From classics to carpentry

Latin teacher Tom Herpel’s lessons from lumber


Abby Herpel

Latin teacher Tom Herpel prepares to cut a piece of wood with his table saw. He has enjoyed woodworking for several years now because of the creativity it requires. “With woodworking, I like that you can think of anything and make it a reality, especially if you have the right tools,” Herpel said.

Getting a driver’s license is one of the most exciting moments for a teen. The possibilities are endless with the keys to freedom and the family car. However, one of the most important indicators of independence is signing the lease to your first house. These keys unlock a plethora of responsibilities: something Latin teacher Tom Herpel learned several years ago.

When Herpel bought his first house, he realized there was much to be done. So he started developing his woodworking skills as a cost-effective way to do repairs. At first, he made several everyday objects to turn the house into a home. 

“There was so much stuff that needed to be fixed. When I was in my apartment I didn’t have a garage to work with wood,” Herpel said. “For my house, the first thing I made was a wooden bench. Then after that, it was just little things. I made a few wood boxes, and then I built my children’s furniture. Not the crib, but things like the changing table, bookshelves and the lampstand.”

Herpel turned to the internet and magazines to learn more about the craft. He has found woodworking magazines especially helpful and exciting, with ideas for future projects to fill the house with. He also fields requests from friends and family.

“I sound like such an old fart, but [woodworking magazines] have a lot of cool tips and details on how to build things. They also show all these cool things that really good artisan carpenters make. I would love to make some of those things. My kids also want me to build them a treehouse. For my sister’s wedding, I made a box for guests to slot their names in. The finished product made a heart and was pretty cool,” Herpel said.

Herpel’s daughters, Maisie and Lila, climb up their homemade climbing wall. He started and completed the wall during the summer. “Maisie and Lila would take turns climbing up and down, pre-assigning colors they could grab onto and the colors they had to avoid,” Herpel said.

When Herpel got power tools to help with his projects, woodworking progressed from something done out of necessity to a mental escape.

“I like the idea that tools give me so many ways to do the same thing,” Herpel said. “For instance, I’m making a wooden box out of a block of wood. There are so many different ways you can hollow out the wood, depending on what tools you have. I’ve gone through test scraps and tried two or three different ways to do it. The problem-solving process and trial-and-error make it much more rewarding when you finish the actual product.”

According to Herpel, one aspect of problem-solving is creativity and flexibility. For example, when the Parkway administration banned extra furniture in classrooms, Herpel repurposed a former classroom couch, which he built himself. This decision was shaped by the exponential increase in lumber prices due to COVID-era supply chains.

“The wooden couch in my room became a cash cow of material,” Herpel said. “After taking the couch apart in my classroom [because] it wouldn’t fit through the door and transporting the wood home, I built a climbing wall for a hillside in [my] backyard. My kids absolutely loved it.”

Through critical thinking, Herpel feels he has developed more patience. For example, he recalls one project, a wooden matrix, that he wanted to decorate one of his kids’ rooms. The product was different from what he had built prior and called for trial-and-error.

A matrix hangs in Herpel’s younger daughter Maisie’s room. Herpel had the most difficulty cutting the matrix rather than the letters, as the vertical and horizontal pieces of wood required several dado cuts. “My first and second trials ended in ill-fitting joints or breaking wood out of sheer frustration. Eventually, I [found] an effective solution, and everything fell into place. Making the letter matrix illustrated the importance of practicing specific joint work with scrap wood before using the final material. It’s saved me a lot of headaches and a lot of money in lumber,” Herpel said.
“When I was building the matrix, I broke a piece of wood on accident at least twice because of the pressure and not coming in correctly. A number of expletives flew from that. I’ve screwed up a lot of other projects when I was in the middle of them too. Now, I feel like my first instinct is not to be angry and to think about what steps I might have skipped. How can I fix it? If I screw up, it’s not the end of the world. It’s about having a growth mindset,” Herpel said.

Herpel has invested in extra safety measures to counter the risks of the machinery. For example, to protect himself when cutting wood, Herpel uses a SawStop, a special table saw that brakes when it senses skin contact. He was urged to get one by his wife and father-in-law, who know people that have gotten severe injuries doing woodwork.

“My wife is a nurse anesthetist– her dad was one too. He used to tell stories about doctors at his workplace that were trying to build stuff and then cut off their fingers– and there goes their profession. So, both her and her dad convinced me to get a SawStop. It’s saved my finger. Once, I was sawing a piece of wood, hit a knot [in the wood], and the wood turned sideways, so my hand went straight toward the saw. I didn’t even have a cut on my finger, but it would have cut my finger square off [without the SawStop],” Herpel said.

As Herpel continues to hone his technical skills and challenge himself, he hopes to learn enough about woodwork to make a desk from a tree he cuts down himself.

“During my first year teaching, the icebreaker I had for my class was ‘what’s on your bucket list?’ The first thing on my list was to cut down a tree, dry out the wood, slice the wood into boards and turn it into a desk. Realistically, I don’t even know how to do that. Drying slabs of wood requires a certain humidity [to avoid cracks and warping]. I would probably cut down a tree and throw it in my garage. And I don’t think that’s the right thing to do. But that’s my dream,” Herpel said.

Herpel secures a piece of wood as his daughter, Lila, operates the drill press. Seeing her dad make projects firsthand excited her to help out in the workshop. “The drill press and dry vacuum are currently her favorite items to use. My dad recently purchased her a set of wood pieces, tools and directions to create small kid-friendly projects. While she enjoys building things, I think she wishes glue and paint would dry way faster. At the moment, she enjoys doing what I’m doing, but hopefully, her creativity will lead her down her path,” Herpel said.