“When I first started I thought, `there’s no way we can do that,’ ” said Vinalhaven High School senior Caitlyn Warren of the timber frame shop her vocational technology class is building.

The difference six weeks makes. In approximately that amount of time the VHS vocational technology class, which is building the timber frame for the school’s new workshop, has gone from practicing carving housed mortices, brace pockets and tenons to having finished one-third of the timbers needed for the project. According to vo-tech teacher Mark Jackson, the class is right on schedule.

Since they started cutting, Jackson’s students have been able to finish one timber a day. Now that they have the routine down, Jackson hopes that they can step up production and turn out four timbers a day. The kids have learned the need for accuracy in this kind of work and have been “turning out timbers as good as I’ve seen,” said Jackson.

Some of the shop students acknowledged accuracy in measuring as one of the important skills they have learned so far in the shop, and in that vein senior Riley Poole made an admission any math teacher would love to hear. “Most of us don’t want to accept that the math we learn might be used later in life,” he said, speaking specifically about fractions used in measuring.

Turning their minds to “later in life” is one reason many of Jackson’s students decided to take his class this year.

“I thought it would be a good idea to learn something besides book work,” said senior Joe Hutchinson. “I didn’t know anything about woodworking and I wanted to do some hands-on learning.”

Poole echoed Hutchinson’s sentiments. “I wanted a change from the academic,” he said. “I wanted to learn things through hands-on activities.” In addition, Poole wanted to learn a trade that he may be able to use in the future. Though it wasn’t a goal of his when he started vo-tech class last fall, learning timber framing has sparked a long-term interest in him. “I hope to be able to build my own house someday,” he said. He has already started practicing for that day by building a timber frame cabin with a friend. The cabin is 20 feet square and eight feet tall. Though Jackson has not yet seen the cabin, Poole hopes he will come to see it in the spring and give his seal of approval.

Warren’s future plans include skills she works on in the shop, but they are not woodworking skills. Warren wants to be a photographer, so Jackson encourages her to help document this project using her camera.

“Whatever you are going to use in the future, he wants to pull it into class,” Warren said of Jackson. “Mark lets me take pictures because that’s what I am going to do.”

The first semester has brought a world of new information and skills to some of these students who previously had little experience with woodworking. First, many students needed to become familiar with the many different tools they would be using on this project.

“Thinking about using the tools was intimidating for us [girls],” said Warren, “but Mark said `you can do it’ and it wasn’t as hard as it seemed.”

Poole agreed that learning to use new tools was a big part of what he has learned in the shop. “At first I had no idea what [some of them] were,” he said of the tools. “Now I can use them.”

Specifically, the kids have learned to use chisels, various types of saws, hand drills and framing squares, among other tools.

“I’ve gotten good at measuring and chiseling,” said Hutchinson. “I like chiseling best because it is quiet. It can be easier [than other jobs], but you have to take your time and be more precise.”

“I like working with the chisel,” Poole concurred. “It’s a little monotonous, but it’ll be worth it in the end.”

In addition to learning about the tools and how to carve the timbers, Jackson has taught his students how to care for the timbers so they don’t dry out between now and the framing. At the end of each workday the students must apply wax to any new cut to keep moisture in the wood. When a timber is finished, a wax-and-varnish formula is brushed over the entire thing to help prevent it from drying out, cracking and expanding, which would make it difficult for the pieces to fit together when the time comes. Jackson decided against using straight wax as it stains the wood, and he wanted to avoid that. Periodically, the class must go out to the shed where the finished timbers are stored and recoat them with the wax-and-varnish formula.

One challenge this class has had to meet is the growing presence of girls in the shop, and the unique gender-related issues that result. In the past the shop has traditionally been boys’ turf. However, over the last three years girls have been invading this space. During the 1999-2001 school year, one girl joined the shop class that built the Cornish pilot gig VIXEN. Three girls enrolled for the 2000-2001 school year when the class built Vinalhaven’s second gig, SIREN. This year there are again three girls in the male-dominated shop. Jackson encourages both sides of the gender gap to work together and work it out.

“It’s a big change,” Jackson said. “Females [in the shop] have taken getting used to by the guys, and it has taken personal development in the girls to stand up to the guys. This year I’ve seen some rolling of eyes, but the guys and girls are working together to find where each other’s strengths are. I am enjoying the dynamics more now as we go along.”

Hutchinson agreed that sharing the shop with girls has taken some getting-used-to. “Sometimes it is distracting to have girls in the shop. Some-times we get into those conversations that maybe you shouldn’t even have in school. In another class you might not have to talk to other people at all,” he said. However, “we’ve come a long way since the beginning of school in managing to work together,” Hutchinson admitted.

Warren has done her best to be a presence in the vo-tech class. The boys “sometimes want to do everything, but I don’t let them do everything. I try to give it my all and do everything they do. I don’t let them push me around,” she said.

Junior Casey Rasmussen has had no previous experience using tools, and in that respect doesn’t mind the boys’ sometimes-know-it-all attitude. “When we work on braces I will be partners with another girl because that’s an easy job,” she said. “If we’re working on something harder, I’ll be partners with one of the boys, especially when we’re using saws because I’m not as comfortable using them as the boys are.”

In late April, if all goes according to plan, the class will begin fitting the pieces of the timber frame together on the ground. “Assembling the timbers will be the best part,” said Poole. The grand finale of this course will be a “barn-raising” in mid-May, which the students are greatly anticipating.

“It [will be] like a triumph, a goal reached,” said Warren. Jackson and his students would like to keep the raising as old-fashioned as possible, doing most of the raising by hand with the help of Vinalhaven’s community. However, it is probable that some of the larger timbers will be raised using a crane due to logistical and safety issues.

In addition to all the woodworking skills Jackson is teaching his students this year, there are larger lessons to be learned as well. One of these is learning not to judge another before “walking a mile in his shoes.”

“Shop kids are seen as [getting] a different education,” explained Poole. “[People think] they don’t do as much work [as other students.] I thought that way as a junior,” he admitted. But, “when you get in [the shop] there is a lot more to it. You have to use your mental and your physical,” he explained. “There is a lot you don’t see, all these steps before you can even cut a timber. There is quite a system involved.”

Rasmussen helped to prove Poole’s point. “I took this class because I figured it would be a good experience, I thought it would be fun,” she said, “but I didn’t think it would be this much work.”

Perhaps the most important lesson Jackson hopes to instill in his students is one he has stressed in all of his vocational technology classes over the past few years. “I want them to gain a sense of what is possible,” he said. “Anything of substance takes time and commitment.”

These students have been putting in their time — three periods every school day — and they know there will be more time involved as the raising date nears. It appears they have the commitment necessary to see their project through to the end. And if Jackson has his way, they will prove Caitlyn Warren’s initial doubts wrong.