Spencer Hoffner’s senior project combined woodworking, art and epoxy
When most high school seniors graduate, they are out the door, never to set foot in a secondary classroom again, unless it’s to visit a favorite teacher or pick up a younger sibling.
But 2019 Liberty Bell graduate Spencer Hoffner bucked tradition, spending her days off over the summer not up at the lake or hanging out with friends, but instead in the school woodshop with woods class teacher Trent Whatley, finishing a project that came straight from her heart and imagination.
Hoffner had an idea, one inspired by pictures she’d encountered online of wooden tables with rivers of epoxy resin flowing through their live-edge centers. When Hoffner saw a beautiful piece of box elder wood donated to Liberty Bell’s Woods and Construction program by Roger Rowatt, her idea crystalized into a full-fledged vision with a purpose; she wanted to construct a wooden dining table bisected by an epoxy river and edged with etched mountain landscapes, in honor of her parents.
Hoffner’s vision was clear, her motivation was high, and her teacher — Whatley — was on board for helping her making her vision into a reality. But epoxy is prohibitively expensive for a rural high school’s materials budget, and Whatley knew that Liberty Bell couldn’t pay for the $500-$600 the table would cost in epoxy alone. Undeterred, Whatley and Hoffner turned to the internet for a solution.
“First we had to learn about what epoxy was best for this particular application,” says Whatley. “So we watched a lot of YouTube tutorials, read hundreds of user comments, and learned from others’ mistakes, such as using epoxy that remains tacky, or which reacts to heat.”
Looking for help
Once Whatley and Hoffner determined which types of epoxy would work best, they emailed the manufacturers, asking for advice and support. “Most didn’t even write us back,” says Whatley, “but a representative from MAS Epoxies in Minnesota got back to us right away, with lots of information and ideas.”
“This guy has the coolest job,” adds Whatley, naked admiration in his voice. “He gets to just make stuff with epoxy to see how it performs in different circumstances: skateboards, guitars, furniture.”
Not only did the rep provide invaluable advice, he also offered Hoffner a discount on epoxy: 10% off the dealer price. Although still a lot of money, suddenly the cost of five or six gallons of epoxy moved into the viable range for the budget of a high school student with a part-time job.
MAS Epoxies connected Whatley and Hoffner with Seattle Marine, a marine and fishing supply dealer in Seattle, to source the epoxy in the color Hoffner chose. They also, to the delight of the rest of the Woods and Construction classes, sent free company T-shirts and hats to Liberty Bell.
The stakes for successfully creating an epoxy river table were high — both Whatley and Hoffner recognized that — especially given the time constraints of a high school student who also played sports and worked. “We didn’t want to experiment and possibly ruin something, and have wasted all that money,” says Whatley. “So we came up with the idea of a ‘proof of concept’ project.”
‘Bite of the Methow’ helps
Winthrop Kiwanis, it turns out, had just decided to dedicate its annual “Fund a Dream” fundraising effort toward purchasing tools for woodworking and construction classes at Liberty Bell, which led to the idea of creating a prototype of Hoffner’s table. In order to increase the visibility of the Woods and Construction classes to generate community investment in the “Fund a Dream: Tools for the Trades” project, Kiwanis asked Whatley to lead his students in building an item that could be auctioned off at the 2019 Bite of the Methow fundraiser.
His materials budget could cover the cost of building a smaller version of Hoffner’s table, Whatley decided, and the students set to work: Woods and Construction classes working on the tabletop and epoxy, welding classes designing and fabricating the legs. The small epoxy river table was, says Whatley, “a success not only in concept, and in reflecting Liberty Bell and our programs, but also in being a huge hit at the auction.”
With the confidence instilled by making the smaller table, Hoffner began work on her own table nearly four times that size. “She was able to expand on what she learned and create a table of her own,” says Whatley. “She was able to incorporate her own hand-drawn artwork into her table by converting sketches to computer files that were used on a large scale CNC [computer numerical control] wood router and etched into her tabletop using equipment at Rodgers High School, since Liberty Bell doesn’t have a CNC router.”
Whatley and Hoffner worked on the table both in and out of class, with support from other students during class time. Whatley coordinated with an old friend to do the wood routing work in Puyallup, and he welded the legs according to Hoffner’s original design.
Fellow students helped Hoffner with the epoxy, as well as with sanding and buffing. Still, the table remained unfinished at graduation, and Whatley wondered for a brief moment if the project might be abandoned in Hoffner’s throes of graduation and impending move to Bellingham to attend Western Washington University. But “she’s very driven,” says Whatley of Hoffner, “and I was confident she’d get it finished.”
Determined to finish
Hoffner did indeed complete the table, spending every day off in the latter part of the summer in the Woods classroom, sanding and buffing, sanding and buffing. “She just kept at it,” says Whatley. “She wouldn’t quit.” Hoffner calls it her “rewarding year of sanding, leveling, pouring epoxy, and designing an inlay — and many other steps.”
When Hoffner presented the table to her parents, her father, Mike Hoffner, says “I was flabbergasted at the craftsmanship first, then how she has told the Methow Valley story in the river — mountains and lakes in our valley within the table. The lakes and mountain range even glow faintly in the dark.”
Hoffner expresses great appreciation for Whatley and the Liberty Bell trades program for their support. She was able to showcase the table in her design portfolio for college, and hopes that her work will “inspire other students to create and bring their own ideas to life.”
Hoffner recently began classes at Western as a freshman, and has yet to sit down at the epoxy river table she built, let alone eat a meal at it. But there’s a solid story of determination behind this table, and there’s plenty of time ahead for there to be countless more stories told around it.