Maurice Howland has filled his life with the whir and hum of machinery and the sweet smell of sawdust. Inspired by a lifetime spent in woodshops — first in high school, then in the Air Force, and later in his own garage — and a move to a historic home in New Bern with a less-than-ideal workspace, Howland decided to turn his hobby into a career. “I always had a little woodshop,” he says. “It’s probably what kept me halfway sane.” So he opened Shop Class, a do-it-yourself community workshop in downtown New Bern with a simple concept: You pay for your time in the space, and he provides the tools you need to create a masterpiece.
Soon, with the help of instructor Joe Clay, a passionate woodworker and natural teacher, Shop Class was offering classes, too. And, yes, they always start with the basics: “Safety is probably the most important thing I teach in the beginner class — how to keep your fingers attached,” Clay laughs. “Basically, ‘This is a table saw; this is your hand. Keep them apart.’”
Today, Shop Class is both a training facility and a space for makers, like Howland and Clay, who need a place to create magic. “Being a maker is when you design something out of components that most people wouldn’t consider using,” Howland says. In the space they’ve created, both wannabe craftspeople and established woodworkers find the tools they need.
Our State sat down with Howland and Clay to learn more about Shop Class and the woodworking opportunities it provides to the community.
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What was your first experience with woodworking like?
MH: On our “brag wall” in the office, there is a little bird’s-eye maple box that I made in shop class when I was 14 years old. That kind of generated the name for this place. I walked away from shop class realizing that when you work with your hands, you’re still working with your mind. A lot of people have the misconception that people who work with their hands are maybe not as bright, not as educated. It’s much the opposite. As a matter of fact, in here, a lot of my clientele are doctors, lawyers, physicists. We’ve got some pretty good brains that are working with their hands.
What inspired you to open the shop?
MH: My wife and I arrived in New Bern, and we started shopping for a house. The last few houses we owned had been in a historic district, so we found a house that needed a lot of work and spent the first couple of years rebuilding it. And like many of the old historic houses here, it didn’t have a garage. So I had a contractor add on a space, and that was my shop. Then, I figured out that retirement wasn’t really working for me. I figured that a really nice shop was something I needed, and maybe there were other people who needed one, too. Now we’re teaching, and we have this shop available to the public.
What makes Shop Class unique?
MH: It’s a good place for beginners to start. And one of the things that surprised us was that more than 60 percent of the people in the classes were women. It’s a really safe, clean, and encouraging environment. Here, people can try things and see what’s going to work without the huge capital investment of tools and space to do it. They can walk away at any time.
Tell us a little bit about what each of you brings to Shop Class and how you work together.
MH: I quickly discovered what a talent Joe is. When I need something really, really neat made, I kind of put the bug in Joe’s ear. The next thing I know, here’s a design, and here’s the wood order I need to make, and then boom, it’s built. He tells me which tools I need, and which ones are bunk.
JC: We complement each other. Mo is skilled in one area; I’m skilled in another. He lets me build hard things, lets me challenge myself on some of the projects I’ve done here, which take more time than they probably should. And he’s very patient about it, which I like.
What do you love most about what you do?
MH: Seeing people when they have a finished project, and the camaraderie that quickly develops around here. The millennials and the old people working in here is kind of fun, because the millennials are helping the old guys lift things, and the old guys are showing millennials how to do things, and so they work really well together.
JC: I enjoy teaching; I enjoy seeing the light come on when they get it. It’s then that you know that you’ve done your job. It pays you back very well and very quickly.
Why do you think community workshops are important?
MH: I think it provides a resource for the community. I think it gives people an option without having to buy cheap furniture. They can go out and build their own custom furniture, or object, or whatever they want to build. I think that hands-on experience is really important.
What do you love most about woodworking?
JC: It’s challenging. It’s always different. The material you’re working with is organic — it moves. You can’t force it to do things; you have to convince it to do things. I learn something from it every day, and I learn things about myself from it. I learn patience and confidence from this work. You learn that mistakes are not serious; you can fix them. Sometimes fixing it means throwing that piece away and starting over — but hopefully you can repair it.
406 Guion Street
New Bern, NC 28560