Teacher Mark Smith instructs student James Rabe in Mastercam CAD/CAM lab.
Teacher Mark Smith instructs student James Rabe in Mastercam CAD/CAM lab.

BRAIDWOOD, Ill. -  Can you imagine having beautiful custom cabinetry designed, fabricated and installed in your kitchen for just the cost of materials and a small donation for all the work? Or how about an attractively milled and stained sign to welcome visitors to your business? 

These are among the many projects successfully tackled by the woodworking students in Mark Smith’s Industrial Technology classes at Reed-Custer High School in Braidwood, Illinois.

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High school woodshop builds pro-caliber kitchens and millwork

Wood signs CNC routed, and custom kitchen cabinetry designed, fabricated and installed are among the many projects successfully tackled

The program, which uses wood materials for all levels of instruction and production, covers a wide range of woodworking materials and equipment, including the latest for programming and CNC operations. Smith is especially suited to teach the program, having taught advanced wood manufacturing at previous schools following his career in the industry itself.

He has seen to it that the program is affiliated with the Woodwork Career Alliance to assure his students an in-depth learning experience as well as post-graduate opportunities for both those directly entering advanced manufacturing industries and those going on to 2- or 4-year colleges.

“Students entering the program as freshmen or sophomores start out with Orientation to Technology. They begin by using AutoCAD to design a project in the CAD portion of CAD/CAM [Computer Assisted Design/Computer Assisted Manufacturing],” says Smith.

“Once they have their project drawn, usually a personalized engraving on a long board to capture their getting-started interest, I have them import the file into Mastercam for the CAM portion. They could do both in Mastercam, but I like to expose them to several engineering programs, with AutoCAD and Mastercam being the two ‘biggies’ they’ll find in industry."

After importing, they’ll do any needed geometry cleanup and then create their toolpaths for machining their project.  The students then create toolpaths keyed to an engraving tool. Once they preview their work on screen and Smith is satisfied that everything is okay, they write the code and proceed to machine the actual engraving operation on the CNC router.

The next class, for students who have completed the Orientation class, is the Production class. Here, they encounter a variety of projects. 

“It could be a custom sign or plaque, a specially designed piece of furniture, even a complete kitchen’s worth of cabinets,” says Smith, “depending on what a donating customer wants to have us manufacture for them."

A "donating customer" is a person or organization in the community with a particular need for a wood product who has faith in our students’ capabilities and is willing to pay for the materials needed and donate a relatively small sum for all  the students’ labor. 

"Word of the quality of the fruits of their labors has spread and our Production class has no shortage of projects to tackle,” says Smith. One of the first Production projects this year was a 3’ x 8’ sign fabricated for welcoming visitors to a community in nearby Morris, Illinois. 

“It was all designed in Mastercam,” says Smith. “Then they programmed the toolpaths with Mastercam and cut the exterior wood sign on our Thermwood CNC router, complete with stylishly engraved lettering. The toolpathing I concentrate on is primarily for contouring, drilling and engraving. We also fabricated some plaques, one for an administrator and another to be raffled off for a Senior Class fundraiser.” 

These projects led up to a major undertaking calling for Smith’s students to design and build a huge set of staircases for the school’s musical theater production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." All toolpaths for creating these sets were programmed in Mastercam and cut on the CNC router.

“Those staircases helped us gear up for a major kitchen cabinet job for a local resident,” says Smith.

While there is a certain amount of hand work, such as attaching the hardware, and a variety of measuring and production techniques for a project of this size, the students used Mastercam toolpaths and the CNC router to make sure the shelf holes in the facing sides are exact. A shelf that is not level-perfect just won’t do. Faces and decorative features are also all designed and programmed in Mastercam so everything is dead-on when the cabinets are installed. A series of checks make sure the geometries and toolpaths are correct.

"This particular job has varying depths and heights to the upper and lower cabinets," Smith notes. "There is a total of eighteen cabinets, and a large island completes the set.”

Wood Finishing Training

The students also learn how to apply stain and various finishes, using the Industrial Technology program’s own spray equipment.

