Equipment and Curriculum for a Woodworking School

Woodworkers discuss the shop equipment, software, and focus appropriate for a serious secondary school program intended to train professional woodworkers. July 27, 2008

About a year ago, I asked you for a "must have" list of equipment necessary for teaching cabinetmaking/manufacturing at a new magnet high school here in Las Vegas. I really appreciated your help. The school is now under construction and is scheduled to open in the fall of 2009.

In addition to the typical machinery found in shops (jointer, planer, bandsaw, etc.), we will also have one of each of the following:

Techno LCX 59120 CNC with 5 hp spindle, tool changer and vacuum table;
Martin T 27 shaper;
Unique 250 MC 3 spindle shaper;
Gannomat Format 42 line borer;
Altendorf F-45 Challenger sliding table saw;
Holtz Her Uno 1302 edge bander;
Sandya 1/S CS 95 wide belt sander;
Oliver 5025 jump saw;
Blum Minipress;
Castle pocket screw machine.

This will be a four-year program. The freshmen will learn basic woodworking, the upperclassmen will learn about design, layout and automation as well as advanced woodworking techniques. All students will be enrolled in CADD classes.

My questions to you are... What CAD/CAM software do you think these students would most benefit from learning? CabinetVision? Microvellum? ArtCam Pro? MasterCam? Other? Also, how appropriate do you think it is to teach strictly in metric (True 32)? Once again, thank you for your constructive input.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor F:
I wanted to comment about your "basic woodworking" curriculum. I met our local high school woodshop teacher who gave me a tour of the shop. The machines looked great but as an avid woodworker, I made a beeline to the hand tool crib. Alas, as I suspected... the chisels and hand planes hadn't seen a decent edge in decades. My point is that if you really want to teach this craft, don't let sharpening edge tools be something briefly mentioned in some dusty old manual. I know many of the readers here will scoff and say that scrapers, chisels and hand planes are woodworking dinosaurs that were replaced by the widebelt, the CNC and the jointer/planer.

I am an avid AutoCAD draftsman, but electronic drafting has not replaced a quick layout/story rod with a square and pencil to clarify a task while at the saw. I have experienced the thrill of taking one of my AutoCAD drawings, opening it up in Mastercam, tool pathing the part, and then pushing the button on the CNC router to watch in amazement as the machine does the work of at least 15 cabinetmakers per hour, but that still is not enough to render hand tools to being museum pieces. Just as the keyboard has not rendered the lead pencil useless, advanced woodworking technology has not and never will eliminate the need for the handsaw, the chisel, the hand plane and the scraper, etc. on the shop floor.

While any woodworker playing with a full deck is not going to try to make money dressing entire boards with hand tools, these basic tools excel at odd jobs. While the uninitiated woodworker runs outside to the van to grab a belt sander and extension cord, the initiated worker pulls a deftly sharpened block plane from his apron and solves the fitting issue in 15 seconds with three plane strokes. Another guy in the shop has to resort to a belt sander to flush up an edge when a card scraper is faster, more accurate, and leaves the surface ready for a finish.

I shudder to think that the vast majority of carpenters and cabinetmakers in this land keep pounding away on those butter knife dull chisels the way they come from the hardware store. In many cases, that first factory edge is the only edge that chisel will ever have. The initiated realize that "store edges" on chisels and planes are not really meant for actual use, but are only roughed on at the factory.

Do your students a favor and learn how to sharpen yourself so that you can teach it. I don't see how basic woodworking can be taught properly without that key piece. I slung myself into the world of woodworking some 30 years ago and although I was not tutored in that important area, I eventually figured it out for myself. Once you cut wood with a truly sharp hand tool, you will instantly understand what you have been missing. Once a woodworker learns to sharpen and use hand tools, he will be able to out produce and also produce higher quality work than his machine-only contemporaries.

From contributor J:
Very impressive curriculum, especially at the high school level. I applaud you!

I assume you are teaching basic line by line CAD first (AutoCAD?). Your first listings seem appropriate - Vision and MV. They are some of the most popular and difficult to learn totally. And cabinetmaking is the largest segment of the industry. The programs will be ever-changing, but if a person knows basic CAD/CAM, new programs are easy to learn.

