Design course introduces students to hand-building skills

4 months ago

One student uses a hammer and chisel on his project in an attempt to even out the sides so that it sits flat on a table. Another is sanding his project with sandpaper to get a smoother finish. A third student maneuvers her project with a band saw to remove extra wood.

Each student is working on a cutting board in the Modern Design course at the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts. It is their first assignment of the semester, and the project’s goal is simple — learn how to create a useful object by cutting and fitting together pieces of wood with wood glue.

“I have them do a cutting board first not because we need more cutting boards but because they learn how to glue wood together,” says Brad Wreyford, an art instructor at ASMSA. “They learn how to use wood glue and pressure to create good joints that don’t use a mechanical element.

“As soon as you learn this technique, there really isn’t anything you can’t build. You can find scrap wood laying around or you can always find something else to create. They’re learning how to do it without mechanical joints like screws and nails.”

They’re next assignment will be constructing a joiner’s mallet, which can be used with a chisel to help remove extra wood or to bring joints tighter together. It’s also the first piece that might become a lifetime tool.

“If they make it well, it’s something that they can use for the rest of their life,” Wreyford said. “It’s something they will give to their kids. It’s that kind of quality. It teaches them to utilize jointing skills that aren’t necessarily using nails and screws.”

Wreyford’s goal is help the students’ form the knowledge on how to best use their medium with the correct tools to create functional items. They can then take that hands-on knowledge and apply it to future pieces. It also broadens their thought process to other topics.

“In my opinion the best engineers and architects are ones who actually worked in construction,” Wreyford said. “They understand the limits of the material they are working with better. As long as you know the limits of your material, you are better equipped when creating the project digitally.”

While the students won’t all become the next generation of engineers, they will still gain valuable skills from the woodworking course. “There are a lot of students who want to be a surgeon, who will be using drills, scalpels and saws. A lot of skills they learn in Modern Design will translate directly. Hand-eye coordination is important. You learn how to harness the power of a power tool without it getting away from you. We produce students who become professionals in all kinds of fields,” Wreyford said.

They are learning life lessons in the class, he said. Many of the students come into the class without ever having touched a hammer or chisel much less a power tool. They know nothing of how things are made, Wreyford said. By the end of the course, students produce a usable, functional piece of furniture.

“That’s empowering,” he said. “Even if they don’t go into a professional field or do anything else beyond this level, they are learning the life lesson that if you can envision it you can build it.”

From an instructor’s standpoint, he likes to watch the students grow in skill level to where they can walk into a second semester of the course and accomplish quality projects without his help.

“It’s rewarding to see them make something that I want. It may not happen every class but it happens regularly that they produce something that I wish I had in my house or in my office,” Wreyford said.

While he also teaches painting and drawing, Modern Design is his most popular course. He sees students who have a desire to learn something new.

“You can see it in the students’ eyes,” Wreyford says. “They may have never been trusted to build anything before. Some of them may have dads who have a shop, but they have never been allowed to do anything in it. Most know nothing about power tools or the construction processes.

“So you can see it early on — see their excitement. Perhaps they couldn’t do that in their home school or their home school has a shop but they aren’t allowed to take a class in the shop because they are on a certain track. I’m encouraging them to learn how to cut some stuff up and put it back together. It’s very empowering.”

Wreyford is pleased with the support the school administration has shown the school’s arts program. When he first started in 2014 as the school’s first full-time arts instructor, the wood shop was operating with shared machines that belonged to various faculty members. A grant from the Windgate Charitable Foundation allowed him to buy new equipment for the shop. That not only benefitted the arts program but also robotics and the popular Folk Music and Acoustics class.

“In years past, the people who had the arts budget had never envisioned buying a table saw or a saw stop or chisels for students,” he said. “With the grant, I was able to invest in a lot of tools. The other teachers who use it for their classes have invested some of their budgets as well.”

Having one full-time instructor allowed ASMSA to offer a wider variety of courses. Sara Henry, whose main focus is ceramics but also has a background in wood sculpting and metalsmithing, was recently added to the faculty as a second full-time art instructor. That’s an immediate benefit for students but also adds some promising future possibilities, he said.

“You might say between our shared skill sets and with facilities, we could be more of a sculpture and functional fabrication program. There aren’t other high schools in the state that can say that. So that’s where we’re looking to go moving forward while shoring up our 2D art and 2D design genres,” Wreyford said.

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