A passion for woodworking

There is just one important prerequisite for Jim Polarski’s woodworking classes in Blackhawk Technical College’s continuing education program, and you are not likely to find it listed in the course description. But it’s there, nonetheless.

“A passion,’’ he says with that same passion in his voice about those students who enter and most often continue in his classes. “They have to have a passion for working with wood. I’m not looking for someone who just wants to make sawhorses.

“They must be at that point where they are willing to try something just to see if they can get it done. That’s the ultimate goal of any woodworker. They must be willing to accept the challenge.’’

Students have been accepting Polarski’s challenges for over 40 years now, first at Milton High School where he taught until retiring in 2005 and at BTC since 1983. He will teach three classes this fall semester – two in woodworking and one in refinishing and restoration. Classes are held at Milton High School.

Polarski, 69, limits class size to 10. “Otherwise, I couldn’t keep up,’’ he said. That allows him to provide the direct attention his novices need while allowing him the opportunity to oversee those veterans of previous classes.

“My newbies need a lot of attention,’’ he explained. “For the veterans, I’m more of a technical advisor.’’

He’s especially proud that his classes are composed of a cross-section of society – business professionals, lawyers, doctors, homemakers, retired folks. All they need is the love of shaping a piece of wood into something memorable.

“They are looking for a creative hobby,’’ Polarski said one May morning in his workshop on the outskirts of Milton. “My students understand that if they make something, it’s something that could be around for generations, something that is passed on from one generation to another in a family.

“That is special. You can’t put a price on that, knowing that something you’ve created may be given to your son or daughter and they are going to pass it on to their children.’’

He calls woodworking a Polarski family tradition. While growing up, he rarely was without a pocket knife to whittle. The family had a wood stove, so there always was enough wood around to work with. From his simple beginnings, he advanced to working on boats, furniture and hobby horses, a special love. His dad spent the last 20 years of his life as a violin maker.

Polarski has other interests. He spends his late winters and early springs tapping maple syrup. He has bee hives for honey. He’s never very far from a fishing pole. He’s a doting grandfather, too.

“I find a lot of things fascinating,’’ he said, “and I love working at them.’’

Yet there will always be something special about taking a piece of wood and taking the time to transform it into something beautiful.

“I strive for perfection and quality,’’ he said while seated at the desk in his shop that is sprinkled with finished and unfinished products like a hobby horse with a face so real it looks ready to go to pasture.

“I want my students to strive for that same kind of perfection and quality.’’