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Founder marks school’s 10th anniversary

After trying sailing and cooking, the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking became the dream of Bob Van Dyke

Bob Van Dyke, founder and director of the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking, prepares materials for an upcoming class.

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There is a likeable quality about Bob Van Dyke, founder and director of the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking in Manchester, Conn. Van Dyke's personality, talent, hard work and dedication have been instrumental in creating a reputable woodworking school where students learn to produce high-quality work at all skill levels. Under his guidance, the school is celebrating its 10th year of operation in 2010 as it continues to offer classes ranging from Woodworking I to technical classes that feature high-profile instructors.

Van Dyke received his first taste of woodworking through sailing in high school and college.

"I was part of a Sea Scout group, which I joined in the ninth grade," he recalls. "We had a Herreshoff New York 30 donated to us. It had been built in the early 1900s and needed a huge amount of work. Three or four of us worked on it for three years, renovating it. That's really how I got into woodworking and how I got into cooking, too. The new guy on the ship always had to be the cook."

And cook he did - for 18 years. Van Dyke was trained in classical French cuisine and moved from cook to line cook to chef to executive chef. Along the way, he owned several French restaurants, held the position of executive chef in charge of the practicum division at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I.; and was executive chef in charge of special functions at Aetna in Hartford, Conn.

During his cooking years, Van Dyke did some woodworking in his spare time - he called it "his escape." In 1983, fed up with the corporate environment, his escape transformed into a full-time job at Harris Enterprises, an architectural millwork/cabinet shop in Manchester, Conn.

"I started out working in the retail department, [dealing with] lumber, taking care of customers and then taking over responsibility for the showroom," says Van Dyke. "We started classes in 1994, a finishing class, Woodworking I, Woodworking II and then Woodworking III. Then we started branching out and bringing in local instructors and then not-so-local - Mario Rodriguez, Thomas Moser, Bob Flexner, Garrett Hack. But as much as I loved Harris, the school was always going to play second fiddle to the manufacturing."

In 2000, Van Dyke left Harris and became part owner of a Woodcraft store in Manchester. There he established the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking in a back portion of the store building. Several years later, he sold his interest in the store to run the 4,400-sq.-ft. school on a full-time basis.

"Most of the high-level schools that I know are really doing weeklong classes or three-month classes that are really concentrated," says Van Dyke. "The students that are in those classes are living and breathing it. The difference that I see here, we have classes that are nights and weekends and the level of quality of the work that is coming out of this is every bit as good as stuff that is coming out of two-year programs."

Students in the Woodworking I class make a walnut jewelry box, a Shaker hall table in Woodworking II, and an Arts & Crafts end table or Craftsman-style dining chair in Woodworking III. Other popular courses focus on subjects such as sharpening hand tools, finishing, marquetry techniques, advanced joinery, designing jigs, timber framing, blacksmithing, woodturning, carving, box making, pen turning and the self-explanatory "Router Madness."

Advanced furniture courses have been offered for building a Queen Anne tea table, Pennsylvania spice box, Greene & Greene sofa table, Shaker wall clock, Chippendale chest of drawers, and pie crust table, just to name a few. And, if you would like to try something much different, how about making your own sea kayak or electric guitar?

"The gallery of furniture that I had at my recent open house - people couldn't get over how good it was," says Van Dyke. "Look at the caliber of instructors that we have now. We started out with Bob Van Dyke teaching how to make a hand plane. I've come a ways, gotten better at what I do, gotten to be a better teacher. But I've also brought in some of the best people in the country."

At one time or another, they have included Rodriguez, Hack, Phil Lowe, Will Neptune, Don Weber, Steve Latta, Peter Gedrys, Teri Masaschi and Gary Rogowski. Van Dyke and his guest instructors have attracted more than 3,000 students, some of whom have taken one class, others that have taken many more.

"I feed off the people," Van Dyke says. "In some of these classes, like a Woodworking I which I've done 100 times, if nothing else, I think I've refined it to a point where I can teach it really well. I bet if you took that course now, you would learn much more than you did 10 years ago because the information is better and it has also been scaled back."

Class sizes generally range between six and 12 students, except for the larger timber-framing course. Van Dyke says the typical student is about 40 years old and male, although he has seen the average age drop and more women have become involved since he began teaching.

"There's always someone in a class who is a challenge," he admits. "I'll never forget the printing company that I used to use. They had a sign: 'All of our customers make us happy, some when they arrive and some when they leave.' They're paying their money to be here, so most of them want to be here. But it's like anything; there are personalities all over the place."

Van Dyke has another school plan that he'd like to see come to fruition some day.

"My goal is to eventually open a school that will incorporate not only woodworking, but cooking classes, glass blowing and other related and unrelated crafts," says Van Dyke.

Contact: Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking, 249 Spencer St., Manchester, CT 06040. Tel: 860-647-0303.

This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue.

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