Woodworking lab draws hundreds of teens from far and wide

Stool components are cut out and details on the components routed on this Komo CNC.

The buzz of woodworking equipment biting into wood matched the buzz of groups of teens waiting anxiously for their group’s turn to tour Fox Valley Technical College (FVTC) and its 11,000-square-foot wood manufacturing lab in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, during its annual Hands-On, High-Tech event.

"The kids are really excited," said Jeff Capelle, an instructor at Brillion High School in Brillion, Wisconsin, about an hour away. For more than two decades – COVID years excluded -- Capelle has brought students enrolled in his high school’s wood manufacturing program to the FVTC event. This year, his group is comprised of 12 students, all of whom are enrolled in his school’s woodworking or materials and processes programs.

High school students get a chance to smooth out and shape a wood part.
An FVTC student explains how the machine works.

"I tell my kids before we come that they are going to see some really high-level equipment and see processes that they have here (at Fox Valley) that we might not get at our level," said Capelle, "They can see the equipment and the opportunities available at this level. It’s a pretty cool day for our kids."

Hosting its 36th annual Hands-On, High-Tech open house, the FVTC’s Woodworking Technology program gave tours to more than 500 high school students from more than 30 area programs, said Mark Lorge, lead instructor in the program. At the mid-April event, teenagers got to see high-tech and traditional equipment, had a chance for some hands-on training, and saw step-by-step how a piece of furniture is made.

Looking down at Fox Valley’s 11,000-square-foot lab.

The Hands-On, High-Tech event has been held since 1987 and Lorge invites high school woodworking programs within a 100-mile radius of Oshkosh. Oshkosh is about 80 miles northwest of Milwaukee, and an hour south of Green Bay.

Groups of up to 25 students at a time heard a brief description of the Woodworking Technology program at FVTC and then toured the lab. Each group progressed through a series of manufacturing, finishing and assembly stations staffed by FVTC students that culminated with a finished product — this year, a stool — that each group took back with them.

An FVTC student programs a machine while students watch on.
Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Sara Rodriguez enjoying the stool made at Fox Valley Technical College.

Stool components made from MDF laminated with TFL were cut and detailed on the Komo CNC router, and then moved through various stations including the mortise and tenon station, and a hand routing station. This was the second time stools were made at an open house. In 2016, stools were made and presented to area special needs classes as part of the program’s community-oriented focus. The gifted stools were a hit, said Lorge. This year, an additional 80 stools were made and will be given to special needs classrooms in the area.

"We’ve found that young students, who are on the autism spectrum, seem to react very positively to sitting in that stool," said Lorge, "When these students come into class, those are the ones they go to first. It seems to help with posture and attention. I don’t know if it is a texture thing, or a shape or the fact that it is solid. I do not have any empirical data on it, it just works."

After exploring the woodworking lab, the students spent about 30 minutes in the Residential Building Construction lab to learn about that program. Students in that program learn to build or remodel a home from start to finish. They gain hands-on skills in exterior and interior finishing and frame construction.

In addition to the technology tour, the FVTC also hosted local employers for a job expo that Lorge said exposes the high school students to the variety of industry jobs available. The companies participating in the expo included cabinetry and closet manufacturers, furniture and millwork makers, and aircraft and yacht interior companies.

An FVTC student programs a machine while high school students watch on.

The program
Lorge and fellow instructor Glenn Koerner were both educated in the program and were taught by Jerry Finch, who established FVTC’s woodworking program in 1982. Finch served as lead woodworking instructor at FVTC until he retired in 2006. Since then, Mark Lorge has led the program, and Koerner came on board after Finch departed.

From the two instructors, the students develop their skills with hand and portable power tools, along with stationary woodworking machinery, including CNC equipment. Training also includes blueprint reading, estimating, AutoCAD and tool maintenance. An emphasis is placed on teamwork, individual initiative and developing a foundation of workplace skills and the flexibility to adapt to a job as needed. Having the graduates ready for hire is a tenet of the program.

Students meet all day, five days a week for a full year and can earn a Technical Diploma in the wood manufacturing or residential construction program.

One alum who received diplomas in both programs was Abraham Klein, a 2018 graduate who now works at the Burger Boat Company in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and who, at this open house event, represented his company in the job expo.

"When I was in high school, I knew a four-year college wasn’t going to be for me," said Klein, "but I really enjoyed my shop classes in high school. A Fox Valley Tech recruiter came to my high school that year, and she treated me like a person, not just a number like other colleges, and that was important to me."

After graduation, Klein was immediately hired by a door company in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, as a CNC programmer/operator where he worked for three years before getting the job at the Burger Boat Company. The Manitowoc, Wisconsin-based yacht maker has been around since 1863 and today does multi-million-dollar projects for customers around the world.

