Step by Step

Following are detailed descriptions of our curriculum’s main components. Just click on the sections to get more detail.

Intro to Architectural Woodworking

We begin by introducing students to the world of architectural woodworking and cabinetmaking: what it is, what it is not, and what makes it different from other woodworking disciplines such as furniture making and carpentry. We discuss the different types of shops, employment opportunities, and what employers look for in their employees.

We also talk about the Architectural Woodworking Institute (AWI), whose quality standards are widely used in the industry to insure products are built to a uniform quality standard. Each student receives a copy of AWI’s Architectural Woodworking Standards (AWS) and learns how to reference it.

Understanding Wood, Wood Properties, Panel Products, and Veneers

It’s difficult to imagine being successful in the woodworking field without a thorough understanding of the materials used. We spend a considerable amount of time covering the properties of solid wood including its structure, properties, effects of moisture, wood movement and how to cope with it, grading, measurement, and what to look for when purchasing. Each student receives a copy of Understanding Wood by R. Bruce Hoadley, an excellent, in-depth, resource on all aspects of wood and wood products.

Cabinetmaking, more so than most furniture making, makes extensive use of panel products, such as plywood and composite panels, due to their stability, versatility, and ease of use. Students will learn about plywood anatomy and construction, its uses and advantages, types, grading, and manufacturing techniques. We also cover composite panels, such as medium density fiberboard (MDF) and particle board that are commonly used in cabinetmaking.

Veneer is solid wood that is sliced very thin, usually between 1/32″ to 1/40″, and typically glued to a substrate such as plywood or MDF. Veneers are an integral part of the industry today, used at all levels. After all, commercial plywood is nothing more than a stack of veneers glued together, with each layer at right angles to the next, forming a product that is more stable than solid wood and doesn’t expand or shrink as much. We cover the history of veneers, its uses and advantages, types, grading, and manufacturing. All students will have an opportunity throughout the year to practice in our well-equipped veneering lab, beginning with veneering the home cabinet. They use a vacuum bag and our extensive stock of donated veneers as well as ones that are purchased for students’ community projects.

In the initial stages of the program, students are given at-home reading assignments and are regularly evaluated via written tests on what they’ve learned in class and at home.

Woodworking Fundamentals and Shop Safety

We know that students want to get into the shop as soon as possible, so we’ll often begin the day in the classroom and then move into the shop to introduce each of the power and hand tools in a controlled manner. We demonstrate safe tool use and allow hands-on practice under the guidance of the instructors; students work on a series of skill exercises that includes building sanding blocks for student use throughout the year.

Because a sharp tool is a safer tool, our students very quickly learn how to properly sharpen tools. One of the first exercises is building a sharpening jig, which students learn how to use and take with them upon graduation.

Milling and Joinery Techniques

One of the reasons employers like NESAW graduates is that they are well grounded in safety procedures and the fundamentals of woodworking, particularly as it relates to milling lumber. Milling lumber is the process of taking rough lumber and getting it straight and square in preparation for finer cuts and joinery. Nothing is more fundamental than the process of milling “4 Square,” which consists of turning a piece of rough lumber into a block of wood with square edges and parallel sides with a specified dimension. You can watch an introduction to the process of milling “4 Square” here.

The steps consist of flattening, thicknessing to a specified dimension, straightening an edge, cutting to the specified width (i.e. ripping), and crosscutting to length. We learn about this skill in the classroom, and practice it over and over again throughout the year; without the ability to accurately mill wood “4 Square,” it is next to impossible to perform further milling operations, such as cutting joinery, successfully. It is truly one of the most important skills a woodworker can learn. We also practice other milling operations such as edge shaping, and drilling and boring.

Joinery is what allows us to fit all of the previously milled parts together properly to create a strong and pleasing end result. We talk about the various types of joinery, such as butt/edge, miter, lap, rabbet/dado, tongue and groove, mortise and tenon, finger/box, and dovetail joints. We discuss the advantages and disadvantages, strength considerations, and appropriate use of each of the joinery types.

Students then build a Shaker style table to practice milling and joinery. Even though this is a piece of furniture, it’s a great vehicle for reinforcing milling skills and teaching additional joinery techniques.

Students are regularly evaluated on their knowledge of and proficiency with the machines by performing certain tasks under the observation of the instructor. This process is part of a national effort by the Woodwork Career Alliance to standardize the evaluation of woodworking skills.

Cabinetmaking Fundamentals

During this phase of the program, students are introduced to fundamental cabinetmaking principles. We first discuss aesthetic considerations including design, proportion, material selection, and finishing options. We then introduce the face frame and frameless cabinet styles, including the 32 mm system (yes, we will use the metric system!) that has been dominant in Europe for decades, and is becoming increasingly common in the United States.

