American Sycamore Retreat: Where Woodworkers Become Guests

The first thing you notice when you talk to Dana and Mike Van Pelt about their school, American Sycamore Retreat, is that they both constantly refer to their visitors not as students, customers, or attendees, but as “guests.” And apparently, that is just how they make people feel: like welcomed guests at a home where, as luck would have it, great woodworking classes happen to be held.

“We are here all the time, and we interact with our guests,” Dana explained. “Many of our guests have become good friends. We want them to come and have a great experience while learning. Our school feels like our home, filled with old hickory furniture and Craftsman style kitchen cabinets. There’s always popcorn, pretzels, a full cookie jar, and filled candy dishes, along with coffee and tea at all times.”

“Every day at noon, Dana puts on a big buffet dinner as part of the tuition,” Mike added. “On Thursday nights, we have a cookout, and grill either elk, buffalo, or beef, as a way of thanking our guests. We just want them to enjoy themselves.”

I guess they do. Mike pointed out that their guests really connect to one another. “Many make friends, then come back to take classes with their newfound friends. About 70% are repeat customers.”

While it may sound like a luxury vacation spa, American Sycamore Retreat is actually an outstanding woodworking school, whose teachers include such luminaries as Frank Klausz, Andy Rae, Darryl Peart, Don Weber, and Dale Barnard, to name just a few. Classes, which typically go from May through October, run the gamut from beginners’ courses covering topics like sharpening, tool usage, and Shaker boxes, to more advanced ones, like building a rolltop desk.

“We try to keep our classes small,” Mike said. “Class size is usually eight. There is always both an instructor and one of us, giving us a four-to-one ratio in classes. That way, no one gets hurt, and everyone gets the attention they need. The classes are very project oriented, and typically, the project gets completed by the end of the class. Our days run from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., and we have to push students out the door at night.”

The school and facilities are set on 45 acres in the woods outside of Cloverdale, Indiana, about 40 miles from Indianapolis. A 50′ X 100′ pole building, stocked with multiples of all tools and twelve European workbenches, serves as the wood shop. Timber View, a six bedroom guest house for students, is the newest addition to the property, but some guests prefer a tent, or their RV.

The school is the fulfillment of a lifelong desire, and the collaboration of a very talented, and caring, husband and wife team. Dana is an award-winning watercolor artist, interior designer, and photo stylist. Mike is a former industrial arts teacher, who spent years running woodworking stores, where he both continued to teach, and also managed to learn from visiting instructors like Toshio Odate and Sam Maloof.

“I left teaching in 1980, because industrial arts had become a dumping ground for troubled kids, and programs were being gutted,” Mike said. “Once I met Dana, I shared my dream of wanting to teach. I love to teach those who are interested in learning. Here, I get to help the masters who come to teach, so I learn from them as well, which has really helped me improve my woodworking. Every morning, I walk across the drive into an ideal workshop, and do what I love to do with people who really want to be there. I’ve got a dream come true.”

One of their more unusual offerings is a Women’s Woodworking Weekend, which Dana teaches. The class is limited to eight women. “Woodworking doesn’t care what sex you are,” explained Dana, “but there are women who feel intimidated working with men that they assume will be experienced. Many women have said to me ‘I wasn’t allowed to take shop.’ Some have had negative experiences in other class settings. Women are often more cautious, and ask for more clarification to make sure they are doing things correctly, whereas men might say ‘I believe I can do this.’ Although more and more women are joining our mixed classes, I still do the retreat. It almost becomes like a big party.”

Mike added “Women will sign up for the women’s class the first time, and see the school is nice, friendly, clean, and safe. They’ll then feel comfortable enough to sign up for other classes. Women now comprise 40% of our regular classes.”

Dana’s and Mike’s generosity is not limited to their students, though. Dana also makes wooden spoons, ladles, and other kitchenware, and sells them under the name “Spoonful and Company.” All the proceeds go to feed the hungry. Even more amazing is their build-a-thon, a gathering I was aching to sign up for on the spot.

“Last year,” said Dana, “we hosted an American Cancer Society build-a-thon for women. This is a benefit I put together because I lost both parents and a sister-in-law to cancer. Everyone is touched by cancer in their lifetime. This is an opportunity to come and fight the monster, and build furniture as a team. Last year we had four teams, including one mother and daughter team of cancer survivors. They have 16 hours to build something, and I treat them to all meals. There is a $100 entry fee, but we encourage others to bring donations from friends and families. All the money goes to the American Cancer Society, in particular to two designated programs, both aimed at young people who are cancer survivors. This year, the event will be Oct. 15th and 16th.”

From what I have seen, these two have certainly done everything possible to ensure that the word “retreat” earns its place in their school’s name. I think Mike summed it up best. “Come spend a week in the woods. You’ll eat well, lower your blood pressure, and go home on Friday with new friends and a new piece of furniture.”

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