Back to School: Issue 8

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This article is from Issue 8 of Woodcraft Magazine.

AMERICAN SYCAMORE WOODWORKERS’ RETREAT is located in the secluded rolling hills of Cloverdale. Ind.

Like the perfect home away from home, this shop away from home offers great equipment, helpful companionship, and lots of time to work.

By Gail O’Rourke

Woodworker’s Dream Vacation

If you asked me if I wanted more time in the shop or more tools, my answer would be more time in the shop to use my tools. 

Like many of us, I piece together minutes in the shop the way I piece together my projects, a little bit at a time. Endless interruptions of family and career steal even more of those minutes away. We are so busy we barely take vacations. 

Take a moment to picture this: a place where every tool, tape and timber you need is in front of you. Time seems to stand still as projects are started, worked and completed free from distraction. You experience that deep feeling of satisfaction and pride as you run your hand along the finish of a piece that you’ll keep forever. You envision the place it will take in your home and a smile crosses your face. You even have time to relax, slow down, stop and enjoy yourself. 

Is it a dream? No, but it is a woodworker’s dream vacation.

STUDENT WES SCOTT dry-fits the leg base of his workbench.

At home in the Hoosier state

Tucked in the rolling hills of Indiana, filled with people just like you and me, is American Sycamore Woodworkers’ Retreat, a state-of-the-art woodworking facility that provides a full schedule of quality classes and instruction packaged inside the perfect vacation. I find it a great place to relax, join other enthusiasts and professionals, and make the project I never had time for. The piece I take away will be an heirloom-quality piece of furniture that will be enjoyed for years to come. 

ASWR was opened four years ago by Mike and Dana Van Pelt, who left behind careers in Indianapolis to pursue a new lifestyle in a small farming community near Cloverdale, Ind. Dana Van Pelt has never been far from doing what she desires, to be creative in her everyday life. For years she was a successful interior designer and space planner for residential and commercial spaces. She overlapped her designing skills when she became a photo stylist for national corporations and international publications. 

As she slowed her pace a bit, Dana returned to the passion of teaching art using the Reggio method from Italy, a program where you learn through experiencing, never underestimating the skills and talents of any age. Today she works with wood as well, overseeing the curriculum for American Sycamore where she never underestimates the capabilities of students. She’s a talented, award-winning interior designer, commercial photo stylist, and teacher of visual art. She is able to set style to everyday necessities, something that’s evident in her selection of wood and the elegant lines of her favorite woodworking project, woodenware. 

THE AUTHOR CUTS COMPONENTS for her custom-built workbench in the ASWR workshop.

Michael’s life, meanwhile, has always been focused on woodworking. He brings to the bench almost 30 years from the professional woodworking field. His college degree is in industrial arts and technology education, and he has a vast experience in tool sales and techniques. In his years of sales, Michael became a woodworking equipment guru and opened a tool business with partner Tom Newkirk – Superior Woodworking Supply in Indianapolis. Not only did Mike sell tools, but he also taught clients how to use their new equipment via classes at the store’s academy. As Michael’s how-to classes grew, so did his dream of starting his own school. Together, Michael and Dana Van Pelt created this woodworker’s resort for the furniture-building enthusiast. 

The retreat experience

Although I’ve attended classes here before, I’m always in awe each time I walk into their 10,000-sq.-ft. facility filled with state-of-the-art equipment. Inside the workshop at ASWR, I find my own workspace for the week, walls of tools, towers of dust collection and enough clamps to answer the age old question of just how many might actually be enough. 

Also on the property is a newly renovated six-bedroom guesthouse. Complete with central air conditioning and breathtaking views, it’s a comfortable, relaxing place where I can enjoy an evening meal with my classmates, exchange ideas in an informal setting and make my retreat rich with new friendships.

Classes at ASWR range from beginner to advanced, from weekend to weeklong. There are opportunities to learn techniques from instructors who have taught all over the country, as well as learn from the resident woodworking expert Michael Van Pelt. Michael is dedicated to exceeding expectations, teaching more than you might think possible in just a few days. For those thinking about taking an advanced class but don’t have enough experience with the tools, Michael offers pre-class introduction to the tools that will be used in class and demonstrates safe operation. 

students occasionally work together on each other’s projects. Wes Scott, Patti Lundgren, Don Lume and Richard Jensen clamp up pieces which will become the bench dogs of one of the students’ workbench.

