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Joan Wickersham

A pragmatic labor of love at North Bennet Street School

SYLVIA NICKERSON FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

It’s September, the first week of school; the sunny classrooms are full of new students learning how to draw, how to make paste, how to follow instructions on a worksheet. But this is not kindergarten. It’s a new semester at Boston’s North Bennet Street School, where aspiring craftsmen come for accredited two- and three-year programs in piano technology; bookbinding; carpentry and preservation carpentry; locksmithing; and furniture-, jewelry-, and violin-making. North Bennet Street School, which started in 1885 as a trade school for immigrants, is nationally known for the caliber of its programs. “It’s like the Juilliard of furniture-making,” one student says, explaining why, at age 63, he’s just moved to Boston from Baltimore to enroll.

I am interested in the new students. What drew them to apply to a rigorous, fulltime craftsmanship program? Many have left successful careers in other fields to come here. What is it like to be a beginner again?

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Julia, a young woman who moved from Santa Fe to begin the violin program, worked for several years in marketing but “felt like it wasn’t adding up to anything. But with a violin, you make it and it’s there. It goes somewhere afterward and has a useful life.”

Ryan, 26, is a registered nurse who still works part-time but wants to become a violin maker. He’s fascinated by the physics of music, the fact that every contour and dimension of construction will affect the instrument’s sound. “Why is the Stradivarius model still so good, after all these years? Most fads don’t last that long.” He plays the violin, but has never built one. During the program, he will build five, as well as a viola and another stringed instrument.

Today Julia, Ryan, and the other new violin students are learning to sharpen a chisel, under the guidance of a guest expert. They are rubbing diamond-sprinkled stones against flat stones to create a smooth surface, watering the stone, and patiently pushing the chisel blade along the wet surface to hone the edge. “Beautiful,” the expert tells a student named Jackson. “Nice and sharp. But it’s a little uneven here.”

“I know,” Jackson answers. “I did that on purpose, because look, you can see that the handle’s a little wonky. I was compensating.”

“OK,” the expert says, handing the blade back. “It’s your tool. You need to shape it in the way that’s going to work best for you.”

I ask Jackson what drew him to the program.

“I’ve worked in a violin shop. And I took a hobby workshop, but it wasn’t intense enough.”

In other classrooms, the new bookbinders are learning to make wheat paste, and the jewelry-makers are making bezel pushers, tools they will use to set stones. The new furniture-making students have been given worksheets with a set of dimensions, ratios, and sketchy plans of various kinds of joints: mortise and tenon, bridle, half lap, splined miter, dovetail. Their job is to draw orthotic (two-dimensional) and isometric (three-dimensional) views, using the available information to fill in all the hidden lines. There is not a computer in sight; it’s all done by hand, using parallel rule, triangle, ruler, and pencil.

Leaning over his drawing, a student named Roger tells me he’s been a business adviser to an active cabinetmakers’ guild, and has recently retired from a long career as a corporate executive. “I’ve built pieces for years, but now I’d like to take it a degree of magnitude higher. I’d like to make a career of it.” He gets up at 4:30 every morning to take the bus down to Boston from his home in New Hampshire. “I don’t have to do this. I’m here because I love it.”

What these students are doing is a labor of love, but it’s also pragmatic. The tuition at North Bennet Street School is roughly $20,000 a year, but at a time when many graduates of four-year colleges and even advanced degree programs are having trouble finding jobs, 85 percent of North Bennet Street School’s graduates are employed within six months after graduation. Which goes to show that there is still a hunger in our society for skilled handwork and for beautiful objects. And that there’s still a place for people who have the talent, dedication, and training to quite literally make something of their lives.

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her new book of fiction, “The News From Spain,’’ will be published this fall.
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