His favorite thing about Fox Valley was the in-depth instruction he received and the amount of time that the instructors gave to the students. "You know, everyone learns a different way, and the instructors are willing to work with the students to find the best way for them to learn. The instructors gave me all the tools I needed to excel at a world-renowned company, and I feel that when I graduated I was totally prepared to pursue a career."

Koerner said the Hands-On, High Tech event is meant to give high school students a glimpse at what woodworking careers look like. "With our lab setup," Koerner said, "we’re really trying to mimic industry so that we have the same equipment and processes used in industry. We are trying to make it as real as possible for them."

Anticipating problems and developing work arounds are also key learning techniques for the students, he said. "We work with the students to anticipate process errors, determine what could go wrong, and then how to take corrective actions to fix it," said Koerner. "So, that is the big focus. "

As part of the process, Koerner said that they present the students with different scenarios and ask them to make choices as to the best technique to use. "For instance, a scenario may ask the student to determine the best joinery process based on whether it is going to be aesthetic or structural and then Koerner said they decide how they’re going to produce the piece. I think running through all those scenarios that were presented to students is how they get the experience so they can anticipate process errors and then take corrective actions."

That is the case for Dylan Jeanty, a student graduating in August with a woodworking manufacturing diploma. Jeanty was working at a shaper station instructing teens on the equipment.

"With the diploma, I think I can go into pretty much any type of woodworking," he said. "It is a terrific opportunity for me to come here because the teachers are phenomenal. I love everything that they have taught us and the way they teach us is so in depth and they give us so many ways to do stuff it a project it allows us to view it in our own perspective."

The ability to be flexible and think through problems was a benefit for Natalie Thorp, an August 2023 graduate of the woodworking manufacturing program. "Even before I graduated," Thorp said, "I had an interview and was hired."

Thorp took a job as a cabinet tech for Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., an Appleton, Wisconsin-based manufacturer. "I was attracted to Gulfstream more than a traditional cabinet shop because it was very, very, very different from any other companies in the woodworking industry," she said.

Every project is different, she added, which makes the job exciting every day. Being able to adapt to the project, and the woodworking foundation she received, are skills that she believes will help her throughout her career. "The program gave me knowledge of machinery and helped me understand what (type of work) I like, and what I do not like, within the manufacturing industry. I achieved a wealth of knowledge from the program."

Even if you come into the program with little to no knowledge of woodworking, Thorp said that "if you are willing to learn, you have a chance for a great career."

Sidebar: Equipment roster

  • 3-Sawstop Professional Cabinet Saws
  • Altendorf F45 Elmo with Hand Guard
  • Homag Sandteq W-100 43″ Wide Belt Sander
  • Kundig Uniq oscillating Edge Sander
  • Maxym Technologies CNC Dovetailer
  • Maxym Technologies CNC Mortiser/Tenoner
  • Master Tilting Oscillating Spindle Sander
  • Minimax S500P Resaw
  • SCM Nova 520 Jointer
  • 2-Northfield 8″ Jointers
  • Northfield 36″ Bandsaw
  • Holz-Her 1265 Panel Saw
  • Langzauner 5/2E Veneer saw/mill
  • Martin T45 Surfacer
  • Martin T26 Shaper
  • Ironwood FX550 Shaper
  • Felder F700 Z Shaper
  • Circle T LM116 Lock-Miter Machine
  • Unique 250 GT2 Door Machine
  • Diehl SL-30WG Straight-line Rip Saw
  • Razorgage saw with 8′ stop
  • Weinig Quattromat 23P
  • Weinig Powermat 500
  • Weinig 931 Profile Knife Grinder
  • Weinig 960 Profile Knife Grinder
  • Weinig Optical Measuring Stand
  • Raimann KM US 310 BV Gang Rip Saw with Moveable Blade
  • Komo VR 510 CNC Router with 11 Tool Boring Head
  • Quincy QSV-25 Rotary Screw Vacuum Pump
  • Denray Downdraft Table
  • Hapfo AP 5000-M Copy Lathe
  • Robust American Beauty Hand Lathe
  • Blum Minipress
  • Gannomat Pro-Line 50 Line Boring Machine
  • Gannomat Mentor 25 Assembly Boring Machine
  • Gannomat Selekta Glue and Dowel Inserter
  • Gannomat Liftjumper Transfer Table
  • Hofer Case Clamp
  • Altendorf F2 Edgebander
  • JLT Clamp #79R-8 Cabinet Door and Clamp Rack
  • Castle TSM-22 Pocket Hole Machine
  • Hoffman MU2 Dovetail Router
  • Omga T50-350 Miter Saw
  • Omga MEC 300ST Miter Saw
  • VacuPress Hi-Flow Vacuum Pump with 4’ x 8’ Bag
  • Trotec Speedy 100 
  • Trotec Atmos Air Cleaner
  • AutoCAD V.2024
  • RouterCIM V.2024
  • Festool F500 Domino
  • Lamello Classic X
  • Lamello Zeta P 

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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).