We cover a variety of joinery methods for cabinetry, including the Architectural Woodworking Standards recommendations and methods for fastening, gluing, and clamping. Moving on to doors and drawers, students learn about the variety of styles and methods of construction. Finally, we cover the types and proper use of the wide variety of cabinet hardware available to today’s cabinetmaker.

Shop Drawings and Cutlists

We spend a considerable amount of time exposing students to the cabinet drafting process. This includes how to read and create shop drawings and how to create a list of parts along with their dimensions (called a cutlist) from those drawings. The goal is not to turn you into a draftsperson, or design professional, but rather to ensure that you can confidently read shop drawings, which you will be asked to do at nearly any shop in order to build a project. They are the primary source of information on the project dimensions, construction techniques, types of materials and quantity of materials, and serve as the focal point of communication between the client, designer, purchasing manager and cabinetmaker(s). Together, the shop drawings and cutlist promote efficiency when it comes time to build a project because the design and construction have been thoroughly thought out; thus, money and time are not wasted on the shop floor trying to figure out what to mill.

A shop drawing is simply a two dimensional representation of the three dimensional object that is to be built. We use a concept called 2D orthographic drawing to represent an object with a front, side, and top view, looking at the outside, or elevation, of the piece. Shop drawings also consist of sections, which are the same views, but looking at the inside of the object as if you cut it in half, as well as section details, which are blown up drawings of various details of the piece, such as joinery. This drawing contains all of the details necessary to build a project, such as joinery details and dimensions.

All students receive a drafting kit. You will learn about drafting techniques, layout, the concept of scale, lettering, and dimensioning techniques.

Students may choose to supplement their drawing instruction at this point with one or more of the elective courses Creating Shop Drawings Using AutoCAD or Intro to Sketchup.

During this phase, we will also talk about project management and estimating principles, business issues, and project documentation such as the cutlist, material price lists, and project proposals. Employers have strongly indicated to us that they regard the knowledge gained during this phase to be one of the more valuable skills that you can learn. If you eventually go to work at a large shop, you may not be asked to function as a designer or a draftsperson at a shop in the beginning, but you will at least understand the entire process. At a smaller shop, however, these skills could be a huge asset, as employees are often asked to do multiple jobs, and thus may tip the balance in getting you hired.

Drawing and Building the Home Cabinet

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All students receive a full size copy of the complete plans for a project called the “home cabinet” which all students build in this phase of the program. Your materials fee covers the cost of this project, which you get to bring home when completed. The home cabinet is built from pre-finished maple plywood and solid wood, with some room for student creativity in the design of the veneered side panels and moulding profiles. On a small, manageable scale, the home cabinet mimics typical construction techniques that will be repeated later during the community projects phase. The goal of this project is to give you hands-on practice in drawing, cutlisting, fundamental woodworking skills, joinery techniques, and cabinetmaking principles, including the 32 mm system.

Using the plans you receive as a guide, you will use your drafting kit to draw part of a set of shop drawings for the home cabinet. The point is not to simply copy the plans, but to understand the concept of scale (drawing an object at a proportionally smaller scale using an architect’s scale, a type of ruler), construction of the cabinet, how the joinery comes together, how and when to dimension,and what details to emphasize. During this phase, the instructors work closely with you to ensure your understanding of the concepts. After completing the plans, the instructor will lead the class through the generation of the cutlist.

Now comes the fun part: getting out into the shop and building the cabinet itself. Prior to hands-on practice, instructors demonstrate each of the operations necessary to build the cabinet: material selection and cut plans, milling, joinery, assembly, plastic laminate and veneering techniques, hardware installation, and finishing. Safe use of tools is emphasized each step of the way.

Because not every student will build his or her cabinet at the same pace, videos of each demonstration are also available online. This way, you can review an upcoming step prior to coming into the shop and can ask specific questions as needed.
This is a very important phase of the program in that it offers hands-on practice with a variety of woodworking techniques and cabinetmaking principles. It also allows the instructors to effectively evaluate a student’s fundamental skills, capabilities, and interests.

Fundamentals of Spray Finishing

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NESAW is equipped with a full size spray booth and state-of-the-art spray finishing equipment, including siphon fed, high volume low pressure (HVLP) spray guns with pressure pots from CA Technologies. In order to provide an environmentally friendly and healthy atmosphere for our students, we only spray shellac and water-based coatings, such as products from leading coatings manufacturer ML Campbell. Water based coatings have made great strides in recent years and are very nearly approaching the quality and durability of solvent based-coatings with volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are harmful to the environment. The state of California has banned the use of VOC-based coatings, and other states are likely to follow suit in the future. This has forced more coatings manufacturers to produce products that meet the demanding needs of the architectural millwork industry, thereby allowing NESAW to prepare our students to work with the coatings of the future.