Classes at American Sycamore have included cabinetmaking with Dale Barnard, Arts & Crafts and Greene & Greene furniture with Glen Huey, and box making with Tom Laird. 

The cost of classes ranges from $75 for a one-day skills workshop to $1,500 for the gorgeous Stickley tall clock class. Class fees include use of all tools provided in the workshop. Homemade lunch is provided each day by owner Dana Van Pelt, and classes run from 9 a.m.-5p.m. with the opportunity to continue working on projects into the early evening. 

I have attended the Shaker box class as well as the Windsor chair class in previous years, and found the instruction excellent and my experience rewarding. The best part is that what I create in the ASWR workshop is mine to take home. I brought home classic cherry boxes and all the molds to make more. My Shaker boxes are on display in a special place in my house. My Windsor chair has been my greatest woodworking accomplishment to date, and I enjoy it each time I sit at my desk. 

ASWR also offers one-on-one classes when the schedule permits. Mike Van Pelt has done this with several guests. Most students build something from the curriculum, but some bring their own designs or photographs of an item they would prefer to build. For example, one student was working on a set of beautiful carved panels she was crafting for a bedroom set for her daughter. The detail was incredible, and the completed piece will be a treasure. 

The school also offers “open shop” weeks where guests can make use of the shop to build their own projects. Students bring their own materials for these, while ASWR supplies the tools and know-how. The shop can be rented a day or an entire week, and it makes a great place for woodworking guilds and clubs to get together and work on their own projects or organize a guild event. 

For the past two years, the school held annual “Charity Build-a-thons,” where woodworkers team up to build pieces that will be auctioned off to benefit the American Cancer Society. Teams match up beginning woodworkers with experienced woodworkers and instructors. The support of the project and enthusiasm of people committed to a cause make this an incredible woodworking experience. 

One of ASWR’s newest efforts is the launching of an online forum as a place for students, instructors and enthusiasts to participate in woodworking discussions of all kinds. This is a place for woodworkers to gather to talk about wood, discuss techniques and get answers from the experts, check out what’s new in the current class and event schedule, see about last-minute class openings, or hear about student experiences before planning a woodworking vacation. 

O’Rourke’s Goal for her stay at ASWR was to construct this hardwood workbench with purpleheart accents.

Taking it all home

I have my own custom woodworking business, and my two important jobs as custom cabinetmaker and stay-at-home mom for my three kids doesn’t leave a lot of time for extra projects. So here I am, taking my own woodworking vacation at ASWR, building my workbench with Michael Van Pelt. I come here to build it away from my pleasures in life, my family and career, to focus on building and completing a high-quality workbench. 

I chose ASWR as the place to build my own bench for a couple reasons. First, I know it will be of higher quality than any I could buy because it will be made specifically for my needs. The vise hardware is custom made by a machine shop local to ASWR, and includes precision guide rods to prevent the vises from racking. Heavier and with a larger work surface than commercially available benches, it will stay fast and true to any project I decide to make on it. 

Secondly, the school has an incredible selection of large equipment like a 12" jointer and 20" planer, plus the assistance of others. This is a physically challenging project, with its completed weight several times my own, all the glueups requiring teams of two and machinery and jig setups to ensure the required accuracy. The time spent by instructors in preparation make the workbench class enjoyable and ensures successful completion of a bench for each and every student. Such care is taken into their crafting that many students gently wrap their workbenches in blankets as they carefully load them into their cars for the trip home. (ASWR can also arrange for shipping for out-of-town students.) 

By only the third day of class my workbench top was big and strong, and taking shape nicely. Finished, it even reflects my style, with purpleheart accents and made to fit my 5'4" frame. Beautiful and functional, I’ll take pride not only in the completed workbench, but also in all the projects I’ll make on it.

Each time I look at it in my workshop, I think of my great accomplishment building it and dream of my next woodworking vacation at American Sycamore Woodworkers’ Retreat. And the more I work on it, the more I realize that it is becoming an heirloom.

It’ll be awhile, but someday I know that one of my grandchildren will be able to say, “This was my grandmother’s workbench.”

For more information on American Sycamore, visit americansycamoreretreat.com.

Gail O’Rourke

Gail O’Rourke’s passion for furniture building and cabinetmaking reflects in her business, Hometown Woodworking, in Plymouth, Mass. Her dedicated workshop is located at her home, where she is inspired daily by her family living. 

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