Summer woodworking programs aren’t totally feeling the negative effects of the economic downturn. The success of the woodworking schools shouldn’t come as too much of a shock. As a general trend, college and continuing education programs do particularly well in a weak economy.
The programs are considered a great opportunity for people in between jobs, because they offer a way to keep individuals busy and motivated for a better, healthier rebound in the long run. Woodworking programs also provide people with a new trade experience or a means of advancing their skills to potentially earn additional income selling their work.
The Marc Adams School of Woodworking is offering 135 workshops with 65 different instructors this summer. The classes are typically one week long and provide students with the chance to concentrate on a specific skill.
“We have more classes this year than in the past. We’re starting a week earlier and ending a week later. That includes some of our weekend workshops as well,” says Marc Adams.
Adams says this summer’s turnout looks good despite the nation’s current economic slump, with consumers reluctant to let go of their only disposable income. Some classes are even sold out and using waiting lists. However, Adams has noticed people are taking fewer workshops than they normally would. For examples, someone who might normally take two or three classes during the summer is now taking one or two classes. Adams believes those who sign up for his workshops get more bang for their buck.
“I would think we have an advantage here over a longer-term program, because a longer-term program is going to be a lot more commitment and a lot more money,” Adams says.
The school is located in Franklin, Ind., three hours from major cities such as Chicago and St. Louis, with plenty of local hotels that accommodate people from out of town.
“We’re right in the middle of everything, that’s our big draw.”
Adams says that for people who may be interested in woodworking and may have lost their job, he makes his classes available by offering a payment program, so people out of work and with little income have an option.
“This gives them an opportunity to learn and profit from what they’ve learned here. It’s a win-win.”
No place like home
Ron Peyton, owner of the Dogwood Institute School of Fine Woodworking in Alpharetta, Ga., says while a majority of students who are scheduled to attend his summer programs this year live within a 100-mile radius of Atlanta, there is still a good portion willing to travel from places like Baltimore, as they have in the past. If anything, the poor economy is boosting his business.
“I’m hearing people say rather than going on vacation this year that they were going to stay home and take woodworking classes, so that’s good.”
The school provides a small, intimate setting where the student-teacher ratio is about 3-to-1. Most of the classes concentrate on furniture making, but some feature woodworking experts such as Ernie Conover and Andy Rae for weeklong special sessions.
“We did actually have a couple of people that cancelled because of the fact that the economy was like it was. One guy said he lost his job and doesn’t have the extra income. I’m hearing all kinds of horror stories out there, but I don’t know how it’s affecting us. I wouldn’t say it’s affecting us that much.”
Some people are saying they’re thinking about taking classes and ask whether they’ll learn enough to build furniture and sell it.
“I always give them advice and say they shouldn’t count on it. But I do hear requests that people want to get out of the office and get a career change.”
Kelly Mehler, of Kelly Mehler’s School of Woodworking in Berea, Ky., says about 200 students go through his seasonal program annually, which runs through the mid-year. The school opened in 2004 and has seen an increase in enrollment each year.
“Last year, it was amazing,” Mehler says. “I’m always sending out all of these brochures, but last year I never even mailed a brochure and we filled up really quickly when the schedule came out in the fall.
“This year, we had this nice little spike when we first came out with the new schedule, but when the economy started going down, we did not get a sustained sign-up like we had in the past, so it definitely slowed down this year.”
Mehler emphasized that his market is primarily a group of retired people, mostly men in their 50s and older.
“Those are the ones that are more frightened about spending their money. They’re getting a big decrease in their retirement, and they’re watching things more closely.
“But we’re lucky because our size is somewhat of an advantage — we’re not depending on a mass — we’ll always be just a couple hundred for the whole season. This year, the offerings are almost all full. We have three or four not full, but even those have a few spots, so we’re going to end up just as good as last year. It just didn’t happen as fast.
As for any potential competition that may attract his regular students, aside from the woes of the economy, Mehler says he encourages his students to get around to different courses.
“I can’t teach them everything here. If you need to know about a particular carving [technique], I can give you some instruction, but I’ll encourage them to go elsewhere for more information. There are other schools and there are more schools coming. That’s fine. We already do get a huge percentage of return students — over 70 percent — and it’s a really good feeling.”
The student to teacher ratio is about 7-to-1, while Mehler says the intimate, relaxed setting contributes to the school’s appeal.
No worries yet
David Welter, instructor at the College of the Redwoods School of Fine Woodworking in Fort Bragg, Calif., says the college is now accepting applications for summer classes.
“Our poorest turnout for summer classes occurred two years ago, with a healthy rebound last summer. I don’t expect that the economy may affect summer offerings as much as our nine-month program. People like to find an excuse to be here.”
Peter Korn, executive director of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport, Maine, says this year’s enrollment for the school’s nine-month comprehensive and 12-week intensives is normal, and he will expect to fill all courses.
“Workshop enrollment is strong, but slower than last year at this time. It is tracking the average of the past five years, so we expect to finish the year just where we always do.”
Mary Nickol of the Coeur d’Alene School of Woodworking in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, who works as an instructor in exchange for shop time, says this year has been the school’s strongest enrollment yet since the school opened in 2005.
“The increase could be attributed to staying small and flexible enough to provide classes as needed. We also take some commission work. Of course, some credit needs to go to our beautiful surroundings, but these days any small business that is still growing is remarkable in itself.”
Center for Furniture Craftsmanship, 25 Mill St., Rockport, ME 04856. Tel: 207-594-5611. www.woodschool.org
College of the Redwoods/School of Fine Woodworking, 440 Alger St., Fort Bragg, CA 95437. Tel: 707-964-7056. www.crfinefurniture.com
Coeur d’Alene School of Woodworking, 4951 Building Center Dr., Coeur d’Alene , Idaho 83815. Tel: 208-755-9902. www.cdawoodworkingschool.net
Dogwood Institute School of Fine Woodworking, 1640 Mid-Broadwell Road, Alpharetta, GA. Tel: 800-533-2440. www.dogwoodwoodworking.com
Kelly Mehler School of Woodworking, P.O. Box 786, Berea, KY 40403. Tel: 859-986-5540. www.kellymehler.com
Marc Adams School of Woodworking, 5504 E. 500 North, Franklin, IN 46131. Tel: 317-535-4013. www.marcadams.com
This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue.