What does billionaire Sir Richard Branson, actor Amy Smart, and Spanx founder Sara Blakely have in common? They’ve all ordered custom-made paddle boards from a small group of Sterling Heights high school students.
Now in its third year, a woodworking class at Henry Ford II High School is establishing a reputation designing water sports equipment for international figures. The woodworking program has built 20 boards over the past two years, honoring requests from celebrities such as Branson, Smart, Blakely, and “Cabin Reno” star Kristy Petrillo.
“I think it is cool that someone who has no affiliation with us likes what we are doing in class,” says woodworking teacher Christopher Davis. “If you had a billion dollars, would you ever contact a high school woodshop for a project?”
But the project is about much more than making boards. For teachers, patrons, and students it’s about supporting local youth, teaching entrepreneurship, and breaking barriers. The project encourages students to develop marketing skills, essential trade skills for a growing recreational industry, creativity, and teamwork.
Rosalina Cholewa and Sydney Szymanski put the finishing touches on a board.
"We worked together so hard and all had different qualities we brought to the project,” says graduate Rosalina Cholewa, who was part of an all-girls team that built a board for Branson last year.
“We were really efficient, some of us were good at using the saws and some were great at using epoxy and gluing all the pieces together. We worked as a team and needed each other to create this masterpiece."
Maddy Rice hones her skills on a board.
Graduate Antonia Nunnery, who also worked on the Branson board, agrees.
“What we learned over the period of time working on the board was incomparable to any other learning experience I had my senior year,” says Nunnery.
Branson sent the students a video message to thank them for the board, and to praise their efforts.
“I couldn’t believe what you managed to achieve,” he says in the message. “Here’s to your teacher for letting you actually make things that can be fun, usable.”
Davis says the international interest has had a significant impact on his students’ work, and that most of the attention began when Petrillo posted a comment on the class' Instagram site.
“The reason I decided to build boards for these people is to help drive student motivation,” Davis says. “When the students find out that they are building a board for one of these people, they are all in and give it everything they have to make a nice project.”
Part of the kudos the students are gaining is because of a unique woodworking process they use, creating custom-made, hollow boards, without the use of foam. The designs are based on the work of Jason Thelen, owner of Little Bay Boards in Petoskey and a mentor to students in the program.
“Materials are handpicked to match the desired design,” says Davis. “The boards are also eco-friendly, they will never end up in a landfill like foam boards.”
Toni Nunnery and Sidney Dobroczynski work on one of their designs.
There’s a lot of attention to detail in each design. Students research the individuals making the request, find out more about their interests, create a design, and then begin the process of building the board to the specifications.
"I loved that our project was so unique, and it was something you don't normally hear about,” Nunnery says. “It was huge, and took months of work in and outside of school."
Kristy Petrillo shows off her new paddle board.
Keeping the craft of woodworking alive is a key driver in the program for Davis, who sees the class as a way for woodworking to compete with other school electives and stay relevant. He also sees it as a way to break down gender stereotypes in the traditionally male-dominated classes.
"We build skateboards, longboards, snowboards, paddle boards, surfboards, and wake surf boards," he says. "The action sports industry has grown so much over the last 20 years and kids love it."
Now, with COVID-19 restricting face-to-face class time, much of the course has been online this year, however Davis says some students have still been able to work on boards, with safety measures in place.
HGTV star Petrillo had a board delivered this summer and described it as “absolutely gorgeous” in a video message to students.
“I don’t even want to put it in the water because it is so pretty,” says Petrillo. “It belongs on a wall somewhere – but I’m still going to put it in the water.”