To me, metric is very important and most woodworkers have made the switch. Unfortunately, most other parties of the building trades are still working imperial and will be in the near future. Potential shop project managers need to be fluent in both languages.

From contributor T:
If I was in charge of a community based woodworking school, I would divide the program into two areas: hobbyist and professional.

Everybody would take core the first quarter. This initial effort would cover the basic issues of shop safety, principles of wood movement (as relates to moisture migration), how trees grow, how lumber is sawn, etc. Mostly this would be about how to keep your fingers out of a tablesaw and everything else would be just gravy.

The second quarter would divide the students into those who just want to have fun with woodworking and those who want to make their living at it. The fun group could have all quarter long to build that emotionally satisfying tool box. The professionals would be judged by how good a tool box they can put together in 4 hours. Instead of a two week seminar on how to build a cool router table, the professionals would learn how to do this in 20 minutes and, more importantly, learn the principles of setup reduction so they could get back to the same router setup next week without a lot of wasted motion. Notice that I said "principles" of setup reduction. If you learn the principles first, before you move to the "tricks", you will actually give these students the ability to feed themselves. Learning the why of setup reduction would be the best preface to the how of setup reduction.

Lean manufacturing is part of the curriculum in Nova Scotia's woodworking program. It should be part of yours too. You can't pick up a trade journal today without seeing at least three articles about Lean manufacturing. There's a half dozen trade journals published each month. In a single year this is 216 times that somebody suggested you should engage intellectually with your occupation, but the graduates we get from our local woodworking school have never even heard the word mentioned. They fall all over themselves to fondle the new Festool but nobody teaches them anything about the business of woodworking.

I would set a limit to how many instructors could be recruited from former pupils. If every instructor studies under the same sensei you get a very convivial staff but you end up with a very limited gene pool of new ideas.

From contributor T:
Contributor J gave you a better answer than I did. My rant was aimed at the philosophy that underpins a voc-tech school. I agree with him that you need to make your pupils fluent in both metric and imperial math. That part, however, shouldn't take up much of your curriculum. I am curious about what you mean by "magnet school"? Does this mean that your students have somehow already made a decision that they want to learn cabinetmaking/manufacturing?

From contributor Y:
I didn't see Sawstop listed in your tool list. Starting up a new program, this is a must. Are you going to use your slider for all operations? It doesn't seem very practical in a school setting. I've been teaching furniture and cabinetmaking in high school for 15 years. Had a very unfortunate table saw accident my first year where a freshman lost part of 3 fingers. We now have 3 Sawstops and hope to never go down that road again. I would strongly suggest that you include them in your program.

I would also make sure that your computers are totally isolated from the dust of the shop. Even an attached, sealed classroom will not work with most windows machines. We had AutoCAD for 3 years in our classroom adjoining the shop. Most of our machines had died within 1 1/2 years due to fan failure caused by dust. Our school has very unwisely chosen to get rid of the program due to the problems.

I would never teach strictly metric to students. Will they all be going into a field where only metric is used? What about when they go home at the end of the day and need to measure a broken pane of glass for repair? Many high school students can't read a tape measure and there are many more daily tasks that involve reading a tape measure than using metric. Teach metric to your upper level students after they have a good understanding of standard fractions.

From contributor J:
The title of the questioner's post is “Career & Technical Academy.” This tells me he is going way beyond a high school shop class and wants to prepare students for a woodworking career. He also states he has the basic equipment in addition to what he lists. I bet the table saw is there as well as hand tools being covered in the basic woodworking the freshmen get. The type of school he is setting up is just what is needed for our industry. He explained it well and he deserves serious opinions about his two questions from woodworking professionals.

From contributor M:
I would suggest that you replace the Gannomat Format with an Optima or Mentor construction boring machine. This will be one of the most complicated pieces of equipment that your students will operate, including automated equipment! It forces users to think in 3D. This may also be a way to identify those who might do well as designers or engineers.

Second, True32 is a trademarked program that focuses on a flow manufacturing process. Please don't confuse this with using the metric system exclusively in your shop. There are two points that I would like to make about metric/imperial. First, it is important to be able to use the metric system as it applies to woodworking. I have found little use knowing all the Latin prefixes. Most of the time we use mm, and occasionally cm.

