The smell of varnish filled the woodworking room at Brainerd High School’s south campus Thursday, March 25, as ninth grade students worked on their latest project.

When the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench in Mark Erickson’s plans for his woodworking classes, he decided to improvise.

In a normal year, his students would build their own step stools from scratch, learning about each tool and process required. But with both hybrid and distance learning happening this year, Erickson’s students didn’t get as much hands-on time in the classroom as he had hoped.

“I was looking for some way for all these guys to have something productive and to walk out of here with something, and I knew our time was going to be super short,” he said.

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That’s when he turned to mass production, having students work together to make a whole load of something instead of just one product each.

Throw in the high school’s ongoing construction, and Erickson got an idea.

“There was a bunch of the old bleachers that came out of the gymnasium,” he said. “I saw those sitting there and I think, ‘Boy, maybe we can use that.’”

And they did.

Shannon Rasmussen stains a step stool Thursday, March 25, 2021, in his Brainerd High School woodworking class. The class has taken on a project to repurpose the salvaged wooden bleachers for the gymnasium and create step stools. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Shannon Rasmussen stains a step stool Thursday, March 25, 2021, in his Brainerd High School woodworking class. The class has taken on a project to repurpose the salvaged wooden bleachers for the gymnasium and create step stools. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Erickson expects his classes to produce about 150 step stools, handmade with wood from the old bleachers in the north campus gymnasium, which is undergoing renovations amid the school’s extensive remodel project.

Each student will get to take a stool home, and whatever remains will be sold to community members. Erickson said he has heard there are people in the community who would like keepsakes made out of the bleacher wood.

“They want some throwback,” he said. “Their grandparents sat on those bleachers to watch them play basketball or wrestle or volleyball or whatever. … They sit there now and watch their kids do it. So it just kind of seemed like a good fit in many ways.”

The bleachers date back to 1968, and the step stools will be branded with the dates “1968-2020” and attributed to the BHS woodworking class.

The step stools, which have been inspected and cleared for sale, are stacked in the woodworking room Thursday, March 25, 2021, at the Brainerd South Campus. Repurposed from the lumber of the  salvaged high school beaches, they will be sold later this year. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
The step stools, which have been inspected and cleared for sale, are stacked in the woodworking room Thursday, March 25, 2021, at the Brainerd South Campus. Repurposed from the lumber of the salvaged high school beaches, they will be sold later this year. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Erickson isn’t sure how many will be left over, maybe 20-60, but he does know he would like to donate whatever money is made to a local charity or nonprofit, like a community food shelf or the Warrior Warehouse Food Pantry at the high school. Wherever the money goes, Erickson envisions using the blueprint plotter in the school’s engineering lab to print out a giant check to present to the recipient.

Students seemed to be keen on the project idea.

“It was a really good idea because they were just going to throw them out otherwise, so we didn’t really have another use for them,” ninth grade student Emma Fischer said. “So the fact that we could make them into some kind of venture that was usable and could actually be sold, and the money could be used for the community, I thought it was just overall a really good idea.”

Classmate Joseph Caughey added the stools were a fun project to work on.

Joking there is more wood than he could use up before retirement, Erickson said he may have his woodworking students do a different project with the bleacher wood in future years.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.