A Beginner Woodworker’s Paradise
I pulled the goggles down over my eyes and picked the spray finish gun up from off the table to my left. In front of me, a beautiful round side table is awaiting the final coat of finish. I’d never spray finished anything before, or even handled a finish gun, so I was a little nervous.
I timidly pulled the trigger and moved my hand back and forth just a few inches above the table, and I watched as the finish covered every inch of bare wood. Before I knew it, I was done. I placed the gun back on the table and lifted the goggles from my eyes.
And the table I’d just finished disappeared.
“Wow, are you sure you should be working in media? You did a great job,” laughed David Blackler, finishing technologist at Conestoga College.
The goggles I was wearing weren’t for eye protection – they were part of a cutting-edge virtual reality teaching program used by the college at the Woodworking Centre of Ontario. The program is incredibly lifelike and has been a boon for the college as it works to train the next generation of woodworkers.
The system allows Blackler to train students on how to use the spray gun and properly apply finish before they ever step foot inside an actual spray booth. The computer tracks the sprayer’s speed, the angle of the gun, the distance from the object being finished, and can even calculate the cost of the spray used on a given project. The table I just finished cost a little more than $1 to spray. And according to Blackler, I was a natural.
It’s all part of what the college says is the largest woodworking training centre in North America. It’s 52,000 sq. ft. in size, and about 40,000 sq. ft. of that is dedicated shop space. Hundreds of students work their way through the college’s two- or three-year instructional program each semester, and there’s even a cabinetmaker apprenticeship program.
I recently went on a tour of the facility and quickly learned the VR program isn’t the only high-tech device in the facility. There’re electronic CNC machines, computer-assisted saws, and two 150-horsepower dust collectors hum overhead to keep the air breathable. There’s also a big collection of band saws, jointers, table saws, edge banders, and more. It’s a woodworker’s paradise.
It’s also a far cry from the former woodworking centre on campus. Now occupied by the bookstore, it was just 4,000 sq. ft. and had to operate 16 hours a day to ensure all the students had access to the tools.
When they expanded 30 years ago, however, enrolment shot up from about 30 new students every year to about 100. And who knows, if this whole journalism thing doesn’t end up working out for me maybe I’ll consider adding myself to that list. It would seem I’ve already got a pretty good handle on the spray finishing side of things.
To read more about how to learn the craft of woodworking, check out our Oct/Nov 2012 issue. It has articles on other woodworking institutions in Canada, how to get your kids into woodworking, and a collection of student work from across the country.