The art of fine furniture making is alive and well, albeit in an unexpected place.
Walking the halls of Centennial High School in northwest Las Vegas, you’ll likely hear complaints about the recent math or history test, gossip about who’s dating who and conversations about the latest music sensation. But if you listen carefully, you can hear the sounds of a saw or lathe as students hone their woodworking skills.
Centennial is one of a handful of high schools in the district that offers a vocational woods technology program.
“They come out with real vocational skills. Kids come out of my class and go to work in cabinet shops,” said teacher Scott Hovlund.
The first-year woods technology course introduces students to the various tools and machines of the woodworking and construction industry and how to operate them properly, along with computer numerical-controlled equipment. Second- and third-year courses focus on furniture and cabinet making and fine tuning the skills learned in previous classes.
In addition to the basics of wood working and tool safety, students in Hovlund’s classes are learning skills that will serve them all their lives, such as how to read a ruler and calculate costs for a project.
“Hopefully, they’ll have their own house one day and they can transfer this to everyday life,” he said.
They also are learning valuable lessons in teamwork.
Because some of the pieces of wood are too large for one person to handle, the students have learned to work with each other.
“You can’t do it on it your own. You have to depend and count on each other,” said Hovlund, who has been teaching for 30 years.
Among the students taking the first-year woods technology class is freshman Kristina Lockwood.
“I always wanted to further expand my abilities and I always loved the smell and feel of wood,” she said.
Lockwood said she was first introduced to woodworking by her grandfather, who had a shop in his garage.
“I love it,” she said of the class.
Echoing the same sentiment was freshman Sarah Saylor.
“It’s fun. I like to make things,” she said.
Among her projects this year was a cutting board, jewelry box and game table made of red oak and walnut.
“I’ve always been the type of person who likes to build things,” said ninth-grader Clinton Arnold.
The freshman said he had wanted to take auto shop, but it wasn’t offered at Centennial so he enrolled in the woods class. It’s a decision he hasn’t regretted.
“I really like the class,” he said noting he has made a cutting board, jewelry box and coffee table.
His academic course load will prevent him from taking the furniture and cabinet making class next year, but he said he plans to continue woodworking for the rest of his life.
Although Lockwood said her family was surprised by her interest in the class, especially considering her course load of honors classes and focus on academics, they fully support her. She even received student-of-the-month honors from the industrial arts program.
During the year she made a cutting board, plaque, jewelry box and a cedar-lined hope chest. Lockwood said the jewelry box has a pull-out shelf and a lot of trim. “It’s really neat.”
Next year, she plans to make a grandfather clock and a throne the year after that.
“I absolutely will do this the rest of my life. It’s a great hobby. It’s time consuming but very rewarding,” Lockwood said.
Another student, 10th-grader, Michael Salle, is in his second year of the vocational program. In the past two years, he’s made a cutting board, a chess board, a wall shelf and a jewelry box.
“It sounded fun, was interesting and I needed to build some things for my house,” he said of his reasons behind taking the class.
He is now putting finishing touches on a dresser, his major project for the year in the furniture and cabinet making class. Although rewarding, he said completing the dresser has “been a pain.” Still, the pride he takes in his work is evident as he shows off the piece.
Salle said he probably won’t continue with the vocational program next year as Hovlund plans to retire at the end of the school year next week. But, he said woodworking is a craft he will continue for the rest of his life.
“Why would I go pay $500 for something I can make for $200 less, when I know I can make it better and know each piece that went in it.”
Salle said his next project will most likely be a bookshelf. “The bookshelf I have now is a converted shoe rack.”
Centennial’s block schedule has allowed the vocational program to continue at a time when many electives are being cut, Hovlund said. But it’s also meant larger class sizes.
“This year, I started a class with 49 kids. This is all about one-on-one instruction,” he said.
He anticipates that class sizes will continue to increase, which is one of the reasons he’s retiring. Although he will miss working with the students, he said he believes it will be nearly impossible to maintain that one-on-one rapport to answer questions and help with individual projects with larger classes.