Training tomorrow’s woodworkers and boat builders

Model of a boat on top of its big sister, a fullsize boat built at Hands on Deck.

Along the shores of Green Bay, in the South Bay Marina, children gleefully wield knives and shave surfaces with planers, cutting and carving, gluing and assembling, creating projects ranging from kitchen utensils to housewares, tool totes to model boats. Full-sized boats are built, too.

The boys and girls are part of the Hands On Deck program that teaches young children through teenagers and beyond woodworking skills, and how to build wooden items using both traditional hand tools, power tools, and woodworking equipment.

Hands on Deck student watches intently as a laser carver makes fractional rulers. Photo:  Larry Adams

Conceived and operated by Mark Hawkins, the school/club hybrid is a 501c3 educational institution that has a $200,000 annual budget. It runs classes including an Elementary Mechanical Skills class for those 5 to 11 years old, and an Industrial Arts program for middle and high school age levels.

The Elementary Mechanical Skills course twice a day in two-hour increments and the industrial arts course is run as an after-school program.

Older students can also participate in the Woodwork Career Alliance’s certification program. Currently, Hands On Deck has three students who have earned their Sawblade certificate, a program designed for high school students who can’t accumulate enough classroom hours for them to graduate with a WCA Green Credential. One student is working on his core credential, which builds on the Sawblade Certificate and recognizes a student’s ability to safely set up and operate basic woodworking machinery in accordance with the WCA’s Skill Standards.

Volunteer Rick Huntington helps a student on his articulating lamp project. Photo: Larry Adams
A Japanese tool tote crafted in the school by students. The project helps the young students with multiple aspects of woodworking from measuring to cutting to size to assembly. Photo: Mark Hawkins

Hawkins said the open floorplan warehouse space that they occupy is around 3,000 square feet, and he is looking to grow and to occupy 6,000 square feet with a new buildout in a separate suite in the marina. Shop equipment includes table saws, band saw, and myriad hand and power tools. Recently, they purchased a Boss 36×55 CO2 laser cutter.

"With the acquisition of the laser," said Hawkins, "I believe we are unique. We teach woodworking skills to kids ages 5 and older utilizing Green Wood Carving/Sloyd and Hand Tool Skills as a base, and computer-aided design and digital fabrication on the other end of the skill pipeline."

Hands On Deck spends about $15,000 a year on woodworking materials, and its primary materials are clear ponderosa pine and clear basswood, Baltic birch plywood for fixtures and jigs, and Koskisen KoskiFlex thin plywood from Finland, and veneer for its laser cut models.

Instructor and founder Mark Hawkins of Hands On Deck works with a young student on the design of her spatula that she will carve out of this piece of wood.
What is the difference between whittling and carving? This student knows. He is carving. Photo: Larry Adams

Hands On Deck has five staff members who work part-time and that grows depending on contracts for the summer. In addition, they have a dozen or so volunteers.

One volunteer is Peter Van Dyke, a product specialist with machinery distributor Stiles Machinery.

"(Hands On Deck’s) mission is to provide a positive educational outlet for woodworkers interested in wooden boat building and woodworking in general," said VanDyke. "Through its educational programs and hands on involvement in boat building, participants experience the joy of crafting something beautiful out of wood. This fundamental learning is critical in increasing the interest in the woodworking community. It would not surprise me to see future woodworkers, business owners and hobbyists born out of the participation in this program."

Teaching the young ones
The youngest bunch are enrolled in the EMS program. "Our EMS class is like five to eleven years old and so we try to simplify it as much as possible and keep it as beautiful as possible," said Hawkins.

On the day that FDMC magazine toured the facility, younger students were hard at work on two distinct projects and processes. On one side of the room, students were creating an articulating lamp that allowed them to practice a variety of skills from measuring, cutting, gluing, planing and more.

To help students measure, Hawkins has developed an easy to see and use fractional ruler.

"The lamp is made from 5/8″ by 5/8″ stock," said Rick Huntington, a volunteer woodworking instructor and expert shipwright who has decades of boat building experience and has sailed the world.

"We’re taking five by eight by five by eight squares of pine and laminating them and gluing them together to make an articulating lamp. It’s simple, but it’s repetitious and teaches them how to cut square, and straight."

"I’m making it smooth," said one girl using a planer across the base of the lamp. "I’m making the tops even, so they are flat, flat, flat."

A second group of students were working with green wood using batons and mallets designed for striking steel tools such as froes or mauls without damaging them. They also used Sloyd knives, to carve spatulas, butter spreaders and spoons.

In this session, the students split a log with mauls and knives and then outline the kitchen utensil on the board. They then used a carving knife or Sloyd knife to subtract the excess wood and create the wooden item.

Previous work included a shrink pot project that teaches students about wood and how moisture affects the material. In this project, a pot is roughed out from a wet log, then, once it has been hollowed out, a bottom is added. The dry bottom is added, and as the pot dries out, it shrinks for a tight fit.

Boat building
In addition to its general woodworking program, Hands On Deck offers a boat building program — both model and full-sized, skin of frame wrapped boats. "We have a catalogue of five model boats, and I think we have built a few thousand over the past two years of the program," said Hawkins.

The boat kits were designed inhouse, and laser cut with the Boss CO2 laser. Hawkins said that the young "shipbuilders" are given the tools and supplies to "showcase their dexterity and creativity at a young age. Using a low temperature hot melt glue gun, they not only assemble the model kit but also decorate the boat. A 5-year-old can assemble the model and a larger model with more challenges can be put together by older elementary and middle school age youth.

But these models are not the only boats being built at Hands On Deck.

Soaring above the children is the model of the skin-on-frame wrapped canoe. In 2017, Hawkins built the Victory Canoe, a skin-o- frame canoe with a length overall of 17 feet that Hawkins uses as a prototype.

Hands On Deck also constructed several other boats such as wheelbarrow boats designed by famed Canadian boat builder Harry Bryan. Other boat designs include those collected in the 1850s and compiled in the Jesse Wells Church journal. The Church family was a shipbuilding family in the 19th century.

Hawkins modeled this part of the program after the nationwide Urban Boat Builders program, a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering youth to succeed in work and life through woodworking and experiential learning.

Hawkins said that the boat building started on the third floor of the downtown Green Bay library. One of the boats was built with a group of at-risk kids at a group home as part of community outreach.


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About the author
Larry Adams | Editor

Larry Adams is a Chicago-based writer and editor who writes about how things get done. A former wire service and community newspaper reporter, Larry is an award-winning writer with more than three decades of experience. In addition to writing about woodworking, he has covered science, metrology, metalworking, industrial design, quality control, imaging, Swiss and micromanufacturing . He was previously a Tabbie Award winner for his coverage of nano-based coatings technology for the automotive industry. Larry volunteers for the historic preservation group, the Kalo Foundation/Ianelli Studios, and the science-based group, Chicago Council on Science and Technology (C2ST).