There aren’t many places where you find high schoolers and college students building a boat together. But at the Wood Technology Center at Seattle Central College, that sort of thing is pretty common. 

Boats of all shapes and sizes are scattered throughout the community college’s carpentry workshop, and if not for the sketches nearby, the untrained eye might not know the frame sitting in the corner was on its way to becoming one too. Kathleen Lothrop is one of several adults here working with small teams of students to put it together on a warm August morning, doing things like routing boards and lofting the sides of the future watercraft. 

They’re working on the build for Sawhorse Revolution, a local nonprofit that works with youth on carpentry projects.

And if not for Wood Tech, this group wouldn’t be here. 

Lothrop, a student at the center, is one of the many mentors working with Sawhorse. In fact, most of Sawhorse’s volunteer staff are Wood Tech graduates or current students.

Sarah Smith, the executive director of Sawhorse, says the organization has had a long-standing partnership with Wood Tech, recruiting mentors for some of the highest-needs programs that happen during school hours. Without Wood Tech, her job — coordinating carpentry projects for the youth and other organizations her group serves — would be much more difficult.


“It’s such a valuable resource to open up to the community,” she said. “To actually extend that to the Seattle high school community so generously helps us immensely … it’s a real testament to what this institution is and can be.”

The resources from Wood Tech have a broad reach. Sawhorse’s projects support other community organizations, like Heron’s Nest and Estelita’s Library. Eventually the skeleton of wood held together with fasteners, screws and epoxy here will become a skiff used for river cleanup around the Duwamish River. During the school year, projects completed by Wood Tech students are often donated to other local groups too.

But despite its beloved status, Wood Tech’s future remains in doubt. 

Earlier this summer, a Seattle Community Colleges district budget crisis nearly led to the closure of the center, the programs it houses and three other popular trades and technical divisions at the school. The college has committed to keeping them open for now, but folks are still uneasy.

Smith said she’s appalled that closing Wood Tech was ever an option. Not just because of its programs, but because the space itself is a community hub that acts as a visual representation of Washington’s deep lumber-industry roots. At every turn there are specialized workshops that smell of freshly cut lumber, classrooms filled with materials to showcase skills needed for building complex structures and equipment optimized for all sorts of training directly tied to job opportunities in woodworking. 

It even has a small library filled with old books and magazines to spur design ideas or guide students learning how to research building codes — some of which are no longer printed, making them increasingly rare. 


Smith was “flabbergasted” when she heard the center could close. “I felt that it was just so shortsighted … just an extreme lack of vision to imagine closing this place which has so much potential and so many connections to the community,” she said. 

Seattle Central’s interim president, Bradley Lane, said data on Wood Tech paints a difficult picture: slowing enrollment, students leaving early to take jobs, and ongoing technology and material costs as financial difficulties spurred by enrollment declines grow more dire for community colleges everywhere. 

“There is a need we see for construction graduates and for trades education … but what we have to do is to find a way to provide it in an increasingly difficult resource environment,” he said. 

The pandemic only made the problem more difficult to solve. According to the college, Wood Tech’s budget during the 2020-21 school year was about $1.3 million, while revenue from student tuition, state funding, and grants reached just around $678,000. 

But much of the frustration shared by Smith and others began well before this year’s public conversations about funding.

In the past decade, change has swept through nearly every corner of the center’s classrooms and the sawdust-coated workshops it houses. It’s home to Seattle Central’s carpentry and boatbuilding programs, as well as a cabinetry program that the school shut down earlier this year. 


Catie Chaplan, a former carpentry student and longtime instructor, said the frustration essentially boils down to dwindling resources and to changes made by administrators who have long since left the Seattle Colleges system. 

“We used to have a lot more local control,” Chaplan said, over things like registration and financial aid. “A lot of our resources have been redirected.”

Students feel it too. Lothrop likens being a student there to joining a friend group that wants you around, but already has endless inside jokes you missed out on. “It’s like every day in class there’s a story about how it used to be stronger, better and cooler and you used to have more access to X, Y and Z, and then today you just don’t,” she said.

Lothrop says she and others have had to buy their own tools before knowing how to use them. 

Chaplan calls it heartbreaking, seeing the cabinetry program’s specialized equipment being slowly dismantled as the massive room it operated in is used for storage.  

