A Thing for Chisels

Breena Jackson and Fran Dawkins spoke recently about women in trades, particularly in joinery, safety in the workshop, the impact of COVID, materials and misconceptions. 

Breena Jackson fell in love with the idea of making, the craftsmanship of the handmade and beautiful, heirloom pieces and furniture created for a purpose when she started studying Art History as a college student. However she didn’t just want to read about them but to make things of her own and  so she signed up for BCIT. Breena is a BCIT alumni; she completed the foundation course and her four year apprenticeship, then spent 15 years on the tools before becoming an instructor. Breena is still the one and only female instructor in BCIT, as far as woodworking is concerned. So what is BCIT doing to attract greater diversity in the field of joinery?

Earlier in the year to attract more females into joinery, BCIT hosted a ‘Women in Woodworking’ event. They were hoping for maybe 15-20 people but 120 people turned up. The interest is clearly out there. The numbers had to be dropped initially because of COVID with a  lower foundation class enrolment but eventually they had a 4 class waitlist for the apprenticeship class. Students however have been on the site for the past 15 months, Breena explained, as the trades are not something that you can teach exclusively online. BCIT  have been doing a hybrid model but are now back 100% in person. All of the instructors on the course went through the foundation program themselves so that is a testament to the strength of the course. There are 6 instructors and at any given time there are 64 students on the shop floor. They run 4 courses simultaneously, 2 foundation classes with 2 apprenticeship courses. It gets busy. 

When asked whether she sees joinery a trade skill or a craft skill, Breena declared without question that there is absolutely an element of craft and art with joinery and, as a trade, it is very artistic. It is a red seal trade and so BCIT abides by all of the regulations for the ITA when they create their courses. They make sure they hit all the points but amongst everything that they do there is a room for a large amount of personal creativity found within the projects of the students. There is definitely a percentage of students who leave the course wanting to open up their own shops, to become furniture makers or luthiers or interior designers. Breena’s husband started in the trade as a luthier but it is very specialised requiring all the foundational skills from joinery before being able to branch off into this niche trade.


Currently Breena is working to enhance the safety culture across the school’s construction courses at BCIT . She has been working across the main 7 trades and creating tutorials and safety oriented videos on procedures for specific tools for each trade, right across the school of construction from joinery, carpentry, piping, steel fabrication, welding, sheet-metal, electrical to cabinet making. A  common misconception in joinery is caused by a lack of understanding  about the use of other materials. In fact, joiners actually need skills in metalwork, stone or plastics as well as knowledge about wood. Wood first and foremost is Breanna’s favourite material for working with but she enjoys solid surfaces such as Corion (a named brand), which behaves and responds very similarly to wood, can be put on machines well and because a solid surface is a composite it can be heated and bent. It is far more malleable when heated.

"I've got a thing for chisels", she confesses, "and I’m always looking for another one. I’ve been given some chisels by students. They are definitely my treasures." 

Currently a government mandate is being explored where more trades are going to have to be red seal but currently to become a joiner and work in the trade you do not need to be red seal. However Breena is an advocate for the foundational experience and education because it is so important to work safely and to get exposure to a variety of building techniques. The foundation course is separate from the apprenticeship course but needs no prior experience, nothing more than a passion for woodworking. There are a lot of students who come straight out of high school but also people who have sat at a desk for the majority of their careers and want to bring more into the universe and they are taking out of it,  through a creative outlet. A wide range of lived experiences coming together over a shared interest and this enhances the experience. As part of the safety program that Breena has been working on a virtual tour in order to give  students and prospective students a sense of the space that they are going to be in at BCIT to help them feel comfortable before they enter the space.


The biggest thing BCIT wishes to promote to their students is that joinery is a practical trade and you can find any path – you can work within the shop, within industry, open up your own shop; or simply take what you have learned as a life skill, a tactile, creative hobby and producing your own beautiful pieces. Today she has an ‘at home’ shop where she stores her really large chisel collection. “I’ve got a thing for chisels”, she confesses, “and I’m always looking for another one. I’ve been given some chisels by students. They are definitely my treasures.”