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Style Magazine

Woodshop Rocks

Apr 30, 2010 07:02AM ● By Style

Photo by Dante Fontana

When Eric Clapton was a boy, he might have dreamed Santa’s workshop looked like this.

Standing in the center of Duane Calkins’ woodshop class at Buljan Middle School, one sees nothing but guitars, mostly electric, all shapes and styles, all stages of construction. They hang from walls, lay on tables, and are being carried by saw-dusted students towards table saws or painting bays. There isn’t a napkin holder, knick-knack box or other woodshop cliché in sight.

Fifteen years ago a student told Mr. Calkins he wanted to build a guitar. Duane didn’t know the first thing about it. He owned a guitar, but couldn’t play. Still, he figured, how hard could it be? He studied the design and started in. “I like a challenge,” he says with a shrug.

Getting the body developed wasn’t too difficult – he’s a woodworker, after all. But then he got to the neck. “The neck is the most difficult part of a guitar; it’s incredibly hard to do just right.” Of course, he didn’t know that until he actually started in. Figuring he’d be able to get some quick, easy tips, he contacted a local guitar maker. Three-and-a-half-years and a full apprenticeship later, he finally had it down. “I became obsessed,” he says. “And those three-and-a-half years are where I learned the techniques we still use in class today.”

The first year his class featured guitar making, they made 68. Last year, that number approached 200. A class that in most schools is only a quarter, became a full school-year commitment. “The first trimester we focus on safety,” Calkins says. “The second we build the bodies and the necks. The third we’re assembling the electronics and putting on the finishing touches.” Calkins calls third trimester “...panic time! We have to drill holes and do things that don’t allow for mistakes.”

But by then, the kids have learned tools and techniques not even offered in many high school woodshops. As a result, they have developed the patience, the discipline – the craftsmanship – to a point that Calkins says there are actually very few “uncorrectable” mistakes. And when the student finally holds the finished product in his or her hands for the first time? “The pride is unbelievable,” Calkins says simply, and I’m not quite sure if he’s talking about the student, or himself.

Buljan won a distinguished school award last year from the CA Department of Education. “Woodshop Rocks” – which is what Calkins calls his class – was singled out by Superintendent Jack O’Connell. He stopped by and told Calkins he would look into getting it certified as a bona fide discipline. The past few years, Calkins has overseen the start-up of similar classes at Mira Loma, Casa Robles and Highlands High – which hadn’t had a shop class in nine years. Two schools in Wyoming have even adopted his plan.

There is no school budget for Woodshop Rocks. It’s run entirely by donations. Calkins has a lot of friends who help with everything from electronics to paint. Local musicians test the quality of finished instruments. An acquaintance who works for the 3M Company last year donated $15,000 worth of sandpaper. “I try to pull in as many people from the community as I can,” Calkins says, “because you can learn so much more when you involve others.”

“My mission,” Calkins says over coffee recently, “is to help as many kids start in music as possible.” Just then, a young woman walks up with a guitar Calkins is helping her make as a birthday present for her musician step-dad. On the back of the neck she has written, “Let the music we love be what we do.” She’s beaming, Calkins smiles. “I would love to see this program in a thousand schools,” he says.

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