There’s a lot of noise coming from Room 12 at Camerado Springs Middle School in Cameron Park — rowdy students? No, the students are quietly concentrating. The noise is coming from band saws, routers and electric sanders.
Don Cochran’s advanced woodshop class is busy on a project that has all the eighth-grade students intensely focused. Shrouded in clouds of nose-tickling sawdust, they’re making electric guitars.
Cochran, 62, has been teaching woodshop and technology classes for 24 years. For most of those years his woodworking students made traditional items: bowls, boxes, lamp stands, small toys, etc.
About five years ago friend and colleague Duane Calkins told Cochran about a great project that had students fully engaged. Calkins, the shop teacher at a school in Roseville, had his students making guitars. Cochran, skeptical at first, decided to give it a try.
He hasn’t regretted a minute of it since.
The students, girls as well as boys, appreciate how special this program is.
“This class is really cool — I mean seriously,” said Joey Mendenhall, a tall eighth-grader.
Many of the students don’t play guitar but they see the value of doing a project from beginning to end and having a cool product that really works to show for their efforts.
“If some of us played the guitars, would we sound good? No,” laughed Gabe Falconer. “But we are proud of what we are achieving.”
Haley Chance, who does play, said, “It’s great when you’ve made the instrument yourself. Mr. Cochran is really nice and very thorough.”
It’s in the details
Girls like Haley tend to excel in the class. Cochran attributes it to their attention to detail and patience.
The process starts with a block of 2-inch thick alder that is about 19 inches long by 13 inches wide. Taking turns on the power tools around the room, each student shapes the wood into a chosen design. The designs include Stratocaster, Telecaster, Les Paul, Firebrand, Warlock and Van Halen — all names that mean a lot to rock-and-roll fans.
After shaping, routing cavities for metal inserts and sanding the body, the wood for the neck is chosen. Cochran offers unusual woods to make the neck especially jazzy. The woods have exotic names — bloodwood (which is deep burgundy), purple heart, marbled maple, dark walnut and finally African wenge and zebrawood.
The students carefully shape, fit and attach the neck to the body and then place the frets along the neck.
One of the most fun parts of the process is the painting. Thanks to generous donations of leftover auto paints from Jerry’s Paints and Placerville Auto Body, the colors are shiny, vibrant and durable.
“Favorite colors are those used on Dodge Chargers,” said Cochran.
The resulting guitars are works of art that have won first place awards at the El Dorado County Fair for a couple of years.
Building a skill
Even though this subject isn’t considered academic by some, Cochran is convinced that the skills a project like guitar making entails can benefit any student in the future.
“They learn to follow directions, measure accurately, focus on quality, use professional equipment safely, see a project through and when they’re done, put away the tools and clean the work space,” said Cochran. “These are the kinds of work skills and ethics most employers look for.”
The 21 students in the class have earned the privilege. They must have completed beginning woodshop, using mostly hand tools, with a satisfactory grade. They must apply for advanced placement in the guitar-making class and the opportunity to learn the use of power tools.
Cochran already knows the students who apply and knows they are serious. They have shown they can follow his strict expectations and can work safely and responsibly.
Wood Heads contribute
Cochran is extremely grateful to an organization called the Society of Wood Heads Only. This organization supports woodworking projects in schools by raising funds and encouraging sawmills to donate wood.
Through a chance meeting with its local founder and salesperson Jim Von Tellrop, Cochran has received thousands of board-feet of wood, as well as new equipment. Since there is no state funding for these programs, SOWHO has been a blessing, supporting the program with a few thousand dollars each year.
Cochran has one disappointment. Ponderosa High School, where most of these students will go next year, has dropped its shop programs. The other county high schools, Union Mine, El Dorado and Oak Ridge still provide woodshop and other practical arts programs.
“The students from this class have great skills that they could build upon. It’s unfortunate that there is no program like this in their high school.”
The cost of materials for guitar making is $180. If an interested student is unable to pay, parent groups and other community supporters often help. The school administrators have eagerly supported the program as well.
“We also have a good relationship with Skip Music in Sacramento, which provides the metal parts and electronic components and offers discounts to students taking the class,” said Cochran.
Anyone interested in supporting the advanced woodshop program can leave a message for Cochran at the Camerado Springs Middle School by calling (530) 677-1658, ext. 1612.