AT DANIEL O'CONNELL'S ninth birthday celebration, there is the sound of hammers and saws and the smell of milled wood in the air. The Bethesda native is not having a party on a construction site but at KidShop, the only area commercial wood shop geared specifically to children.
Nestled in the District's Takoma Park neighborhood, a stone's throw from the Maryland border, KidShop offers a wide variety of woodworking classes, workshops and birthday party options for children age 4 and up. All classes are held inside the inviting, brightly painted wood shop, where there is ample room for the 16 children who have come ready to hammer, saw, drill, plane and sand.
The brainchild of Takoma Park's Larry Gold and his wife, Linda Kahn, KidShop has been teaching basic carpentry skills to children for almost five years. Each workshop session runs two hours (a little shorter for groups under age 6) and is project-based: Children always leave having made something with their own hands. Popular projects include wooden airplanes, treasure boxes, jewelry trees, desk organizers and beanbag doll furniture. The sessions range in cost from $17 to $26, with all materials included. For children age 6 and up, a parent need not be present -- though parents may want to stick around when they see how exciting the wood-shop experience can be.
For Daniel's birthday party, the children are making wooden boats, complete with two-tiered decks and smoke stacks. Gold, who is called Larry by the kids, runs each session. He begins with a safety lesson that stresses respect for the tools and their proper handling. "Remember, we always walk in the shop," says Gold, as he hands out the chunky blocks of wood that will later be sawed in half and transformed into ship's decks. "Can we build any kind of boat we want?" asks one excited child. Gold responds that there are no limits to creativity here, children can build tankers, freighters, aircraft carriers, any kind of seafaring vessel they can dream up. Yes, he says, answering another query, even a nuclear submarine.
A former litigator, Gold gave up a career at a downtown D.C. law practice to pursue his dream of opening a wood shop for children: KidShop brings together his desire to teach and his love of woodworking.
In the shop, Gold has paid careful attention to the kinds of details that make a place child-friendly. The workbenches are scaled-down versions of their adult counterparts: They are only 29 inches high and are outfitted with special customized stools -- the KidShop "Cool Stool" -- designed by Gold. The chairs, modified stepladders with seats, have rungs so children can easily climb them. Children can also step up on the stools, to work on their projects from above, a vantage point not easily available when using adult-size table and chairs.
Workbenches and stools are not the only things that have been designed by Gold. In the shop, children can safely saw with the help of a special "Saw-Easy," a handy blade guide that Gold has patented. "Think of a bagel cutter," says Gold, when explaining the viselike contraption that holds wood straight. And yes, children really do their own sawing, using Japanese pull saws, lightweight hand-held tools whose cutting power comes from the pull stroke.
A row of gleaming small hammers lines a Peg-Board at the front of the shop. But don't be fooled by their diminutive size, these hammers are the real deal: eight-ounce cabinetmaker's hammers, the perfect size for children. From the brace and bit (a small hand drill) to the special-ordered screwdrivers with square handles (so children can get a better grasp), all the tools in KidShop are adult tools. Children like to be taken seriously, Gold says. They can tell when the tools are imitation or poor-quality children's versions. What is specifically for children at KidShop are the gloves and goggles, and all children must wear them.
The children at Daniel's birthday party are gloved and goggled, their heads bent in studied concentration. Not a usual sight in a room filled with third-graders. Under Gold's gentle and careful tutelage, they have sawed, drilled and now feverishly sand the rough edges on their boat projects. "Woodworking is different from many other activities, it's slower-paced and orderly and demands focus and attention," Gold says.
And these are skills that have no gender bias. The wood shop is no boys' club, not by a long shot. The photos on the walls depict girls' birthday parties, Girl Scout troops, and as many girls as boys holding up their finished projects. The one thing that is the same in every picture is the proud beaming smile, one that comes from the satisfaction of making something with your own hands.
Upcoming KidsShop sessions include "woodplay" for children ages 4 to 6 and, starting this month, gift-making classes for the holidays. Also just in time for the holiday season is the opening of Carpenter's Corner, KidShop's new retail center that carries all the materials and supplies you need to get started on your own woodworking projects at home. Gold has designed kits, ranging in price from $20 to $30, that provide step-by-step instructions and materials for some of the most popular KidShop projects. Carpenter's Corner also sells complete tool sets, grouped by levels of expertise, with beginner sets perfect even for the youngest woodworker-in-training.
KIDSHOP -- 6925 Willow St. NW (Metro: Takoma). 202/726-0028. KidShop is open for scheduled classes and birthday parties only. Carpenter's Corner, KidShop's new retail center, is open Thursdays from noon to 7 p.m. and Saturdays 10 to 5; visitors are also welcome by appointment. Reservations are required for all workshop sessions.
Woodplay -- For ages 4 to 6 (with an adult helper). Youngsters gear up in goggles and saw, hammer and drill. They learn about tools and take home a project. All Woodplay sessions are 1.5 hours and cost $17 per adult/child couple. Sunday at 10 a.m., Dec. 5 at 10 a.m., Dec. 10 at 1:30 and Dec. 19 at 10 a.m.
Holiday gift-making projects -- For ages 6 to 15. All classes are two hours; all projects are $24. In these workshops children have the opportunity to build their own special holiday gifts. Paper and Pens/Desk Organizer: Build a desk organizer with an attached compartment for pens, Wednesday at 2 p.m. and Dec. 7 at 4:15.
Display Stand: Build a pine and redwood mini-easel to display framed pictures or artwork, Dec. 1 at 4:15.
Keepsake Box: Build a pine and redwood decorative box, Dec. 11 at 10 a.m. and Dec. 15 at 4:15.
Shaker Basket: Build a slatted rectangular basket for fruits and bread or to serve as a decorative centerpiece, Dec. 17 at 4:15. (This class is limited to children age 9 and older alone or 6 and older with an adult helper).
Call KidShop for a complete listing of upcoming classes that run Dec. 27 through Jan. 2.