For the past seven years, an Australian carpentry instructor has been teaching students at Holland College in Charlottetown how to make a hand tool out of eucalyptus wood.
Usually, Robert Brodie gives the lesson virtually, via videoconference.
But this month he was at Holland College in person, a trip that was canceled in March 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The relationship began in 2014, when Brodie traveled to Prince Edward Island on an international scholarship funded by the Australian government to study carpentry training in North America.
Since then, Brodie has done a virtual project with the students every year, building an Australian wooden block plane.
“We do it via the internet, so the whole COVID and Zoom thing, we’ve been doing it longer than anybody,” said Brodie, who teaches at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia.
“I send the wood from Australia here, and via video conference we complete the project over several weeks, connecting very late at night, very early in the morning.”
“object of beauty”
The wood is eucalyptus, mostly 40- and 50-year-old fence posts that Brodie salvaged.
He sends a box to Holland College’s Josh Silver, apprenticeship manager for the heritage carpentry renovation program, for the project each year.
“I originally made one for Josh as a gift for welcoming me the first time, and then we decided to do it with the students,” Brodie said.
“I had done it with my own students at Swinburne in their last week of trade school. So I just thought it was a good idea, and he loved it, and we ran with it.”
The plane, Brodie said, is used for smoothing wood, and the one the students are building is high quality and quite expensive in Australia.
“A hand plane is, in essence, the symbol used for carpentry, and I think it’s an object of beauty,” Brodie said.
“It’s a working tool, and you can have it forever. I’ve had this one for 20 years and it looks brand new. And I have one my grandfather had, and he would have 100-something years if he was still here. So it will last forever.”
Brodie said that although the two colleges are halfway around the world, the carpentry programs have a lot in common.
“As Josh always says, if you put your finger on Prince Edward Island and Melbourne, Australia, we’re on exactly opposite ends of the globe,” Brodie said.
We try to teach the same things, the same values and the same pride in your work.— Robert Brodie, Swinburne University of Technology, Australia
“But what I’ve learned is that the issues and challenges we have in Australia are very similar to those we have here.
“There are obvious differences with the training system, but essentially we face the same challenges, and we try to teach the same things, the same values and the same pride in your work.”
Silver said the partnership has been valuable in many ways.
“Robert sends us what we think is very exotic wood – it’s eucalyptus. So the wood itself is very unique, very valuable to us,” Silver said.
“Then we take it, and use these rough pieces that it gives us, and make a nice plane block out of it.”
Silver said he also enjoys the symbolism of the block plane.
“While our program is about saving homes and saving our built heritage, this block plane is kind of a metaphor for that,” Silver said.
“We’re looking at a block plane that I can get at a hardware store for $20, when it gets boring I’d be sorely tempted to throw it in the trash and buy a new one.”
“Where it’s done with care, love, technique and skill. The students put their all into it and come out with a piece that’s not just functional, but almost a work of art, a museum piece,” said Silver.
It is this wonderful memory that Robert is able to give us, but we can also use it as a metaphor to show where we are going as a society.– Josh Silver, Holland College Heritage Woodworking Renovation Program
“Students will then take care of this tool for the rest of their career, and this tool that they will take care of will earn them money. They can make a living with it, and when they are done with their career, they can pass this aircraft on to the next generation.”
Instructors said there are plans to increase the number of programs at Holland College by partnering with connections Down Under.
“We are in a time where many countries are hurting each other,” Silver said.
“So if we can get two countries to work together and spread some love and education, I think that’s great.”
“We have already linked up with other trades and other managers to connect with some people in Australia and become more collegial,” Brodie said.
“It originally started as a journey for me, to try to raise the standards of our training in Australia. Since then, it’s become much more.”