Student Activity Spotlight: Woodshop
February 18, 2019 | By Eve Tolpa
On St. John’s Santa Fe campus, a stairwell outside the Student Health Center leads down to a small room. Affixed to the walls are pegboards, upon which hang chisels, mallets, brushes, and levels, among other tools. It’s dominated by a large wooden table—the collective handiwork of students.
This space is home to the woodshop, which held its first session of the semester in February. Instructor Dylan Weller recalls the early days of the shop, initiated roughly five years ago as a club and now a college-funded activity.
“Originally, students were actually coming out to my shop at my house, and we were working there. That’s where we built this [work] bench,” he says, gesturing to the aforementioned table.
He calls his instruction sessions a “jumping-off point,” and students join him on Wednesdays from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. to learn their way around a woodshop. After that, he explains, “they can come in and use the shop whenever they like on their own.” Total instruction length can vary; sometimes it is time-based, sometimes project-based.
“Last semester everyone made a bench, and that ended up taking eight or nine weeks,” Weller says. “I’m planning on doing the same thing this semester.”
Notably, Weller teaches students only how to use hand tools.
“It’s kind of an antiquarian practice,” Weller says. “Starting off using hand tools is a really good way to learn.”
He likens this low-tech approach to the St. John’s Program objectives of “getting down to first principles and direct contact with original text. Here you get closer to the natural by working with hand tools. [It] forces you to be a partner in the craft with the material.”
Weller’s teaching method also dovetails with that of the Program, in that he leaves plenty of room for individual discovery. While he will always demonstrate the basics of, say, holding a chisel, he allows students to experiment and encounter technical subtleties on their own. This open-ended path also encourages collaboration among participants.
“Whenever I see students helping each other, I step back and let that happen,” says Weller.
Growing up in Santa Fe with a woodworker father who held a PhD in philosophy made a big impression on Weller, and he himself served as a professor of political theory at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York before moving home to take up woodworking full time. Not surprisingly, he’s given a lot of thought to the connection between handcrafts and the life of the mind.
“When my body is occupied, my mind can roam more freely over various ideas,” Weller says. “There is a practicality to this work that is really helpful to students, who are thinking in abstract terms most of the time. You are dealing with the physical world, and there is a rigidity that is helpful [for] letting you understand some of your limitations and tendencies.”
Silas Blunk (SF19), who also happens to come from a woodworking family, concurs. “The contrast is extremely refreshing to me and probably helped me with my studies. In freshman year, I would go to the woodshop after our evening seminar class, because I was working on a bench that I wanted to finish. I remember it seemed like a nice way to decompress from Aristotle before bed.”
In addition to making use of the woodshop for his own enrichment, Blunk assists Weller in getting the word out.
“I am responsible for making sure that students know about the woodshop and signing them up for Dylan’s [sessions],” he says. “The woodshop is pretty low-profile, and I think lots of people don’t know about it.”
According to Weller, woodworking fosters a range of transferrable skills, and they aren’t limited to manual dexterity; there’s also mental and emotional resilience.
“Making mistakes is endemic to the practice of woodworking,” he says. “Forgiveness is a big thing in woodworking.”
And, like the Program, it encourages open-minded engagement.
“People talk about the term ‘master craftsman,’” Weller continues. “The truth is, it seems to me, that mastery is not something you gain as a title. It’s something you practice.”