“The cabinets on this job are stained and finished with a solvent-based stain and a pre-cat lacquer finish,” says Smith. “We can use tint and glaze as well. Local companies like Graco Tools and Richelieu Hardware donated spray guns and finish to our program. We use an industry-style spray booth with zipper system filters donated by Paint Pockets. These are just a few of the more than two dozen industry supporters of our program this year who give us materials, equipment discounts and technical support.”

Smith brings a lot of cabinets-by-students know-how to Reed-Custer. He began a similar ‘donating customer’ program while he was an instructor at Shiloh High School, in Shilo, Illinois.  Before leaving Shiloh, his students had completed about a dozen cabinet jobs and had a 5-year waiting list.

“Where else can you get a custom cabinet job done for just the cost of materials and a $2,000 donation to the program?” Smith asks.  

The monetary donation is used to purchase equipment, tooling and supplies students cannot afford and to fund field trips to manufacturing companies, such as custom yacht builder Burger Boats, where, "Students see materials fabricated into floating palaces grander than many homes,” says Smith. “They quickly appreciate the capabilities of advanced manufacturing in helping create these beautiful yachts from blueprint to final stage of assembly."

On another such field trip, to Triangle Dies and Supplies in Batavia, Illinois, students see an extensive use of AutoCAD, Mastercam and CNC equipment, while a planned trip to1220 Exhibits of Nashville, Tennessee will show them all types of trade show exhibit booths using wood, plastic and metal materials.

Redd-Custer students were given free passes to attend Cabinets & Closets Expo 2017 in Schaumburg, Illinois on April 13.

This year, students also had their spheres of influence extended by attending Cabinets & Closets Conference & Expo. All these experiences are made possible thanks to our donating customers and industry supporters.”  

When Smith’s students graduate, they will have their Woodworking Career Alliance (WCA) Sawblade Certificate attesting to their woodworking proficiency and many will have their WCA Passport, certifying their Level 2 skills in the use of a wide range of equipment. The WCA Passport looks like a travel passport, but instead of countries stamped on the pages, there are skill certification stamps. 

“We have written, and continue to write, skill standards for woodworking operations,” says Smith. “We have covered more than a hundred different tools to date.  Just about every tool has three skill levels. Take the table saw, for example, where you can do ripping, crosscutting, rabbiting, and so on. We have developed a level one, a level two, and a level three.

"A teacher or industry professional will observe the student performing a set of tasks on the tool and assign a pass or fail to the student. We want our students to be skilled to the second level. That means that they are not only able to operate the table saw, but they know which blade to put on, how to square the tool, to set it to within a sixty-fourth of the measurements and run it safely. When the job is done, there must be no burn marks. Upon successful completion of the task, they receive a stamp in their passport saying they have table saw certification, second-level.”  

The objective is to receive as many stamps as possible, all leading to industry recognition of the individual’s capabilities when entering the job market, going for a pay raise, or applying to a college.  The WCA also provides training for teachers. “I went to Madison (Wisconsin) Area Technical College,” says Smith, “where I learned how to administer the tests for Sawblade and Passport Stamp Certifications. Our graduates will know how to use AutoCAD and Mastercam, as well as all the traditional woodworking hand tools. 

"Next year, we’ll add even more learning experiences to our program," Smith says. "Although we have been building acoustic guitars as part of our curriculum, DEPCO Enterprises, LLC has donated fifteen seats of Mastercam Art to the school that we will use to introduce 3D design and production of electric guitars to our STEM II class for the first time.”

Smith has made quite an impact on students deciding on pursuing a career in the woodworking industry.  Each year, eighth graders are invited with their parents to an open house at the high school, where talks are given on what to expect as freshmen and what opportunities will be made available to them.  Booths are set up featuring the many academic and elective programs.  Mr. Smith also also invites them down to the Industrial Technology shop and gives them Mastercam and CNC machining demonstrations.

“This year,” he says, “I reached out to former students and invited them to come and talk to the students and their parents.  More than a dozen showed up, traveling up to three hours to get here. They brought samples of products they make at the companies where they work and really impressed the kids and parents with talks about career opportunities. Most of them use Mastercam on a daily basis to program their companies’ CNC equipment.”

Whether earning certificates while building cabinets for donating customers, or achieving skill levels while designing guitars for their personal enjoyment, Mark Smith’s students seem headed toward a very satisfying future in advanced manufacturing. Learn more about Reed-Custer Industrial Technology education.