It is also important to be able to work fluently between the two types of measure. On many European machines you will have Seiko counters that are metric to 2 places, and some machines, you will have imperial counters to 3 and 4 counters (our Weinig moulder has imperial counters and metric measures on the infeed). Also, your students may work in a shop that is metric, but have to work from plans that are imperial.

As far as software, I would suggest MV and AlphaCAM. AutoCAD is one of the most commonly used drafting programs. It is not easy to learn, but very powerful. If they have a good background in AutoCAD, then they should be able to apply it to other platforms.
I like AlphaCAM to design parts in. It gives you a great deal of control. I think it is important to know how to make a router do things for you, not just go from "screen to machine" letting the design software make all the choices for you.

I believe that if you make your class geared more towards the technical side, your class will draw a better student. Otherwise you are likely to become a dumping ground for students who are deciding if school is their thing. Help them understand how to manufacture. As suggested, introduce them to manufacturing systems like Lean. As you move towards manufacturing and away from arts and crafts, your program will gain more respect.

From the original questioner:
Your input is very much appreciated because we don't want to teach in a vacuum; we need industry to tell us what skills are required by our graduates to make them valuable to manufacturing. Thinking towards the future, the aim of this school is to create a learning environment that best emulates an automated cabinet shop. We are hopeful that graduates will not just understand the machinery and the processes, but also be able to think and solve problems.

You are correct that this is not a typical high school, nor is it vo-tech. Students enrolled at this academy will apply because of their interest in engineering. In fact, all students will be enrolled in engineering and architecture classes in addition to the manufacturing (cabinetmaking) classes. These will be students who perform at above average levels.

The "basic woodworking" curriculum for the freshmen will definitely include hand tools. Because these kids are young (14 years old), a substantial amount of time must be spent on safety, measuring, and wood technology. Each student will learn how to use all the machinery by building nightstands (face frame constructed, frame and panel finished ends, raised panel doors and a drawer). I agree that students must be able to use hand tools and to hone an edge.

Thanks for pointing me toward Lean manufacturing; I will look at it more closely. You make excellent points on teaching both systems of measurement. It probably makes sense to get the freshmen to understand the Imperial system when constructing their nightstands; the sophomores can use the metric system when beginning to learn automation; the upperclassmen should work between the two.

Yes, we will have two Sawstops in addition to the slider. I too have taught furniture and cabinetmaking in a comprehensive high school for the last 15 years and wish every one of my machines had such safety technology. It gives you peace of mind, especially when performing a difficult-to-guard dado operation (although I do get pretty steamed up when some knucklehead sticks a tape measure into the spinning blade!). Anyway, thanks again.

From contributor R:
Considering what I have watched at other high schools, I would, if it's not too late, make some machinery changes. I would not spend the money on the Gannomat, jump saw or 3 spindle shaper. Instead I would go for an upgrade on the router. Most if not all who have converted to a CNC sell their manual boring machinery. The Martin will handle all of the shaping duties and the jump saw in a high school would spell disaster, in my opinion!

The next step would be to find some local mentor who runs a cabinet/manufacturing shop and let them guide you in the right direction. No offense, but if you have never worked in or owned a cabinet shop, you will have no real idea what the correct path will be. (I mentor a local high school shop, so I have witnessed this firsthand.)

As for software, I would keep it as simple as possible. MV, AutoCAD, Cabinet Vision, Alphacam, Cabnetworks (which I own). All these programs are great if you work with them everyday and plan on spending years to master them, but the average high school student will quickly get frustrated and board with them.

I would look into getting an entry level cabinet program like KCDw and Artcam Express (Artcam Pro with some of the features turned off). I have Express and really like it. It's very simple to use and will make g code for the router with no other secondary software, plus you can import all kinds of different files into it, select a tool path, and make a part in minutes, not hours!

From contributor B:
I've used a dozen different CAD systems over the past thirty years. Rather than pick a highly specialized software package that may or may not be used by a potential employer, I believe that a good AutoCAD background prepares your students to move on to any more specialized CAD software. Although the output varies, there are many similarities among all of them.