However, it has been our experience that water-based coatings don’t quite yet offer the visual depth that show the natural qualities of the wood. Therefore, we have our students first apply an undercoating of spray shellac to enhance the natural wood color and seal the wood before applying the water-based lacquer.

Spray finishing is a whole discipline unto itself, and can take years to learn and perfect. Our goal is to expose students to spray finishing, ground them in the fundamentals, and provide the opportunity for hands-on practice, using the same equipment and coatings that industry uses. We have partnered with the in-house spray finishing expert at Atlantic Plywood to provide on-site spray finish training at NESAW. In addition to spray finish theory, students get a chance to practice spraying under expert guidance. Throughout the year, he will provide expert advice and return as needed to help with specific projects.

Employers are finding it more and more difficult to find and keep competent finishers; it is a specialty that is very much in demand. Students may find that they enjoy this aspect enough to go on and get more training. Many small shops need cabinetmakers that can also spray finish because their staff doesn’t include a full time finishing expert. Having this type of experience on your resume can help give you the edge in a job interview.

Installation Techniques

Because most custom millwork projects such as kitchen cabinets, entertainment units, bookshelves, paneling, molding, doors, or windows are in some way attached to a building, they must be installed on site after the project is built in the shop. Many shops subcontract installation to other companies, but many more do their own installations using either in-house specialists, or as is the case in many smaller shops, the cabinetmakers who built the project. Because of this, our goal is to teach the fundamentals of cabinet installation.

After learning how to design and build cabinets to make them easier to install, students watch instructors demonstrate installation techniques such as leveling cabinet bases, installing and attaching cabinets, and scribing techniques to insure a perfect fit to the wall, which is the hallmark of a professional installation. Using our dedicated installation lab, students then get a chance to practice what they’ve learned.

Building the Community Projects

The last step in process is designed to bring together everything you’ve learned up to this point. Students are assigned to a community project either as an individual or, more commonly, as part of a team. We’ve posted photos of our projects that you can see the variety and quality of work performed by our students.

NESAW is fortunate to have had a long and varied list of projects, but we now focus almost entirely on kitchens. Customers are motivated because they receive a significant discount on a project versus a commercial cabinet shop, and we get challenging projects for our students that have real-life requirements, issues, and challenges. We are the only cabinetmaking school in the country where students build projects of this magnitude for paying customers, and the real-life skills our students learn make them very employable.

The instructors assign each student to a portion of a kitchen that is appropriate for their abilities and interests, based on their performance up to this point. The goal is to make sure that each student is challenged appropriately; we don’t want anyone to graduate feeling that they’ve been overloaded or as if the project didn’t challenge or teach them enough. Most clients are very flexible in their requirements, so we can often tailor a project to the students by suggesting changes to the project.

By the time school starts, the Director will have met with the customers to get the requirements (size, function, materials, design ideas, etc.) and will have developed an approved set of shop drawings. The students then visit the site to meet the customer and verify site measurements.

Instructors then assist students in generating cutlists and a bill of materials. After materials are ordered and arrive, you’ll move into the shop and build and spray-finish the project. During this time, we stop frequently to demonstrate various woodworking techniques, particularly ones that are only used on one kitchen so that the entire class can benefit.

After construction and finishing, each team moves on to installation, which usually takes about a week from start to finish. Each student will install his or her part, learning how to scribe and make adjustments along the way to accommodate imperfections in the floor and walls.

Building a Challenging Personal Project

If time allows at the end of the year, students may individually design, engineer, build and finish a small cabinetry-oriented project.

The goals of this project are 1) for students to practice yet again the fundamentals of cabinetmaking, this time with very limited assistance; 2) for students to independently research and incorporate a challenging woodworking technique that wasn’t specifically addressed in class; and 3) for students to stretch themselves creatively as they build something that meets their own needs.

Again, this is only if time permits, which often depends on the complexity of the kitchens and the pace of student work in any given year.

Graduation and Job Search

For most of our students who are seeking jobs (rather than working on skills to become a serious hobbyist or sole proprietor), the job search begins about a month prior to graduation. We work with students on their resumes and portfolios and help them prepare for interviews. We also provide letters of recommendation for students who have earned them, and speak to employers about the skills the applicant has learned in our program.

We encourage all students to arrange tours of cabinet shops in or near the city where they want to live, either prior to attending NESAW or during spring break.

Although we don’t have cabinetmaking shop contacts in every city, history has shown that the certificate from our program opens doors for the interview process.

The program ends in June with a short graduation ceremony, where certificates are presented. We invite parents and friends to join us for a reception afterwards.