In a San Francisco Workshop, Kids Take on Carpentry with Mini Chisels and Saws

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By Deborah Bishop
A San Francisco woodworking studio for kids a both carpentry skills and an appreciation for design thinking.

There is something intensely gratifying about seeing a roomful of five-year-olds gently guiding Japanese pull saws through reclaimed redwood rather than stabbing at screens, and learning to distinguish between a dovetail and a box joint rather than how to achieve the next level of Angry Birds

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In a San Francisco Workshop, Kids Take on Carpentry with Mini Chisels and Saws - Photo 1 of 1 -

Children streaming in for a workshop are greeted by an Eichler-inspired playhouse (dubbed the “Tikeler”) designed and built by The Butterfly Joint’s founder, Danny Montoya.

Kids as young as 18 months are welcome at The Butterfly Joint, a woodworking and design studio in San Francisco’s Mission District.  Founder Danny Montoya, a former kindergarten- and first-grade teacher, has always favored the hands-on approach to pedagogy, having learned woodworking at the knees of his Colombian-born grandfathers as a child in Southern California (where he built his own skateboard ramps). Although toddlers at The Butterfly Joint work with a parent to create simple toys such as building blocks and pegboard games, kids four and over are entrusted to use the sharp and pointy hand tools alone.

Much like the young chefs wielding knives with aplomb on MasterChef Junior, these mini-makers are in control of their scaled-down chisels, hand planes, saws, files, and the like.

"And it’s not just about the tools — I’m also teaching about design," says Montoya. "Why do we choose certain tools for certain jobs? When is it more appropriate to make a rounded edge, and when do we prefer a chamfer? These are sophisticated distinctions."

Montoya left teaching for woodworking a few years back, in order to spend more time with his daughter, Orion. After burning out on commission work and courting clients, he sought a way to combine his background in early child education with his passion for wood. After a successful crowd-sourcing campaign and getting a few business seminars under his belt, Montoya found a space, built it out, and was open for business three months later.

As shop class goes the way of the flip phone, Montoya is helping a new generation to gain the dexterity and knowledge to create functional and decorative objects that will endure—from cutting boards and book caddies to faceted wooden sculptures and wall art. Children streaming in for a workshop are greeted by the Eichler playhouse (dubbed the "Tikeler") in the entrance: "Kids are like marmots," says Montoya with a laugh, "they love to burrow into small spaces." When it’s time to get to work, they punch a time-clock, don an apron, and embark at the sound of the steam whistle.

During the sawing, sanding, and filing, there’s no shortage of teachable moments. For example, much of the wood used for projects is salvaged from scraps or derived from pallets found discarded on the sidewalk, which Montoya mills in his workshop (a former meat locker) in the back of the studio. "I describe the cargo ships these pallets once sailed on, and we wonder what exotic locales they might have visited before ending up here: Ethiopia? Argentina? Then we talk about how all this wood might have easily ended up in the garbage, but instead — it’s a floating shelf, or a stool, or a treasure box they can hand down someday to their own kids."