Parma Sawdust Club: Woodworking with a Civic Twist

It was a pretty interesting challenge. The Nature Center at Shaker Lakes, near Parma, Ohio, had to cut down a fine old red oak tree to make way for its expansion. So it issued an invitation to woodworkers: take the milled lumber from the tree and turn it into furniture for the renovated center.

The Sawdust Club of Parma stepped up to the challenge. They turned the lumber into a couple of beautiful benches that now grace the center’s wildlife balcony. A couple of subsequent articles in local and then statewide newspapers brought a lot of attention to the club and recruited a few new members.

But, according to Doug Benzin, who’s been with the club since it was founded, community service has been part of their club’s charter for a long time. In recent years, they’ve built entertainment centers for Habitat for Humanity projects. They’ve built and donated steamer trunks for civic and charitable organizations to auction off. And they built furniture for a women’s shelter and crisis centers. It all started 15 years ago.

“Everybody had Shopsmiths when we started,” Doug recalled, “and we met at the Shopsmith store – until that closed. We met in some guy’s garage briefly, and then Rockler Woodworking and Hardware opened their door to us. Rockler supplied the coffee and one of our members brought the donuts!”

At first, the meetings were usually technique or project demos put on by club members. The first group project was to help a member build a child’s bed in the shape of a boat. They soon established a policy of only charging double the cost of materials for their club-built furniture. The extra money helped the club grow, and they began working for Habitat. When they heard that local public television station WVIZ was sponsoring a fundraising visit by Norm Abrams, they decided to build and donate a steamer trunk for auction. (It sold for $490!) So the wildlife center benches fit right into the club’s commitment to serve the community. But it was a big project!

“We started the benches last January, meeting a couple days a week, and we finished them up in April,” Doug recalled. “The original plans for the benches called for a lattice in the center of the back, but we substituted a solid panel with the Nature Center’s logo, a crane in a pond. One of our members has a CNC machine, and he drew the logo and we put it on a solid back panel for the bench.”

After all the publicity from the Nature Center benches, the club found its projects in great demand. They built another steamer chest for a women’s shelter to auction off, and built some bookcases and storage compartments for a children’s crisis center.

“We’re currently doing a project for a place called Parmadale & it’s a place for children with problems.” Doug explained, “So far we’ve made five cabinets, so the older kids have a place to put their private stuff. It’s pretty sturdy stuff – made of 3/4″ plywood and 2 x 4s — to stand up to the kids. Some of the kids are adopted, so we also make things like CD holders that they can take with them. And Jan Zorman, the facilities director at the Nature Center, wants a podium made from the wood that’s still left over from that red oak tree. So that’s on the drawing board. And we’re also committed to two Habitat for Humanity project a year.”

Support from the Parma Rockler Woodworking and Hardware¬†store¬†has been a critical factor in the club’s growth and success. For their special projects, some members will gather for extended work sessions once a week & usually on Sunday. For regular meetings, somewhere between 25 and 30 members meet monthly at the store. Club demos are, of course, also open to store visitors. And when the Parma store recently had its grand re-opening, the Sawdust Club was there recruiting new members.

“The Sawdust Club is unique,” noted local Rockler store manager Jeff Pohto. “They have a civic twist to their profile.”

Even with 60+ members, the $20 a year dues wouldn’t go very far. Rockler Woodworking and Hardware helps out by donating tools for club raffles and wood for the civic projects. Other assistance comes by way of John Schaeffer, a member who works for Ridgid Tools. John writes the club newsletter, and Ridgid covers the cost of printing.

Doug has been treasurer since 1993. Rudy Vercilli is another founding member. And Rockler’s Jeff Pohto was already at the store when the club arrived. The members come from all walks of life.

“There’s a lot of retired guys & doctors, lawyers.” Doug explained, “So it’s been a great experience for a lot of people who are just starting out in woodworking. We’ve done demos on sharpening chisels and planes. We found a guy who did a marquetry demo. At some meetings everybody brings in their favorite jig and talks about why they made it. Last month, we had joining and different kinds of glue-ups.”

For his own woodworking, Doug specializes in cabinets. He made an entertainment center with pocket doors for his wife. And in the spirit of the club, he did the whole thing as a demonstration for members. One month, he did the dentil molding; the next, he made the dovetail drawers; then he showed how to make the four-piece molding; and one meeting was devoted to the entertainment center’s carcass.

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