After 29 years of teaching fine furniture making at Camosun College, Cam Russell is as excited as ever to show off his students’ latest work. Pointing to a row of cabinets that take up half his office space, he is pleased that his students are using their joinery skills to support the community. “Every year, we do these little cabinets for the Salvation Army Sunset Lodge which are memory boxes that they mount on the wall outside each resident’s room. Everybody in the class builds one. It’s a good cabinet-making exercise and they’ve got to be made exactly to the drawings.”
Russell founded Camosun’s popular 10-month certificate program in fine furniture in 1987. He and fellow instructor Ken Guenter – who joined Camosun in 2000 and now serves as program leader – work closely together to teach foundational joinery trades skills to up to 18 students each year. To date, over 400 students have graduated from their classes which since 2014 have been held in the spacious hall of a former diesel-engine rebuilding shop at Camosun’s Interurban campus. “We’ve got our own classroom up top where we do a lecture or check in each morning and there’s lots of room on the shop floor for students to work on their projects,” Russell says.
This year’s cohort includes students with roots throughout British Columbia, Scotland, Japan, Mexico, United States and across Canada. Russell says there is usually a good gender balance and the common denominator is a love of working with one’s hands and a desire to see tangible results from one’s efforts.
“Often what I hear when we’re interviewing people is, ‘I want to have something to show on Friday afternoon that I didn’t have on Monday morning,’ and that I’m leaving behind some kind of actual product.”
Down on the shop floor, the buzz of table saws and the smell of fresh sawdust fills the air as 13 students put the finishing touches on their graduation projects for their year-end exhibition. Each student was challenged to design and manufacture a chair using western maple donated by the Vancouver Island Woodworkers’ Guild.
“This exhibit lets the public know that high quality, well-designed furniture is being made in Victoria out of our local wood resources,” says Guenter.
Each chair must meet a standardized shipping test for size and weight. Russell notes the diversity of seating on display is impressive from classic to modern designs with all sorts of shapes and finishes: “It’s unbelievable that they are all made of the same type of wood.”
Graduating student Ruth Spohn is nearly finished her upholstered barrel lounge chair. “I wanted something really comfortable but also classic looking and I wanted it to be something that I would still like in 10 years,” she says.
Duncan resident Spohn heard about the program from two former graduates who run a design business in her hometown. She appreciates the flexibility that her instructors provide. “Once you’ve completed your projects, you can just build whatever you want. Whatever you can think up you can make, as long as you have the time and materials.”
Craig McWilliam, a native of Whitehorse, moved to B.C. in 2004 to study political science at UVic. Switching careers to study fine furniture, he sees an opportunity to combine design and entrepreneurship. “I wanted to do something creative and I always liked building things,” he says, showing a photo of his mid-century modern style influenced chair. “Ideally, I’d like to have my own business or maybe work for a small shop where there’s the chance to do the design aspect as well.”
Program graduates are constantly in demand and Russell and Guenter often receive calls from local businesses seeking new employees.
“Everybody who wants a job coming out of this program, gets one,” notes Russell. “There’s growing demand right now from window and cabinet shops and the luxury yacht repair market.”
“Chairisma: Seating in Western Maple” runs until June 21 at the Arts Centre at the Cedar Hill Recreation Centre, 3220 Cedar Hill Rd. The exhibition is free and open to the public from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Student projects are judged by a panel of industry experts and the chair chosen “best in show” receives a $500 cash prize.
For more information about Camosun’s fine furniture program, visit: Camosun.ca/fine-furniture.