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Students who find their way to the Wood Technology Center at Seattle Central Community College often travel a wandering path before arriving at its doors.

Allison Barrett got there by way of the sea. Tim Demuth arrived after spending 11 years as a bartender. Jo Hofmann had first spent years as a physician for the state health department.

The old-world craftsmanship and meticulous attention to detail often attract a diverse student body, many of whom are making a dramatic switch in careers.

For years, the wood program was housed in an aging building in the Central Area. A few years ago, Seattle Central spent $25 million to rebuild it at the same location. The new center opened late last year and will be formally dedicated at a ceremony Thursday evening.

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The new building has workshops that cover many modern aspects of building with wood, as well as a computer lab and other precision tools now used by high-end carpentry shops. The facility serves about 200 students now, but the school expects an uptick as the economy improves and the home-construction industry becomes more robust.

“The last couple of years have been horrible,” said Paul Weiss, a tool specialist and faculty member at the center. Now, the phones are starting to ring for residential carpenters — and to a lesser extent for boatbuilders and cabinet makers.

The average age of a student in the wood-tech program is about 37 — 10 years older than the average student at the Seattle Central campus — and a high percentage already have a degree.

The center teaches boatbuilding, cabinetry and carpentry, and “There’s no place in the country where you’ll find all these trades in one building,” Weiss said.

It turns out the skills are interchangeable. “What we try to graduate are really, really good woodworkers who happen to specialize in boats and cabinets,” he said.

Demuth is one of those people. Demuth will finish the program in marine carpentry this year after first starting in the cabinetry program. Boatbuilding attracted him because of the demands of the trade.

“If you think about working on a big ship, people’s lives depend on that,” said Demuth, 32. “It’s a very high level of craftsmanship.”

Students in the marine-carpentry program learn how to mold boats out of fiberglass, and also to build and repair wooden boats.

Recently, the center acquired a 28-foot cruiser — a wooden boat built on Lake Union in the late 1920s — which is no longer seaworthy. For many years to come, students will rebuild the boat over and over, each time learning how to make repairs, restore areas that have rotted and remodel the interior, Weiss said.

In the carpentry workshop, students learn basic carpentry skills, and they’re now taking the lumber from spruce trees cut down in an Issaquah park and turning them into picnic tables for that park. Many of the projects have a community-service aspect — if the community supplies the materials, the Wood Technology Center supplies the labor.

Barrett, 27, joined the carpentry program after spending eight years in commercial fishing while also working on her undergraduate degree at the University of Washington. She hopes to find a job in a small residential-construction company, where she can work on different aspects of the building process.

“With this general skill base, and knowledge of tools and techniques, I can approach other mediums, and that’s been a pleasant surprise,” she said.

One of the carpentry instructors is Frank Mestemacher,
who has a master’s in fine arts, in sculpture. He urges his students to truly study the way things are put together, to be meticulous in their craft and to never choose the easy way to build an object. “We are constantly talking about what is the difference between a good job and a bad job,” he said.

Hofmann, 58, the physician turned cabinetmaker, says she’s been impressed with the people who teach in the program.

“They’re just really amazing teachers — they’re very enthusiastic,” she said. “It’s nice to be in an atmosphere where everybody wants to learn, and they’re really into what they’re doing.”

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or On Twitter @katherinelong.

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