Woodworking with the Wise

Kai Richter & Roisin Creedon-Carey

“Never finish a job the night before,” preaches local craftsman and woodworker Michael Frenette. “That way you know where to pick it up the following morning.”

The Arcadians of 2021 are working with well-seasoned and eligible bachelor Michael Frenette on Arcadia’s new outdoor classroom. Our village is comprised of a kitchen building, eight yurts, and three empty yurt platforms just yearning for new construction. So, we are building an eighteen foot-wide, A-framed pavilion on one of these platforms, thus creating an outdoor classroom with protection from the elements, complete with a green-tinned roof and a wagon wheel strut facing the entrance. Michael does nothing for show—stylish components such as the rustic wagon wheel are vital parts of the building’s structural integrity. Our objective is to leave our mark on Arcadia for future students, and our experiential learning will be enhanced by our participation in this project. To learn about the outdoors, you need the right place to do it. Class is only as good as your learning environment.

Michael was born and raised in Tupper Lake, New York, earning the title “Mr. Tupper,” and for his entire life this corner of the Adirondacks has been the center of his universe. From a family of nine siblings, full of canoe and ski-racing champions, Frenette has solidified his own place in the history of the region as a master craftsman and local legend. His love of the outdoors began at an early age. When asked, Michael detailed the sense of community between him and his siblings, and he chronicled his long career as a woodworker, which began at the age of 19 when he took a job working on the restoration of Camp Santanoni, a historic great camp now owned by the State of New York. Instilled with a drive to craft, Michael feels that he must have been “a woodworker in a past life.” Even watching Arcadians strip bark from raw timber excites Michael. He claims that “the wood speaks to me.” Indeed, wood provides Michael with a sturdy home, fuel for his stove, and a passion for teaching and learning.

Throwing us straight into our woodworking apprenticeship, Michael called our first class “M.A.D.” (materials acquisition day). This involved collecting roofing, timber, nails, bolts, and other building materials, all from local hardware store Fortune’s. One of the first things Michael taught us was not to work too hard: in woodworking, you always need coffee and donuts before embarking (no pun intended) on a project. A basic principle of Michael’s course is utilizing what you have. Over the past few weeks, we’ve also been learning to work better as a team. This has involved collaborating on moving materials and sharing knowledge as a group. At Arcadia, it is imperative to work as a cohesive unit; we’re smarter together. For example, on Tuesdays we split into pairs to do chores. Our assistant directors Will Madison and Amanda Colley taught one pair of students how to master each task, and then those students became the resident experts who can share their knowledge with others. Such collaboration is essential to the smooth operation of our community. This practice is mirrored in Michael’s approach to woodworking. One person will make coffee while two people sweep the floor so we can all move the wood to build the outdoor classroom.

On a day off, the two of us (Kai and Roisin) along with John Bernhardt (’23) went to Michael’s to help stack wood. Alongside our traditionally stacked woodpile was an artfully arranged Ukrainian wood stack. These two different approaches to the task at hand led us to learn that there is not always one “right way” to do something. Stacking wood was not part of our curriculum, but it was important for us to play a role in our community.

Our next outdoor classroom task was turning raw lumber into useable beams. We used draw knives to strip the bark from the trees. This activity left us with beautiful lumber we could use for construction (and one skinned knee). Similar to this lumber, we started the semester as vague acquaintances, but for the past month we have been peeling away the outer bark to reveal the “true wood” of ourselves. Just like past Arcadians, we have taken the time to become one well-oiled Arcadian machine. As this structure develops, so will our community. It is our objective to create this classroom in the hopes of aiding future Arcadians to do the same.