Coming up with the idea for a culminating woodworking project in his final semester at Algonquin College wasn't easy for Matthew Bruins. "I was set on doing a door, for some reason. I don't know why," the recent graduate of the Heritage Carpentry and Joinery Program recalled. "I've seen some cool doors and I enjoyed the first door project we did earlier in the semester."

The college's two-year program focuses on traditional carpentry and joinery such as timber framing, log building and architectural millwork, as well as restoration and preservation techniques. Instructor Jim Stinson described the final project as one that not only speaks to the students' interests, but also allows them to demonstrate the knowledge and skills acquired through the program's joinery component. After choosing a piece of existing architectural millwork to explore, the students record and document it, then reproduce it to scale.

"I had a really hard time actually finding this door, in particular," Matt said. "I was just [searching the Internet for] doors in Ottawa trying to find a … cathedral door or something like that." One of the images that popped up on Matt's screen caught his attention. He was captivated by an elaborately-carved door on the Macdonald-Harrington Building at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec.

Initially, his instructors were less than enthusiastic about his choice. Jack Hollinger, program coordinator, said their reluctance was no reflection on Matt's abilities; instead, they were simply concerned about the amount of time required to complete such an elaborately carved reproduction. "It was just nonsense to think that it could be completed within the 72 hours allocated for the project," Jack said.

A pair of hands carving a molding

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Having been advised against his first choice, the young woodworker from Belleville, Ontario, chose a different door, also located on the McGill campus, and travelled to Montreal to measure it. As fate would have it, he arrived to find that construction blocked access to the door. Having driven all the way to from the college campus in Perth, Ontario, to Montreal (about three hours), he seized the opportunity to measure the Macdonald-Harrington door instead.

"I brought a sketch pad and was sketching out dimensions roughly,” he explained. “But it was really cold that day so what I ended up doing was taking my tape measure and phone and just taking videos with my tape measure on different parts of the door so I could go back over them later.” Another challenging aspect was “… getting [the initial design] from my phone measurements into a SketchUp model to scale with the same profiles,” he said. “Since [the door] was in Montreal, I couldn’t go back if I missed measurements, so I had to cleverly scale and find missing measurements…"

Committed to putting in the extra time to reproduce the Macdonald-Harrington door, Matt persevered with his choice. Good-naturedly referred to as “the nonsense door” by Matt and his instructors, the reproduction, made of basswood, is elaborately carved with classical details such as rosettes, dentils, flutes, egg-and-dart molding and other decoration often seen in Victorian-era millwork. He substituted the year 2019 for 1897, the date carved on the original door and the year the Macdonald–Harrington Building was constructed.

The replica wooden door made by woodworking student Matthew Bruins.

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Matt enjoyed both the challenge and the rewards of undertaking the heavily-carved style. “This is my first project ever carving something and I like challenging myself. I didn’t want to be bored partway through,” he said. “I have about 200 hours [invested] in that [door]. Another rewarding thing was seeing the carvings turn out and getting better as I got more practice.” Envisioning the finished product as he worked also helped Matt stay motivated. “That’s how you keep going through some of those monotonous tasks,” he said. “I can really put my head down and work through things if I know the reward is there at the end.”

Matt credits his college instructors and his parents for encouraging him while he developed his craft. “The teachers here are great; they only want to see the best [in] you. They really go above and beyond to help,” he said. “The same with my parents – helping me get certain tools that are expensive [for me] at a young age, giving me a space to work.”

The craftsmanship of other woodworkers inspires him as well. “It’s mostly the older carpenters [who] you don’t know the names of, but you see their work and you just admire that they could do better work than you, with no power tools or [with] less fancy tools,” he says. “The traditional … purely by hand … that is truly impressive.”

Student Matthew Bruins sitting at a workbench carving a molding

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Looking to the future, Matt can see woodworking as part of his job or career. "If I can get into the really elaborate work, I would love that," he said. As for his completed project, it will remain at the college for now, but eventually he hopes to build his own workshop and install the ornately carved front door as a way to display his woodworking skills. Chuckling, he added that he might even attach a tiny sign on the back that proclaims it "The Nonsense Door".

Text and photos by Lee Valley staff

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