Steamboat Springs Brad Cooke smoothed out the top of a beetle-killed pine bench Thursday afternoon with an electric sander in the wood shop at Soroco High School.
The high school social studies teacher is about 80 hours into building 10 benches, a project he estimated would take 120 hours. When he’s finished cutting 2-by-4 and 3-by-3 inch pieces of wood, sanding, gluing, wedging together using mortise and tenon joinery and staining the benches, they will be 5 feet long, 18 inches wide and 20 inches tall.
The new beetle-kill benches are tinted with streaks of blue — a remnant of the fungus left behind by the mountain pine beetle.
In August, they will be placed in the hallway between the commons area and classrooms at the high school, replacing the existing benches that are falling apart after years of sitting and the revelry that typically takes place in a high school.
Cooke said it would be a long time before they’re replaced again.
“These things, they’ll last long after I’m gone,” he said. “They’re solid.”
Superintendent Scott Mader said a budget of about $3,000 was set. Soroco High School Principal Dennis Alt asked Cooke, who built furniture for two years for Dovetail Designs in Oak Creek before joining the staff at Soroco last year, if he would be interested in the job. He accepted.
But Mader said the more he and Alt talked about the benches, the more they realized their importance was bigger than just a place for students to sit.
Mader said the benches are where students congregate before, in between and after classes. He said they socialize, get to know one another and become accepting of one another. Mader said he thinks the benches sparking that interaction is the reason the high school has few discipline problems.
“I think those benches mean more to the district than a physical structure,” Mader said. “They’re worth a lot more than several thousand dollars.”
Cooke said he’s coming in below budget. For example, the district allotted $500 for the lumber. Cooke said he looked at hard woods such as cherry and mahogany but that after pricing them, he said for the money those would have yielded one bench, maybe two.
He settled on beetle-kill and bought more than enough lumber for the project for $268.50 — “It was a fantastic deal.” Cooke said some would be left over for high school students to use in wood shop teacher Kipp Rillos’ class.
Cooke said the wood came from a mitigation site near the Rollingstone Ranch Golf Club cleared by Baker Resources and was milled by Wapiti Woods. Cooke said Fedewa Custom Works provided further assistance and Dovetail Designs provided shop space.
“Every bit of the process has been local,” he said.
Cooke said he jumped at the opportunity to build furniture. “I was pretty psyched to get covered in sawdust again.”
Cooke said his first year back in the classroom teaching geography, civics, world history, U.S. history and college Western civics was everything he hoped it would be but that he had a blast building furniture.
He said this project was a perfect opportunity for him.
“It’s better than waiting tables, that’s for sure,” Cooke said. “It’s been a lot of fun. I can’t wait to see them in the hallways.”