Wood Working It


Instructor Chris Cavallaro jokes with two Brooklyn Woods trainees during a table saw lesson.

Quincy Chester Pampunette bent over piece of wood trapped in a vice on a Friday afternoon, examining his progress on a hand-tooled joint. Though not the first time the 22-year-old Flatbush native had worked with wood, he was in new territory.

“I’ve installed cabinets and stuff like that,” Pampunette said. “But that’s street work. This right here, it’s more technical.”

Pampunette was in week two of a seven-week program at Brooklyn Woods, a 12-year-old nonprofit that offers training in woodworking to underemployed and jobless New Yorkers. Most accepted into the program have little education or spotty work histories. Many are formerly incarcerated.

“Our program is about giving people the option to enter a field that will pay a decent wage,” explained founder and director Scott Peltzer as he sat in his sunny office on 8th Street in Gowanus.

Brooklyn Woods teaches how to cut a straight line by hand and use an electric drill press, but the lessons go beyond woodworking. During the five program cycles that graduate about 60 people a year, trainees learn math skills and how to read basic design drawings. Weekly lectures cover interview techniques and professionalism.

A Brooklyn Woods trainee tests out the drill press.

Brooklyn Woods also has a business making eco-friendly cabinets. Some graduates like 30-year-old Matthew Moore get gigs at the shop after they complete their training.

The experience has been invaluable, said Moore as he cleaned up the wood-scented shop on a recent Friday. He takes pride in his new work.

“I stayed until 9:30 p.m. the other day to make sure the job would be completed,” he said. Moore hopes that dedication will help him find a full-time position soon.

“It would be nice to have something steady,” he said.

Finding jobs for its graduates remains the toughest part of Brooklyn Woods’ mission. In the wake of the recession, manufactures look for experienced workers to fill entry-level positions. Brooklyn Woods has also seen a dip in its cabinetmaking business.

“The downturn in the economy has certainly hurt the woodworking world,” said employment coordinator Toby Gardner.

Last year Gardner placed 80 percent of graduates in a job or internship after the program ended. This year, numbers are down a bit. Long term retention has been a challenge–about 20 percent of 2009 graduates had placements that lasted a year.

While Brooklyn Woods focuses on full-time placements for workers who complete the program, they sometimes also do small independent jobs in homes and apartments around the city.

Gardner has widened his scope, looking for employers throughout the trades or even companies that fabricate items for store interiors or events who might be interested in taking a graduate on for an extended internship or job. He invites potential employers to come see the program in action.

Those who do find a clean, well-appointed shop with 12 trainees hard at work. Late on Friday afternoon, sawdust swirled and the saw buzzed in the instructional shop, where students learn how to work the power tools. Instructor Chris Cavallaro took the guys to the table saw two by two.

Quincy Pampunette set up, turned on the saw and pushed the board across the spinning blade, shaving off a few eights of an inch. Cavallaro watched, correcting his hand placement.

“You’re going to run out of edge if you hold it like that,” Cavallaro said, teasing a little. “Then what are you gonna hold?”

Pampunette laughed. He held up his piece of wood.

“But look!” Pampunette said. “No burns!”

Trainees know the seven-week program offers no guarantee of a job in this tight market. But it gives many who felt stagnant a chance to learn new skills, and perhaps to nudge open a door that felt firmly shut.

“This is what I really want to do,” Pampunette said. He hopes for “9 to 5, everyday work” when he finishes, but he has started to think long-term. “A decade down the line, I’d like to have my own business.”

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