Rylan Dekok is a focused young man. Only 20 years old, he has already completed his journeyman certification in cabinetmaking. He is now preparing for a series of training and competition mile posts that will lead him to the World Skills Competition in Sao Paulo, Brazil in August of 2015. He has already travelled a long, competitive road to get this far.
Rylan lives in the picturesque southern Alberta community of Picture Butte. He lives with his mom, Mary, and dad, Rick, two younger brothers and three younger sisters on a tidy acreage on the edge of the community. He works at Premiere Woodworking, located in a large industrial building in town.
A family affair
Woodworking runs in the family. Rylan’s uncle, Henry de Kok (he writes the surname slightly differently) runs the plant. Rylan’s dad designs the custom homes built by the firm. The factory produces high-end custom entrance doors and all manner of custom cabinets. Many cousins, friends and neighbours also work for the company. It is truly a small-town, family affair. Henry de Kok told me that the company employs about 30 people, mainly from the Dutch and Mennonite communities in town, which both have a long tradition of working with wood. Says Henry, “I consider all my employees friends.”
Rylan started woodworking in earnest in high school where he competed in regional skills competitions. When he became an apprentice, he attended training at SAIT Polytechnic. SAIT apprentice training takes place in a large, well-equipped shop, flooded with natural light. There is a balance in the training between traditional hand tool skills, basic woodworking machinery and high-tech. Apprentices work 10 months of the year and come to school for two months. The school-based training complements and augments the on-the-job experience. At school, each apprentice works at a traditional cabinetmaker’s bench, assembling the parts they have produced in the shop.
The projects Rylan made at school over the course of four years reflect a broad cross-section of the trade; casework, complex joinery, curved work, profiles, fancy veneer matches, wood finishing and, every year, at least one project that features a hand-cut dovetail joint or two.
2015 World Skills Competition
Rylan showed promise very early, which developed into an ambition to do work of the highest calibre. After catching the skills bug at two regional competitions (silver and gold medals) he went on to compete in four provincial Alberta competitions (winning two bronze and two gold medals) and a couple of national competitions. In Vancouver in 2013 he narrowly missed out on the medals, but last year in Toronto he struck gold. Since it was a qualifying year for the World Skills competition, Rylan will represent Canada in Sao Paulo, Brazil this August.
Although Rylan is a battle-hardened veteran of the skills experience, the World Skills competition is another order of magnitude beyond anything most competitors expect. The contest happens every two years (on odd years) in a different host country each time (Calgary hosted World Skills 2009). You must be no older than 22 in the year of competition and you can only compete once; there are no second chances. The competition takes place over four days. There are only 22 hours to complete the project. An international panel of experts designs the competition project, oversees the competition, marks different aspects of the work and selects the medalists.
Training for competition
Rylan has been training for the competition since September 2014. At least once a month, he makes the trek up to SAIT Polytechnic to take part in intensive training with his trainer and expert (Harold Bergmann and myself, respectively). His trainer, Harold Bergmann says, “While World Skills competitors are relatively young, the work they produce and the dedication to their craft goes well beyond their years. Rylan continues to impress us with his skills and his determination to keep improving.”
Rylan practices by reading drawings from many previous World Skills competitions and by building examples of complicated test projects. To replicate competition conditions, Rylan must train in a three-by-five metre space. Contained in that space are a bench, a chop-saw, a router table, an exhaustive selection of portable power tools and numerous razor-sharp and well-tuned planes, chisels and other traditional hand tools. The small space forces him to develop efficiency. In a competition setting, anything that can be done at the bench quickly and well represents an advantage over competitors who might have to line up at a large format machine shared by all the competitors.
Because Rylan has a three-hour drive to SAIT, and a finite travel budget, Team Rylan has set up a secondary training site at Rylan’s home. Rylan’s dad built a charming cottage behind the house. At least that is what it appears to be from the outside. It is really a shop and is where Rylan will do between six and 13 hours per week of practice every week until the competition. The cottage/shop has the identical kit that Rylan uses when he comes to SAIT with the exception of a portable table saw.
