Wood Finishing Program Brings 5 Grads Together

Chemistry: the chemical composition and properties of a substance or body – and the most critical component of nearly everything that comes out of the Dakota County Technical College (DCTC) National Institute of Wood Finishing.

“What we do in my classroom is chemistry combined with art,” says DCTC Wood Finishing Instructor Mitch Kohanek. “My job is to help educate students on the intricate nature of using chemistry to create colors through layering and artistry and create a visual presentation for anyone looking at a finished piece of wood.”

David Smith with DCTC Wood Finishing Instructor, Mitch Kohanek

DCTC’s Wood Finishing program focuses on three primary avenues. They include the finishing of new wood, repair and restoration – all of which demand an extensive knowledge of color. In Mitch’s classes, students spend a significant amount of time on color theory and the chemistry of creating colors for new wood or to match an existing finish.

“Let’s say you get a new piece of furniture and it winds up scratched. You are going to want that scratch fixed. My students spend their time learning the precise chemistry of creating colors so that in a situation like that, the customer gets back a piece of furniture that looks as though it was never damaged.”

While any of Mitch’s students will tell you they learn plenty about the chemistry and technical skills needed to become wood finishers, there is another type of chemistry in which Mitch has an interest. The chemistry of people.

“People get confused when they ask me what I teach because I tell them I teach people. Yes, I use the art of wood finishing as a vehicle for that, but my passion is really helping people grow, learn and work together.”

The evidence of Mitch’s ability to bring people together through learning can be found many places, but it is perhaps most obvious by taking a visit to Fresh Air Finishers.

Fresh Air Finishers

From left to right, Rodney Youngquist, David Smith, Rick Bean, Ben Myre, Dave Gunderson

Fresh Air Finishers is a business comprised of five of Mitch’s former students. Dave Gunderson and David Smith are the owners, and Rick Bean, Ben Myre and Rodney Youngquist serve as their team of craftsman – even Mitch is in the picture serving as a consultant. It is located in St. Paul and specializes in the restoration of historic interior woodwork and wood finishes using environmentally and human-friendly products.

While these men all went through the DCTC Wood Finishing program, what makes their tale particularly unique is that they all completed the program at different times. Instead of a shared classroom, it was the camaraderie that Mitch instills in his students that brought them together.

Smith was the first of the five men to complete the DCTC Wood Finishing program. He enrolled in the early 90s after getting a referral from Woodcraft in Bloomington. After he graduated, he went right into the refinishing business.

“Word got out quickly that I could do touch-up and repair work,” said Smith. “I was able to start hiring other graduates from Mitch’s program as sub-contractors to help me out, which kept me connected to both Mitch and the program.”

During that time, Smith was called upon to refinish the coating on a very expensive, one-of-a-kind exotic veneer that was on every hallway panel and desk on an entire floor of an office building (see the full story on the National Institute of Wood Finishing site here). The project took three years and gained Smith a significant amount of industry attention – along with a job offer in Maryland.

Smith chose to take the job offer in Maryland and put his business on hold. While Smith was gone, he rented his space to Gunderson, a 1999 graduate of the Wood Finishing program, and Gunderson hired 2003 DCTC Wood Finishing graduate Youngquist as a subcontractor. Youngquist, who had spent most of his career as a data processing professional, went through the Wood Finishing program after a post-9/11 layoff.

“I have always had the heart of an artist. After I was laid off, I was at a presentation hosted by the Minnesota Woodworkers Guild. Mitch was the presenter and at the end of his talk, he said that people who went through his program had to have the heart of an artist. I raised my hand because I knew that the Wood Finishing was what I was looking for. I have been doing what I am passionate about ever since.”

One of the Union Depot cabinets during restoration

Gunderson and Youngquist worked together through sub-contracting for several years before Smith returned to Minnesota in 2006. The three men continued to work on their own ventures for the next two years, but Smith and Gunderson soon decided it was time to formalize a business partnership.

“Trying to take on larger projects as sole proprietors was difficult. We knew that if we incorporated and created a team of refinishers, we could tackle bigger projects,” said Gunderson. “Plus, we had spent so many years working together that we knew we would be able to put together a strong team of craftsman.”

Smith and Gunderson founded the company in late 2008, with Youngquist, Bean  (a 2001 graduate of the DCTC Wood Finishing program), and Myre (a 2008 graduate), being hired shortly thereafter.

Over the nearly five years the team has been in business, they have completed a variety of projects for commercial and historic spaces throughout Minnesota, the country and the world.

“A good example of the types of projects we do is the work we recently completed for a Store Fixture manufacturer that builds cabinetry for Louis Vuitton stores,” said Smith. “They sent us a sample from Europe they needed matched for wood panels that already existed in their stores. We took the sample, created a match and now there are four Louis Vuitton stores with panels we helped create.”

Smith also noted that the basic chemistry and color work taught by Mitch in DCTC’s Wood Finishing program is the foundation of nearly all the work they do.

“It really all comes back to being able to understand how to layer and apply color. We use the fundamentals that Mitch taught us every day.”

Union Depot doors before restoration…

One of the most recent and largest projects Fresh Air Finishers completed was a major refinishing and restoration job for the St. Paul Union Depot, which is set to reopen in December 2012. Fresh Air Finisherswas approached to refinish all the front entry doors in the space, along with 16 historic cabinets that were built and finished in the early 1900s when Union Depot was constructed.

…and after

The unique cabinets are constructed of quarter-sawn white oak and were originally used to display placards announcing destination information, a clock with hands the depot employees would adjust to announce arrival and departure times and a light alerting patrons to trains coming and going. They also doubled as housing for two large radiators, which is why they feature metal grates on the side, have an open top for ductwork and were lined with eelgrass – a common form of insulation during that time period.

In keeping with their original purpose, the Union Depot development team had wanted to refinish the cabinets and hang flat screen televisions on them that would provide Union Depot patrons with information, but the team at Fresh Air Finishers had a better idea regarding the restoration of the cabinets.

“We were initially asked to refinish the cabinets, but it didn’t take us long to realize they had the original finish on them,” said Bean. “We wanted to preserve that original work, so we wrote a quote to restore the existing finish.”

Myre noted that they had originally considered completing the restoration of the cabinets on-site, but the construction dust simply wouldn’t allow for it. Instead, the team had to move the bulky, nine-foot wood structures to their space at Fresh Air Finishers.

“The cabinets got moved on the hottest day of the year and we had to find a truck that could move them. We ended up creating special carts to transport them so they wouldn’t get damaged. It took eight trips to get them all to our shop,” said Myre.

It took 18 months for the men to complete Union Depot project, and it is clear watching them walk through the space that they have pride in their work and deep respect for one another.

The beautifully restored cabinets at Union Depot

“After this much time on a project, the cabinets have become sort of like our babies,” said Gunderson as he and Smith worked together to carefully brush dust from one of the Union Depot cabinets

for a photo.

When pressed about what makes them function well as a business team, the group joked, “iPhones!,” but then quickly credited their experience in DCTC’s Wood Finishing program.

“The nucleus of what we are doing and who we are lies in the fact we are passionate about wood finishing. We share the skills, knowledge and mentorship experience that Mitch and DCTC’s Wood Finishing program provided us,” said Bean.

Myre added, “We all speak the same wood finishing language.”

With the Union Depot project now behind them, the men hope to continue to expand Fresh Air Finishers by doing the same type of work, but taking on bigger jobs and slowly adding more employees.

And with the chemistry these men have in skill and share in personality, there is no question they will.

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