Roger Fenn, The Fenn School’s founder, understood the value of hands-on learning for boys, and he planted the seeds of today’s expansive arts program by establishing a woodshop course. For decades, fourth grade boys have built a toolbox as one of their first forays into the shop. In addition to that project, fourth grade boys build simple wooden sculptures, small boxes with lids, and bird houses. The course emphasizes shop safety and the basic skills of woodworking: measuring carefully, marking accurately, cutting on a straight line, assembling with pilot holes and screws, and finishing with sandpaper.
The skills acquired in the fourth grade shop curriculum provide a foundation for a fifth grade boy to move into cabinetry. Working from Shaker plans, boys build Shaker-style cabinets, learning about joinery and design principles that continue to be part of the spare but elegant Shaker approach to furniture making. Fifth graders also begin to finish their projects with greater detail and finesse, using traditional hand tools and techniques familiar to the Shakers, creating simple but solid cupboards that may become family treasures for generations. In some years, boys also have the opportunity to attend a field trip to Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, Massachusetts to see original Shaker furniture and buildings to better understand the philosophy of Shaker design.
Sixth grade shop students are introduced to chip carving, a folk art tradition used to decorate every wooden tool, utensil, or piece of furniture around the house and barn. Chip carving gets its name from the process in which the carver precisely chips away at a piece of wood, leaving a design cut into a flat wood surface. Students begin by carving a rosette in basswood in order to learn the technique. They then carve a design in a wooden cheeseboard. In addition to carving, students incorporate math skills to learn the geometric properties useful in design work.
Building on themes in the social studies curriculum, seventh grade shop students imagine themselves in the 1800s and design a chest to hold their most valued possessions. Using an internal panel design, students fashion sea chests similar to ones built by explorers and settlers. Instruction exposes students to the ship lap joint as well as tools such as chisels and the biscuit joiner. In an interesting and non-traditional design twist, after the chest is assembled, boys draw on carving skills learned in sixth grade to create geometric Islamic designs on the chest lid.
Upper School is a time to explore the boundaries of what is possible in furniture making, incorporating and building on the shop skills students have acquired in previous years. Students review major styles of twentieth-century furniture — Arts and Crafts, Craftsman, Art Deco, Japanese, Scandinavian, and Modern. Using these styles as inspiration, students either use an existing plan chosen from the woodshop library or create an original design using their own creativity and ingenuity. There is a greater freedom to work independently in the Upper School woodshop program, with the teacher acting as a resource and consultant.