Woodshop on Wheels

Stephen “Willie” Willner turned an old bus into a woodshop on wheels, where he teaches kids all over the region how to work with their hands. For more on Willie’s Woodshop, turn the page.

Woodshop on Wheels

Since 1985, Galt resident and woodworking teacher Stephen “Willie” Willner has been teaching kids how to make everything from birdhouses to bookcases. In 2010, Willner converted an old bus into a mobile woodshop. Now, under the name Willie’s Woodshop, he roams the Sacramento area, helping kids learn about woodworking at day camps, parties and other events. currents

WHAT TYPES OF PROJECTS DO YOU DO WITH THE KIDS?

At birthday parties, they pick the project, so we tend to make toys: airplanes, trains. The parks and recreation programs that I teach involve more projects, so we might build something they can use later, like a DVD rack or memo holder. I can’t get over the number of birdhouses these kids want to build. The fact they can build and decorate it however they want appeals to them.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PROJECT TO DO WITH THE KIDS YOU TEACH?

The toy train is great, because for the cars in between the engine and the caboose, kids use the letters of their first name. They get a kick out of that. The toy helicopter is also fun. It has a handle on it and the blades rotate when you squeeze the handle. It’s complicated, but when it’s completed and the kid squeezes the handle, they get excited.

WHAT GAVE YOU THE IDEA TO CONVERT A BUS INTO A MOBILE WOODWORKING SHOP?

In November 2009, there was a fire in my classroom that did about $40,000 worth of damage. I was going to have to work without a classroom, so I Googled “woodshop without a woodshop.” There was a woman in San Diego who had built a mobile woodshop, so I spoke with her. My brother said he would finance the purchase of a bus to convert into a mobile woodshop if I wrote a business plan and crunched the numbers. I found a bus in L.A. a few weeks later, so I flew down and drove it home.

DO KIDS GET NERVOUS WORKING WITH SAWS, HAMMERS AND OTHER TOOLS?

I demonstrate what to do and how to do it, then I set them up with a tool. I always ask if they are comfortable doing it, and I don’t make them do anything they are uncomfortable with.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO ENSURE SAFETY? DO YOU HAVE GOOD INSURANCE?

I have a pretty substantial liability insurance policy ($2 million). I’m very assertive when it comes to safety. It’s the No. 1 issue for me. To that end, I don’t tolerate any misbehavior, and the kids are required to wear all the equipment I provide.

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO TEACH KIDS WOODWORKING SKILLS?

Woodworking develops motor and tactile skills. It gives kids an experience they won’t get from the computer or television.

HAVE YOUR STUDENTS EVER PRESENTED YOU WITH A GIFT THEY MADE USING THE SKILLS YOU TAUGHT THEM?

Yes. I teach the kids to make a ballpoint pen using a lathe. One of my students got interested enough to have his dad buy him a lathe. He made me a pen with my name engraved on it and gave it to me.—Corinne Litchfield

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