The Wood Technology Center as it stands today is the latest chapter of a nearly centurylong history of boatbuilder and carpenter training in Seattle. Just behind the massive wooden doors at the main entrance, its story is written on the walls — literally. Photos of the old structures that first housed the boatbuilding classes in 1917 and the carpentry and cabinetry programs that started in the 1940s give visitors a chance to see where it all began, well before Seattle Central College was founded in the 1960s.


After Seattle Central College absorbed the carpentry and cabinetry programs, it moved the boat shop from where it had operated on the northern edge of Lake Union for 30 years so that all three programs were in the same location. In the 1990s, the building was renamed the Wood Construction Center; 12 years later it became the Wood Technology Center. The current building opened in 2012, after a $25 million investment from the college.

And throughout that history, instructors like Dave Borgatti and Chaplan have facilitated learning experiences that go far beyond cutting wood and hammering nails. Borgatti recently retired after 30 years. “We aren’t training specialists, we’re training problem solvers,” he said. 

The students are a mix: young, old, first-time collegegoers, some who have tried other college tracks, and those who already have degrees. Lothrop worked on commercial fishing boats before enrolling. Another graduate was a retired surgeon; another was severely dyslexic and couldn’t read, but outshone his peers when crafting from a set of sketched plans.

“The man could build,” Lothrop said. 

Smith, Borgatti and Chaplan say the center offers vital opportunities to diversify the field of woodworkers, and to do so safely. It’s one of the few spaces for women, LGBTQ+ folks, and Black, Indigenous, and other people of color to learn essential carpentry and woodworking skills in an environment that’s designed for learning. It’s already difficult to train on the job when workers must adhere to a specific schedule, and even more so if people face racism or sexism on job sites — which isn’t unusual, Smith said. 

“Through the Wood Tech Center we were able to connect with a number of extremely talented women builders, and that is something that you can’t — sadly — get by cold-calling a carpentry organization,” Smith said. 

Overall, demand for carpenters and woodworkers is far outpacing the supply as people in the industry retire, said Joe Reed, owner of a home remodeling company in Mill Creek. 


Reed said he’s been hard-pressed to find skilled workers in recent years, which has caused project delays and forced him to think more seriously about how to train workers. Even though he and his business partner are trying to close the gaps, he said it’s vital for formal programs — like those at Wood Tech — to expand, because not everyone wants to spend time educating people on the job.

“Just because we’re open to the training doesn’t mean that everybody wants to become a teacher,” he said. 

Phil Mumaw is a Wood Tech alum who started working for Reed part time while he was still a student. Within a year he was a project lead. But, Mumaw said, the value of Wood Tech went far beyond woodworking — it was about the people and the community built by instructors and among students across programs. 

“Having that camaraderie and support system was huge,” he said. 

Even with the positives touted by community groups, students, faculty and industry, school administrators at Seattle Central say the data for Wood Tech’s programs point to a need for changing the way it operates. 

It’s unlikely the center will ever return to the way things were a decade ago. Many worry that, ultimately, Wood Tech will close, but Lane said the support for the center — and the other trades programs on the table during this year’s budget conversations — is a promising sign. 


Lawmakers, college officials and industry leaders are taking a closer look at how to keep Wood Tech and the other three technical divisions’ programs operating. Ultimately they’ll make recommendations for the Legislature to act on during the next session, largely focused on funding. 

Funding is a first step, Lane said, and rethinking the design of some offerings through the center is another. “We maybe look at different lengths of programs, we maybe look at different models that might be more apprenticeship-oriented — I think we have to find ways of keeping students engaged and completing.”

Still, Chaplan and Borgatti worry about the transparency and accountability of any lasting decisions. Frequent turnover among high-level college administrators has contributed to what they say are opaque decision-making processes, leaving others feeling like they’re fighting an uphill battle. 

Borgatti also takes issue with the college’s enrollment figures for the center — he calls them erroneous. He also says the data used to evaluate the center’s graduates doesn’t capture the impact they make on the industry. The now-shuttered cabinetry program, for example, provided students with skills they could use in fields other than cabinetmaking, Borgatti said. Gauging its success by the number of students who become cabinetmakers ignores the complexity of the woodworking industry and the wide range of skills they gain. 

“They don’t recognize that when you come out of here, you’re going to go where the paycheck is,” he said. “The skills are quite transferable.”

Ultimately, Lane said, in his role as interim president, he can’t control the decisions. “What I can control is the level of surprise and suddenness of a decision,” he said. 

So as students, alumni and faculty wait for those decisions, they’ll keep doing what they can to ensure the legacy of carpenters and boat-builders past carries on in some form, at least for now.