SMC Construction Club a Wooden Product Incubator


If it’s Wednesday, Southwestern Michigan College Construction Club members can be found woodworking on their own time in the Jan and A.C. Kairis Building lab.

Of particular interest is finishing products for their booth at the second annual RonnieCon in Mathews Conference Center West. The March 25 Adventurers Guild tabletop convention combines tournaments with a vendors’ fair.

Projects are in various stages of completion, from chess to charcuterie boards, and additional rectangular tables built with the old basketball floor removed from the Charles O. Zollar Building during creation of 1st Source Bank Fieldhouse.

Their handiwork will also be visible in March in sets built for the spring musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” March 23-26 in the theatre of the Dale A. Lyons Building on SMC’s Dowagiac campus. Club members also made items for the recent library escape room.

President Andrew Ickes graduated from high school in Saranac, east of Grand Rapids, including the construction program at an Ionia County tech center.

Ickes has strong ties to SMC and Dowagiac, from his great-grandfather, longtime Postmaster Dan Brosnan, serving on the charter Board of Trustees, to “Uncle Rob,” current school board member. Grandfather Bob Ickes, former city councilman, once won the international cherry pit spit.

“Two cousins go to SMC alongside me,” Ickes said. “Ideally, I’d like to find a construction management position. This program focuses on residential, and I love carpentry, but I think there’s a lot of commercial opportunity.” As club president, “I’d like to network with local contractors and have them come talk to us.”

Lab assistant Ben Welch, of Vicksburg, graduated from the program last spring after serving as the first president.

“My first year was (Assistant Professor John Tinker’s) first year teaching,” Welch said. “I really liked the direction he was taking the program and the vision he has for it, so much that when the part-time position opened I jumped on it to keep my foot in the woodshop door because he’s teeming with knowledge. I enjoy working with students, teaching them things I take for granted.”

Welch got interested in remodeling and maintaining rental properties with his grandfather. “My sister found SMC for me – ‘It’s small, affordable and close.’ Making a lot of good friends in the residence halls reinforced my decision to come here. I still work with a landlord” who acquired many of his late grandpa’s properties, which “makes my job even more special.”

Lab assistant Ivan Alvarado, of Berrien Springs, who demonstrated the Woodmizer LT 15 sawmill at Sawdust Day last October, segued from cutting boards into boxes.

“I hope to inspire someone to think outside the box,” Alvarado smiled. “I went to an estate sale. A woodworking book showed jewelry boxes. I cut a cutting board into four equal sizes and built the box around those dimensions. It came out really nice.”

Three small casket-shaped boxes with sliding lids are destined for RonnieCon’s gamers to store dice. One is spalted, a wood coloration fungi that creates patterns.

Alvarado, who passed his builder’s license test two weeks ago, said choosing SMC “changed my life for the better. It gave me a defined path. I worked with my uncle when I got out of high school, installing windows and doors.”

Treasurer Cameron London, of Bangor, always liked building and taking things apart, which led him to the Van Buren Tech Center in Lawrence.

“I want to transfer from here to a university for architectural engineering,” London said. “I thought about Oakland (University, Rochester), where my sister was, but my mom graduated from the nursing program here. This is my second year, so I’ll graduate after this semester. I was happy when the Construction Club started last spring. I’ve made charcuterie boards, one with a handle. This one is three kinds of wood — maple, cherry and walnut,” then gluing, sanding, chamfer edging with a router and treatment with a food-safe mineral oil.

“We don’t allow commercial enterprise out of the shop,” said Tinker, who brought 23 years in residential construction and three years of commercial construction to the classroom.

“I want the club to be an incubator so they can develop products and go into production when they leave. They can make mistakes on my materials, then make improvements. We do sell stuff for the club, like the dice boxes for RonnieCon.”

“Proceeds go to our business office account to buy wood, glue, sandpaper, stuff like that, when we need it for the club,” Tinker said. Two adjuncts assist in teaching construction trades, James Furkis and Tony Leininger.

The club promotes itself by selling sweatshirts and T-shirts with a logo Eli O’Keefe designed.

Students interested in SMC’s Construction Trades Green Technology program can apply to the college for free at

– Submitted by SMC