“Rylan is looking forward to the competition,” says his father, Rick, “but he is also a little bit nervous.” I assured him that is normal given the pressure. “He has his little shop now,” Rick continues. “It’s all set up with a big chart on the wall of how he is going to be marked. He practices a lot and he rates himself. He knows that whatever happens, it’s up to him to do his very best.”
What equipment is needed?
Here is something to think about; a young man in a 15 square meter space with basic hand and power tools can produce world-class work. How can that be? Doesn’t everyone need 1500 sq. ft. and $100,000 worth of machinery? The truth is that with the right basic equipment, some skill and versatile techniques you can overcome many limitations. The key is expanding the repertoire of what the basics can do by harnessing your brain and benefitting from the experience of others. What are the essentials if you had to set up small-scale? The following list is offered for your consideration:
A robust portable table saw: Portable doesn’t have to mean flimsy. Get a stationary saw if you can afford it, but newer portable saws run smoothly, with little run out or vibration. It doesn’t matter what saw you have if you don’t have good blades. Get a good rip blade, a cross-cut, a triple-chip and a steep-top angle blade for composites. Be sure to make yourself a stack of zero-clearance throat plates to support the cuts and prevent tear-out on the trailing side. Add to this a good mitre gauge and a shop-built cross-cut sled and there isn’t much you can’t do in the table saw realm.
A good bandsaw: A good bandsaw can accept a range of blade widths from 1/8″ (tight curves) to 3/4″ (re-sawing). Make sure the tires are in good shape, the table can be adjusted and locked securely and the blade guides and thrust bearings all perform as designed. It is surprising what a well-adjusted, mid-size bandsaw can do with the right blade and guides.
A drill press: Get a drill press with sufficient travel in the quill and enough distance from the column to the chuck to drill holes well in from the edge. It should have step pulleys or some other means of adjusting the rotational speed for safety and productivity. If it has a quill lock and can turn fast enough, your drill press can do double duty as a mortiser with a router bit in the chuck and a solid fence with stops to guide the work. The key here is making light cuts and several passes. Make sure the chuck and quill have minimal run out.
A jointer and planer or jointer/planer combo: As much as we all enjoy using a well-tuned plane, we don’t plow our fields with oxen (usually) just because we can. We shouldn’t pass up the accuracy and productivity of these two stalwarts. Neither is much good without sharp blades, but the jointer is tricky to set up correctly. That is the subject for another article, but well worth the research. Be prepared to wade through a lot of malarkey though. Many sources describe methods that will not work.
A good router: Your router should be minimum 1.5 horsepower and electronic variable speed. It should have a choice of collets. It is a good idea to have two bases so you can fashion a router table to use the same router. Simply remove the router from the base and put in the identical base in the router table. A lot of routine profiling work can be done on a router table and the ability to reduce the speed enables the use of wide diameter cutters, such as cabinet door sets, safely. Like other machines, tooling makes all the difference. Grab a nice cross-section of bits suited to the work you are doing.
Beyond that, you can build up your stash of portable power tools; a jigsaw, a cordless drill, a lipping planer, a biscuit joiner, a belt sander, a pad sander and whatever you want with the money left over.
The three-by-five metre space allotted to a skills competitor resembles a micro-shop and forces you to think like a small-shop person. Concerning skills competitions, I recently asked Rylan the following questions:
He replied that the random orbital sander and the measuring tape were the most important. The biggest challenge was balancing timing with quality.
What? I pressed him. What about the router? What about sharp planes? His answer was that you really couldn’t do a lot without most of the tools in the foregoing list. But if you think about it, the tape measure helps you make sure you get a good start and the sander makes sure you have a good finish.
Who am I to disagree? After all Rylan is a medal-winning cabinetmaker.