Lambrick Park secondary is all but empty on a Friday afternoon, except for a handful of kids in goggles and ear protection, working machines in the woodshop hall.
The grinding noise is constant as Mitchell Smith leads lengths of lumber through the high-tech Weinig moulder. Michael McCue stacks precisely beveled and rounded strips that are spit out the other end.
The operation has an industrial mill vibe, and it should. After the rest of the school’s staff and students go home, the woodwork classroom turns into the woodwork business.
It’s taken 14 years and many trade shows, but teacher Roger Conrod has built up a woodworking shop that is the envy of any trades school, let alone a high school. Lambrick is the owner of seven high-end industrial woodcrafting machines, all donated and installed by mainly American companies.
In turn, Conrod has parlayed that into a niche lumber business, which gives students hands-on experience and employs them at the same time, at better than minimum wage. At age 17 with three years experience, Smith is the foreman of the operation and the only student still qualified on the forklift – the school has three, also donated.
“Kiln dry wood, stack lumber, run siding, run flooring, making tables,” Smith says, describing his weekly work routine. “It’s a great experience, it’s a great introduction into the trades.”
A main thrust of the business is custom wood drying in the Koetter kiln, typically red or yellow cedar, fir and pine. With aluminum siding it resembles an oversized garden shed, but the kiln can suck moisture out of up to 3,000 board-feet of lumber over a two or three week period.
“The dry kiln was the real start. I worked wood shows and developed a sponsorship from 3M Canada. That opened the doors,” Conrod says. “Koetter came onboard with a kiln. Over all of Victoria, we’re the only one with a dry kiln to this day.”
Conrod has attended industrial lumber conventions across the U.S. with binder in hand of what his students have accomplished as a small business.
After enough convincing – or badgering – machining companies have trucked the machines to Lambrick Park, at times months or years later.
Conrod says companies donate the expensive machines as a means to train a local workforce and to show B.C. lumber companies that qualified operators are here.
“The kids get exposure to this type of operation and are able when they graduate to move into the industry,” he says.
Using the MultiCam computer-controlled router or the Weinig machine, employee students process a client’s lumber into flooring or siding. Through lumber clients, students have milled wood for the likes of former hockey star Geoff Courtnall, the billionaire McCaw family of James Island and most recently for Wickaninnish Inn, Conrod says.
“It’s got to be win-win. We can’t buy wood, and to train kids, they’ve got to be pushing wood through the machines,” Conrod says. “If others are willing to pay for wood, we’re willing to do the machining.
“A lot of it is word of mouth. We don’t want to compete with local businesses, but we fill a niche,” adds the 37-year teaching veteran. “Any big volume (of lumber) we tell them to take it up Island or to Shawnigan Lake. The economy has definitely slowed up and we are cognizant of local businesses. We have no intention of taking business away.”
The lumber milling business employs up to seven students, who work two or three hours each day after school, sometimes into the weekend and through the summer.
Conrod says the business is a break-even venture, at best. The school can’t afford to buy lumber for secondary manufacturing and is dependent on clients who need kiln drying or small volumes of milled wood.
That means nothing goes to waste – sawdust is send to Eurosa Gardens or the Pacific Horticultural Centre mixed for garden compost. “Even our scrap is sold as kindling. We try to show students total recovery of resources and it’s most important not to waste,” Conrod says.
These days, business has slowed, but student employees are keeping busy with a project to produce high-quality First Nations paddles. What started as a small school project has expanded into a small business unto itself.
Woodworking students craft the paddles, art students add silk-screened images, and business students do the marketing. School district international recruiters used the paddles as gifts when they go abroad and principals from across the region have placed about a dozen orders. Any profits are earmarked for the United Way.
“Project-based learning across multiple disciplines is the hallmark of the future,” said Lambrick principal Kevin Luchies.
Luchies said Conrod’s milling business allows students to get a realistic idea of secondary manufacturing with the lumber industry before leaving high school. It’s a valuable lesson in a tough economy.
“Roger is taking a traditional subject and put a modern spin on it. Kids see the cost per board-foot, who is paying, and why it’s not as busy today as it was even three years ago,” Luchies said. “It’s cool to see the connection from the educational perspective. Connecting to the real world is laudable.”