Dodging gray-bladed machines that look as if they might be used for dental surgery, Mark Messier rushes toward the drill press.
“Watch that bit!” he yells, stepping over orange electrical cords and several piles of wood chips. If Usama Qadri ‘10 isn’t careful, he could drill through the wood right into the metal below, ruining not only his project, but also one of the Berkeley woodshop’s best drills.
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Hovering over the drill press in a faded, half-untucked “Bite of Oregon” t-shirt, Messier carefully steadies the plank. Despite the steel bit’s speed, Messier remains unfazed.
“I’ve got this axis. How’s your axis?”
After a few tense seconds of wood grating against metal, the drill gives a sudden jerk and the sawdust begins to clear, revealing a small, perfectly round hole. Messier nods in approval:
And sweet it is. After weeks of work, only a few more cuts remain before a handmade donations box replaces the Muslim Student Assocation’s shoebox standby. Qadri grins, clearly proud of his work, as he shows off the metal hinges and careful construction.
Donation boxes, however, are only a small part of the woodshop’s repertoire. “On Saturdays, anyone can walk in and propose a project,” Messier explains. “Students have made anything from door stops to entertainment centers.” Scattered around the room is evidence of this diversity: two-by-fours surround unfinished bookcases, and shelves of chipped pots wait quietly like an archeologist’s dream. Even an un-stringed guitar with inset mother-of-pearl rests in the corner.
“His parents want him to be pre-med,” Messier says, admiring the detailed carving along the guitar’s neck, “but I think he wants to be a luthier.” Later on, Messier admits that perhaps the two aren’t so different: “You know, they call orthopedic surgeons the carpenters of the medical profession.”
Perhaps the Biology Department won’t soon be investing in drill bits, but Messier insists that woodcraft is nonetheless a valuable education. “You gain a different kind of insight by working here,” Messier explains while preparing a jigsaw that he’s holding. “There’s no guide, no textbook. It’s all hands on.” As if to demonstrate, he suggests that Qadri use the jigsaw on the next cut.
“This. A jigsaw.”
“Oh. A jigsaw.”
As Qadri clumsily tries to pivot the handheld saw’s thin oscillating blade around a corner, Messier can’t help a good-natured laugh. “The Berkeley woodshop is one of the first places that Yale students fail. It’s hard to be really smart and also good with your hands,” Messier says. After a pause, he adds, “But I mean, fail in a good way.”
With time, though, dilettantes can eventually become experts. Robert Martinez, an engineering major, has been experimenting with new woodworking techniques over the three years that he’s been working in the shop.
“I started woodturning last year,” Martinez says, explaining his work on the lathe, a machine that spins wood over two thousand times per minute. Safety glasses on, he thrusts various metal scrapers and gouges into the quickly rotating wood, slowly carving a bowl from what was once a solid block. As wood shavings fly everywhere, almost entirely covering his body, Martinez resembles an absurd human-turned-pine-tree. “You really become one with the wood,” he says.
In the moment, you can see Martinez’s sense of impassioned concentration in his work. “There’s so much more free artistic expression,” he says.
“Being down here and actually creating stuff, it’s really why I want to be an engineer.”
After a few more piles of shavings have accumulated on the floor, Messier announces that it’s closing time. Martinez turns off the lathe and brushes the wood chips from his shoulders. At the same time, Qadri puts down his jigsaw, with which he has become quickly adept. With a sense of quiet admiration, they look at what they have made: the sturdy edges of the wooden donations box, the elegant curves of the bowl.
“Here, in the woodshop, you learn to have an appreciation for all of this,” Messier says. “It’s an art that a lot of people forget.”