Across seven months, the sound of ripping, planing and sawing boards in Michael Koppy’s woodworking shop in Hermantown has been replaced by the shush-shush of volunteers using sandpaper or the whine of an orbital sander. Koppy feels for any defects and, once the inspection is complete, the bed frame goes out the door and into a trailer for the final stop, a swoosh from a sprayer for a coat of shellac on Saturday.

That’s how things were in the past week for those making 69 beds for the new Steve O’Neil Apartments that will serve families dealing with chronic homelessness. If everything goes according to plan, there will be the joyful noise of assembling the beds today inside the Fourth Street complex as the first delivery of beds is made.

What started out with Koppy looking for a way to donate to the apartment building built for low-income families turned into an assembly line of volunteers from two groups he is a part of: the Duluth Woodworking Club and Duluth-Superior Friends.

“I went to them,” he said, referring to CHUM, the group that will run the emergency housing units and supportive services at the 50-unit complex. It has set up a registry for people to donate furnishings for the apartments. Koppy had something more in mind.

“I’m a furniture builder, can I help in some way?” he recalls saying to the people at CHUM. He was given a list of possible projects and took them to club and Friends members. They voted to make beds.

The first order of business back in the spring, after acquiring reclaimed Douglas fir lumber from Duluth Timber, was nail pulling. Precisely, the removal of 11 gallons of nails.

It’s a good thing that Friends volunteer Debbi Rasmussen enjoyed the putty work required to fill in the nail holes.

“I got pretty good at it,” she said last week between some final sanding on headboards.

Like many others who have volunteered for the more than 1,000 hours on the bed project, Rasmussen’s skills in woodworking were limited. Since May, they have met three times a week for three hours or more.

“I surprised myself a little,” she said.

Koppy said he purposely broke down the process into simple, sometimes repetitive, tasks. That way, everyone could contribute. Jigs and fixtures were made to take any surprises out of the creation of the parts needed for the 69 beds.

“It’s a lot of organization to keep things straight,” Koppy said. “I’ve had to break down all the aspects to single steps.”

He showed how the rails and headboards attach to the posts, an impressively quick process of drilling mortises for the joints. It was perfect for the assembly-line type of work required.

“It’s just a matter of woodworking,” Koppy said easily.

He has experience in taking people through a process after 22 years of teaching manufacturing classes at Lake Superior College. He’s retired from that job but still does woodworking, although everything has been on hold since the bed project began.

You could see the instructor in him as he made the rounds among a handful of volunteers last weekend. Just when someone thought they had done the final touches on a headboard or rail, Koppy would come along and feel it, looking for any rough spots. He usually found a few.

The end result is impressive. Koppy and his team wanted to design beds with a human touch. The posts on the beds are expertly rounded and turned and each headboard has a dove etched into it.

“That’s what we wanted to do,” Koppy said of the pride taken in the quality and humanity of the final product. “These are solid beds.”

Newsletter signup for email alerts