Students Learn to Build Shaker Boxes, and Much More

Each semester, Rev. Bob Ives offers a Shaker box class at Bowdoin, teaching students how to craft small oval boxes out of delicate cherry wood. In the process, the students learn how to use planes, chisels and small power tools.

Yet the workshop is more than a carpentry class; it is also a chance for students to learn about the Shaker faith, and even to practice some of the tenets of the religion, such as simplicity and conscientiousness. “I love to build these kinds of boxes,” Ives said, “because they are so simple and they are so beautiful and they remind us of the simple principles of life, like kindness, and loving one another, and forgiveness.”

The popular workshop, which takes place on the second floor of the campus Craft Center, is free to students, staff and faculty, but is limited to five or six people at a time. The six-hour class is spaced over three evenings in a three-week period.

Ives is Bowdoin’s director of religious and spiritual life. Prior to coming to the college, he ran the Carpenter’s Boat Shop in Pemaquid, Maine, an organization he founded in 1979 with his late wife, Ruth. The Boat Shop welcomes people transitioning from colleges into new careers, jobs or retirement, or who are just seeking change in their lives. The Boat Shop teaches its residents boatbuilding and carpentry, as well as less tangible skills, such as how to thrive in a community.

“What I have learned about boatbuilding, or any type of woodworking, is that as you are very careful about your work, you become more caring as a human being,” Ives said. “It just holds true over and over again.”

As he shows students the process of making the oval boxes or helps them with their creations, Ives likes to talk about the Shakers. He describes their kindness and gentleness, their self-sufficiency, carefulness and inventiveness. The Shakers developed many useful objects — e.g., the flat broom, the table saw, the first waterproof material and wooden clothes pegs. But they patented nothing. “They wanted to share anything they had with the world,” Ives said.

The video depicts two groups: the 2014 fall semester class and 2015 spring semester class.

“What I love so much about the class…the wonderful thing is you not only build boxes, you build community,” Ives said. “And that is such a joy to me.”

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