Two weeks ago, I walked into Russ Fisk’s wood shop class at Hamilton High School. There was a fine mist of sawdust hanging in the room that permeated my nose with a fresh woody smell. The room was abuzz with the sound of machinery. Sanders, planers, drills and saws were all being operated by students with the focus you would expect from a seasoned surgeon.

Russ Fisk, the third-year shop teacher, greeted me.

“Let me show you the progress we have made,” he said.

The progress he was referring to was a community enhancement project for Sapphire Lutheran Homes. The top level woods class, known as Cabinet Making, was building four sturdy puzzle tables for the campus of Sapphire Lutheran Homes.

“We’ve got the top finished and we’re working on the skirt and legs,” continued Fisk.

Senior Ben Thomas was busy sanding the table legs. Constructed from 4-by-4-foot lumber, he tapered the legs to give them an appealing shape. Thomas, who plans to attend college for welding and machining, feels good to help on this project.

“I am always interested in helping people out and this is a good opportunity to use what I know for a good cause,” said Thomas. “I’ve been in woods since I was a freshman and this has always been something I enjoy.”

Using a pocket-hole jig to drill holes, Kameron Kohn takes a break to talk about the project.

“This is a good project to do. It’s important to help our community and its senior citizens,” he said.

Kohn, who is a high school senior, has also been working in woods since his freshman year. “I plan to attend MSU where I will pursue biotechnology.”

Kohn returned to drilling his pilot holes.

I approached Fisk and asked him if it was common to do community projects like this one. Before he could answer, a student called out from across the expansive wood shop. “Mr. Fisk, the planer’s jammed!”

Fisk briskly crossed the room to respond to the situation. He quickly determined what the problem was and clearly explained to the students why the machine jammed. A knot had broken loose from the material while it was in the planer. Fisk showed the students how to safely clear the machine and turned back to me.

“We do small community projects like fixing desks or cabinets that break. This is our biggest project so far. This project is neat too because it teaches students responsibility. It is designed to be completed in stations. Each student is responsible for one section of the project. If they make a mistake it slows the project down because everything follows in line,” the teacher explained.

Irene Libick knows about things following in line and pieces coming together, she works jigsaw puzzles.

Libick, who has lived at Canyon View apartments at Sapphire Lutheran Homes for 10 years, was working a large puzzle this morning. I sat down with her at the folding table that held the puzzle. The puzzle was entitled “The Seasons.” It had four panels displaying the four seasons. In each panel a pair of seasonal birds appeared as the main attraction.

Libick used to do puzzles in her apartment until about three years ago. “One day I just decided to bring my puzzles out into the community room to share them and we have been doing that ever since.” Her biggest challenge to working the puzzles on the folding table is that she bangs her knees on the table legs. Smiling she said, “I have given myself some colorful bruises on this table.

“When we have yard sales, conventions and pot lucks, we have to clear off the puzzle to use the folding table for those events. Our new puzzle table will eliminate all of that.” I asked her how many puzzles they have. “Oh, my stars!” She leapt up and opened a large cabinet brimming with puzzles. “We have all of these and a lot more upstairs. Though we do have a lot we are always looking for more. We love getting new puzzles – we love the challenges that new puzzles bring!”

I asked Libick how many people worked the puzzles. “We have about five puzzle devotees but many onlookers and passersby. Cole helps us out all of the time. We will get stuck with the border or our pieces are overlapping and Cole comes along and figures it out every time. He’s really good at puzzles.”

Libick is referring to Cole Harden. Harden, executive director of Sapphire Lutheran Homes, told me that two years ago it was brought to his attention that the campus was in need of puzzle tables. “We have been trying to find a way to get some tables and we’re glad it’s finally happening. We are always looking for ways to build faithful and active community partnerships and this project is a perfect example of what can be done when we work together. These tables will provide many benefits for our residents. They provide a perfect gathering place for social interaction; provide a meaningful way to spend some time and an opportunity for brain exercise. These tables will also be nice, aesthetic pieces of furniture to enhance our buildings.”

Barbara Kline, who has lived at Canyon View for seven years, knows something about social interaction around the puzzle tables. She told me about it as we enjoyed a cup of coffee in her apartment. “Some people just come out and visit. It gets people out of their apartments. A lot of people look at the puzzles and will stop and help. People who deliver meals, pharmaceutical deliverers, family members and Sapphire staff all stop and look at the progress and try to do a piece or two themselves.”

When asked how long she’d been working puzzles, Kline responded, “I’ve been working the puzzles for two years now. I never thought I would sit there and do that but one day I just tried putting some pieces together and I haven’t stopped since. I never thought I would like to sit still like that but it is very relaxing. Plus, I like the company.” She reiterated the challenge of working puzzles on the folding table was banging your legs. “Irene got some bad bruises from that table and with that folding table it’s hard to get close to the puzzle if you’re sitting on the end. The new table will also be bigger and be able to hold larger puzzles.”

When the table was delivered Thursday afternoon, “The Seasons” was complete and it now graces the smooth top of the new puzzle table. Students, teacher, residents and staff gathered around admiring the students’ handiwork. “Thank yous” were given and received and now this sturdy new table will offer years of pleasure to the puzzle builders. Beamed Libick, “This smooth lip will keep the pieces from falling on the floor! This is just what we needed!”

Along with the table for Canyon View, the Hamilton High School Cabinet Making class will build tables for Sapphire Lutheran Homes, The Manor and The Remington.

Dominic Farrenkopf is activities director at Sapphire Lutheran Homes in Hamilton. He can be reached by email at DFarrenkopf@sapphirelutheran.org.