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JOEL Joel's Blog

A Visit to the North Bennet Street School

07/27/2022

Student examples of tables
Student examples of tables

About a week ago Sally and I had a wonderful tour of the exhibitions and shops at the North Bennet Street School in the North End of Boston. The North Bennet Street School is one of the few vocational colleges in the United States. The school was founded in 1881 as the North Bennet Industrial School and served as a settlement house in what was then an area of tenements filled with new immigrants. The school offered classes and piecework employment for women and industrial arts classes for neighborhood youngsters struggling within the Boston public school system. The mission was to "enable immigrants to adjust to their new country by learning the skills needed for gainful employment" and the school offered an array of social services in addition to vocational coursework in keeping with this goal.

When I looked into North Bennet’s history a bit, I was not surprised to learn that the school’s philosophy was influenced by the Sloyd and Arts & Crafts movements - the founder, Pauline Agassiz Shaw, even hired Gustaf Larsson, a sloyd educator from Naas, Sweden, to develop a sloyd curriculum. The specific course mix, which at various points included sewing, pottery, printing, watch repair and sheet metal work, has changed, but the central mission of training students for employment using traditional methods and skill has remained fundamental to the school.

Currently North Bennet has 9 full time tracks: Cabinet and Furniture making; Carpentry; Preservation carpentry; Locksmithing; Jewelry Making and Repair; Piano Technology; Bookbinding, Violin Making & Repair; and Locksmithing. Continuing ed classes are offered in those disciplines and Weaving. The school’s gorgeous building, the result of a 2013 move into two joined and renovated buildings (one a former police station and the other a city printing plant), at an airy 64,000 sq ft., is a far cry from the previous “cramped basement conditions”. Most of the programs are 2 year programs, but Locksmithing runs 9 months, Carpentry “frame to finish” runs 1 year and Violin Making & Repair runs for 3 years. The school also offers continuing education classes in those fields and Weaving. Kristen Odle, who led the tour, has the title of Retail & Exhibit Manager, but radiates the kind of competence that makes you suspect she handles a bunch of things for the school. Kristen manages exhibits of the various programs and gave them all their due, coming up with imaginative ways to showcase their unique features (though locksmithing was allowed to preserve some secrets of the trade). You can see samples of students’ finished work along with the tools used and various materials, such as a giant cast iron plate used in piano repair. Kristen offered a wealth of knowledge about the school, which had not been able to have its customary ‘call for works’ for the past three years because of Covid. It was therefore a particular pleasure to see students at work in the various shops and to speak with Jeff Altpeter, head of the Bookbinding program and Nathan Abbe, a teacher in Violin Making (both North Bennet alumni) about their work.

What struck me about the place more than anything else is their classical approach to teaching. Many art schools in the United States are really about conceptualizing an idea, not learning the technology and the techniques necessary to produce that idea. Many vocational school programs are really interested in teaching just what one needs to know right now to get an entry level job. At North Bennet, especially in the carpentry and locksmithing programs there is an emphasis on working now in the field, but all programs also emphasize classic technique. In the first year furniture program, for example, you build a small table using classic rectilinear forms. The next semester, you kind of do it again, only now you have splayed legs and you have round tops, and inlay inserts and things like that. The technique builds on itself and the goal is to give a student the technical background so they can build what they imagine – and not be constrained by technique. This is pretty important.

To me, the most important skills you can learn as a woodworker is learning how to lay things out accurately and sawing straight. Once you can do that consistently, then learning all sorts of techniques becomes a matter of exposure and practice. And this is kind of what they do at North Bennet. Work is done in the context of a project, but the goal is to have fluency with the techniques. We saw wonderful examples of cabinet work, inlay and even carving.

Some of the work by students, all of a high standard, is for sale. Incidentally the instrument makers in the violin shop even build instruments as part of their training. Because they're new, and don't have reputations, if you're looking for a custom-made string instrument at a moderate price this is an excellent source.

Here are some highlights from our tour. Thanks to Kristen and the other members of North Bennet for a wonderful tour and their commitment to craft!

Here is the bookbinding shop and some of the student works on display.
I have an interest in bookbinding via my interest in old books, so of course I was fascinated by the samples of student work and to see the shop and its many interesting tools.
The Bookbinding Shop
The Bookbinding Shop



Student examples of bookbinding
Student examples of bookbinding


North Bennet's Preservation Carpentry program participated in the “Notre Dame de Paris Truss Project” based at Catholic University that is reconstruction of the trusses that held the roof of the fire damaged cathedral.

A Visit to the North Bennet Street School 4

New England is filled with old buildings with rich architectural histories, giving students a lot of practical opportunities to learn about preservation. Here is a full-scale reproduction of the entryway to the Hancock Mansion, a historic home on Beacon Hill mansion. The rosette, shown in stages from hunk of wood to finished work, is copied from a decorative element in the entryway.

Hancock Mansion restoration
Hancock Mansion restoration



Stages in carving a rosette for building decoration
Stages in carving a rosette for building decoration


Preservation Carpentry
Preservation Carpentry



There's always something in progress in Furniture Making.
Cabinet Shop
Cabinet Shop

Furniture Making
Furniture Making


Nathan Abbe graciously chatted with our group about the left handed violin he was working on. Boston's important role in the country's classical music world helps create demand for the school's musical instrument departments.

Nathan Abbe
Nathan Abbe

A Visit to the North Bennet Street School 11
violin making exhibit
violin making exhibit



The North Bennet Street School - Boston
The North Bennet Street School - Boston






Join the conversation
07/27/2022 Mike Renfro
Well done Joel! I thoroughly enjoyed your article on the North Bennet Street School. Thanks so much for taking the time to tour the school and writing your observations about the school. Great work.
07/27/2022 Deryck Harnett
I love the articles you write regularly, like the North Bennet Street School in Boston. Your perspective is always broad, interesting, and revealing, a fresh breath in these “days of the hard sell”, and I always forward to the next one!
07/27/2022 Gordon
Fine Woodworking has a great video series done at NBSS where Matt Wajda (a teacher) demonstrates making the NBSS Toolbox, one of the favorite projects in the woodworking curriculum. If you have a FW subscription, this is a great series of videos. In it he demonstrates the use of both power and hand tools where each is appropriate, substantiating your comment that they offer an "all around" education. I just wish I were 18 years old again...
07/27/2022 Michael
What a wonderful and informative story and photos. Thank you Joel.
Cheers,
Michael
07/28/2022 Gav
I really enjoy these insights you provide into various schools, museums etc that I wouldn't really get to know about otherwise. The new location looks great for the school. Having a building of that age, construction and scale in usable condition is a privilege not all cities have. Look forward to the next post.
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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.