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In Danny Montoya's San Francisco Woodshop, Kids Learn Tools for Life

Danny Montoya teaching in the Butterfly Joint. Photo by <a href="http://www.patriciachangphotography.com/">Patricia Chang</a>.
Danny Montoya teaching in the Butterfly Joint. Photo by Patricia Chang.

Danny Montoya runs The Butterfly Joint, a woodworking studio for children 18 months and up, on one of the few streets in San Francisco's Mission District that hasn't yet been fully gentrified. On any given day, the large, bright space is filled with small children wearing denim aprons and protective eyewear while wielding large-handled saws and wooden mallets.

Before the creating starts, the stage is set. Classes begin with kids punching in on an old-fashioned time clock and tying on their deep-pocketed aprons. Only then does 39-year-old Montoya sound the steam whistle signaling that it's time to get down to the making business. He got the idea for this set up during the 15 years he spent teaching Kindergarten in some of SF's best private schools. "I noticed that kids love the idea of having a job and working," Montoya says. "They are constantly observing us and what we do, and they want to feel like they are entering our world."

Their taste of the working life consists of making cutting boards, book caddies, wooden dice, and peg-board games. Watching the tool-obsessed kids go at it, you can tell they are undeniably having fun. And, as any seasoned teacher will tell you, it's often when kids are enjoying themselves that they are learning the most. "Working with wood, they are learning how to reason and solve problems," Montoya says. "Using tools gives them a sense of independence and accomplishment."

Photo by Patricia Chang.
Kids "punch in" for each class. Photo by Patricia Chang.

Montoya is in his element as he breaks down lessons on equipment use and design. But a few short years ago, his path was less clear. In 2012, his wife Erin weathered a miscarriage, and he felt compelled to change his life. "It caused me to assess everything. I knew that if we ever did have a child, I would want to spend more time with the baby than a regular job would allow," he said. "I also decided that schools aren't the best place for someone who is creative. It began to get stifling."

Photo by Patricia Chang.
Montoya helps children put on their aprons. Photo by Patricia Chang.

Montoya quit with an idea of creating technology that would allow educators to track student accomplishments outside of testing. "But when I met with tech people, I realized they were not my people," he says. "They were about monetization, I was about helping students."

When his daughter, Orion, was born in 2013, he was overjoyed, and glad to have time at home with her. When Erin went back to work, he cared for his daughter while he considered his next move. Since childhood, he had had a passion for woodworking, and he maintained a small woodshop near his home where he made furniture for extra money. With the idea of taking on larger commissions, he started looking for a bigger workspace while walking around the city carrying Orion in her baby carrier. Then he had an epiphany: "I realized I wasn't a woodworker, I was teacher," he says. "And then I thought I could do both." And thus the dream of a children's woodworking studio and classes was born.

Photo by Patricia Chang.
Photo by Patricia Chang.

That was roughly a year ago. In the space of 12 months, Montoya realized his dream by accomplishing what seem like impossible tasks. First, he launched a successful crowdfunding campaign that raised $50,000, a process he says was filled with some "nerve wrecking" moments. His second Herculean mission was finding a location. If you know anything about the San Francisco real estate market, you know that high demand makes this the most challenging feat of all. Montoya looked all over town, from the Inner Richmond, to Chinatown, to Dogpatch before finding a place in the Mission District that he thought might fit. But something was off, and he couldn't bring himself to sign the lease. "I let it go, and today it's a cannabis dispensary," he says.

Photo by Patricia Chang.
Photo by Patricia Chang.

A few blocks away, he found "the one" in what had been a butcher shop and then an Internet cafe (and those former lives would come in handy). "I knew this was it," says Montoya. "Because it had been a butcher shop, it had brick-tile floors and high-powered electricity to run the meat saws. This meant I could easily sweep up after classes and run a regular woodshop in the back—something I think is important for the kids to see." As an Internet cafe, the space had been paneled with slatboard in order to display electronics. "It's the perfect place to hang tools," says Montoya.

Photo by Patricia Chang.
Photo by Patricia Chang.

The Butterfly Joint opened in June, and as Montoya continues to refine the classes (he also added sessions for adults), one thing stays the same: The students are making good stuff. "As a classroom teacher, I hated projects that produced throw-away objects," he says. "When I wrote my business plan, I put this in: We make heirlooms."

Photo by Patricia Chang.

· The Butterfly Joint [official]
· Young Guns 2015 [Curbed]
· Introducing Curbed's 2015 Class of Young Guns [Curbed]