She’s Nailed It

Helping to keep woodworking alive in Vermont

by Leon J. Thompson

vermont-wood_1115Nine years ago, in partnership with her husband, Blake Ewoldson, and the late Bob Fletcher, Carina Driscoll opened the Vermont Woodworking School, now housed in a 15,000-square-foot barn in Fairfax.

In early October, Carina Driscoll saw two signs confirming that she was destined to have established the Vermont Woodworking School (VWS) in 2007.

The first occurred when one of the school’s star alums appeared on the cover of Fine Woodworking magazine; the second happened as she leafed through books in her father’s library.

“When I opened the back cover to a book on building a classic guitar,” she says, recalling the incident, “I knew I was doing the right thing.” She had found three letters from her late father, Dave, dated 1972.

Dave, a carpenter (he crafted the trim and finish carpentry at the historic Follett House in Burlington) who also worked full time for IBM, had handwritten the letters to suppliers of guitar parts and supplies, asking for guidance to find an apprenticeship opportunity and looking for useful leads to start building classical guitars.

They all rejected his request.

“When I saw those letters, I realized that my dad was someone that really could have used a place like the Vermont Woodworking School,” she says. “He was probably around 21 then. He probably would have been a student here, and I think he would have loved our school.”

The Vermont Woodworking School operates out of a 15,000-square-foot red barn on a pristine piece of former farm property in Fairfax, on Vermont 104 about three miles north of the town’s dam. The school offers classes and workshops led by master-designer craftsmen and -women, and an immersion program in fine woodworking and furniture-making for Burlington College’s craftsmanship and design program.

“That program has grown quite a lot,” Driscoll says during a tour, where practically everything, from the floors and stairs to the student displays and furniture, is skillfully crafted from wood.

VWS is not an accredited college, but Driscoll, the co-founder and school director, ensures that it behaves like one. Semesters fall in line with traditional college semesters, plus a 16-week period during the summer, and student housing is available — on and off campus.

All applicants to the immersion program must show during the admissions process that they want to establish a life and career in woodworking, and provide a history of working with their hands. Students can range in age from 18 to 70, but the most common age range is early 20s to early 30s.

The school enrolls about 40 students per semester. Approximately 10 percent of them are women — perhaps not surprising in a male-dominated industry. Women make up close to half of the staff and faculty.

More than half of the students per semester are enrolled through Burlington College (BC), which offers associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in craftsmanship and design. VWS, which offers its own certificate programs for up to two years per student, is a New England Association of Schools and Colleges–approved instruction site for BC programs.

“Carina’s dedication to the Vermont Woodworking School is evident,” says Dana Heffern, chair of BC’s art and design department. Heffern oversees the college’s woodworking and fine-furniture-making program. “She has put her heart into the facilities, in which our students thrive,” Heffern says. “The facility is continually improving, and some of our faculty create their own designs on-site. This is a wonderful opportunity for our students to work and learn alongside award-winning craftsmen every day.”

Seventy percent of VWS’s students are from outside Vermont, which Driscoll attributes to the perfect storm of operating a woodworking school in a country setting in a beautiful state that can still flaunt the natural resources in its forests.

Kyle Wicker of North Carolina discovered the school on the Web. It was similar in price to other schools he researched, but the semesters were three weeks longer.

“This just seemed to be the right fit,” says Wicker, 33, a former federal employee who is pursuing his “real passion” now.

Between VWS and BC, there are nine faculty and staff members, including Mario Messina, a furniture-maker in residence at VWS.

“It’s nice to have a steady paycheck, be able to teach, and be able to take time to be creative under one roof, instead of just taking every job that comes along,” Messina says.

Driscoll, 41, and her husband, Blake Ewoldsen, 43, live in Burlington with their two children: Cole, 11; and Tess, 7. Ewoldsen, a co-founder and director of operations, works mainly behind the scenes with bookkeeping, materials ordering, and website management.

“I believe Carina is motivated by her creativity, interest in growing our business in different ways, and maintaining integrity in her relationships,” Ewoldsen says. “She is an entrepreneur at heart, and is always seeing different avenues for us to follow and new ways to grow our school. I am most proud of her perseverance in staying with the mission of the business, her consistent practice of seeing the best in people, and her resilience in the face of business challenges.”

In 2006, the year Driscoll’s father died of lung cancer, The Community Woodworkers Shop in Colchester was set to close. As a member, she had completed a large-scale kitchen cabinet project there. For her and Bob Fletcher, a shop monitor, the thought of Vermont’s losing a woodworking school was disheartening. They agreed they wanted to found a school.

In September 2007, they opened the Vermont Woodworking School in the 5,000-square-foot former Community Woodworkers Shop space on Hercules Drive. Weeks later, they had their first student. Interest grew nationally after the VWS created a website, and the school quickly outgrew its space.

One night in 2008, at the Colchester site, Driscoll, Ewoldsen, and Fletcher were discussing the need for bigger space and more money. Fletcher’s brother had seen a big red barn for sale on Vermont 104 — the perfect setting for the VWS, he thought. They pondered how they could borrow that kind of money.

Listening in was Burt Steen, who was using the VWS workshop as he did twice a week after work at Vermont Brokerage Services.

“He was curious and wanted to be supportive of what we were trying to do, always asking us lots of questions,” Driscoll remembers. “On his way out that day, he said, ‘Don’t worry about it. I’m going to buy that barn.’”

Six weeks after Driscoll’s daughter was born, the family moved to the farmhouse on the property and helped oversee the construction. The school reopened in January 2009. “It was a crazy time,” she says. Fletcher, who died in 2013, remains listed as a co-founder on the school’s website.

Driscoll was born in Manassas, Va., the daughter of Dave and Jane Driscoll. In 1975, when she was a year old, IBM transferred Dave, and the family moved to Milton. Her parents divorced a few years later.

She was 8 when Jane took her to her first political event in Burlington: the 1983 victory party for newly reelected Mayor Bernie Sanders. In the late 1980s, Sanders became Carina’s stepfather.

“Growing up in the home of Jane, being influenced by her and my dad, and then growing up in the home of Jane and Bernie, you really come to believe that community is important,” she says. Then she emphasizes a piece of advice from her stepfather, Vermont’s independent congressman and now a Democratic presidential hopeful: “Work smart. Don’t overthink it. You know what you want to accomplish, so do it.”

Driscoll immersed herself in many activities as a youth, preferring solo sports like hiking and cross-country skiing that took her into nature, and graduated from Burlington High School in 1992. In 1997, she earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and sociology from the University of Montana, where she also met Ewoldsen.

After college, Driscoll worked in human resources at Burton Snowboards and then helped open the Vermont Women’s Business Center as an intern-turned-employee. Prior to her current career in woodworking, she was communications director at Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility in Burlington.

Driscoll may work in Fairfax, but she still has strong ties to Burlington, where she and Blake live. She has served on the Burlington School Board and City Council and was in the Legislature. Mayor Miro Weinberger named her assistant to the mayor, and she led the hiring processes to usher in his new administration.

“Carina has created an environment that fosters individual attention for our students to learn skills and interact with our faculty, many of whom are artisans,” says Carol Moore, president of Burlington College.

When Driscoll is not at work, she is gardening, cross-country skiing, or “building stuff with my kids.

“There may be a future where this school exists without me, but I’m happy for now,” she says, with typical aplomb. “Things are good, so there’s no point in rocking the boat.” •