Henry Ford II High School woodworking teacher Christopher Davis and his students present the  paddleboard they are making for billionaire Richard Branson.

Henry Ford II High School woodworking teacher Christopher Davis and his students present the paddleboard they are making for billionaire Richard Branson.

Photo by Deb Jacques

Woodworkers make board for billionaire Branson

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published November 15, 2019

 Student Sydney Szymanski works on the paddleboard.

Student Sydney Szymanski works on the paddleboard.

Photo by Deb Jacques


STERLING HEIGHTS — When Henry Ford II High School senior Hannah Frrokaj was assigned a woodworking class project of making a paddleboard for billionaire Richard Branson, her first task was to find out who he was.

After that, it was time for her and the other members of her all-female woodworking group to immerse themselves in the project.

“Me and these girls have truly learned how humble and down-to-earth Richard is,” she said. “He has become an inspiration to us after hearing all of his amazing stories and accomplishments he has achieved, which makes us work extra hard every day in class to complete this board for him.”

According to Ford woodworking teacher Christopher Davis, this is the second year his classes have made wooden paddleboards. The eco-friendly wooden paddleboards are each about 10 1/2 feet long and weigh between 28 and 30 pounds, he said.

“We should be around 15 paddleboards this year,” he said. “It’s a process — there’s a lot to know about making the board perform correctly. ... We want to make these boards as light as possible. We want to make sure quality is top-notch.”

Davis said his interest in paddleboard projects started when he saw other schools building them out of foam. But he got the idea to “take it to the next level” and build an eco-friendly wooden version. He said he took a week out of a summer break to learn techniques from artist Jason Thelen, who works at the Petoskey-based Little Bay Boards.

“I talk to Jason every week or two to bounce ideas off him,” Davis said.

According to Davis, Branson — a British investor and philanthropist, and the founder of Virgin Group — found out about Ford students’ paddleboards after HGTV host Kristy Petrillo acquired one last year. She reportedly showed Branson the class’s Instagram page, and soon Ford got video messages from them both.

“I just couldn’t believe it when I saw what you managed to achieve,” Branson said in the video. “And here’s to your teacher for letting you actually make things that can be fun and usable.”

Davis said his response to Branson’s desire for a board was “absolutely.” So this school year, he said, he assigned a team of 10 girls to build Branson’s paddleboard. He said the purpose was to “help break the stereotype of woodshop as a guys’ class.”

“So we thought, for this project, because it’s going to get the most publicity, we’re going to have all girls doing it, and it’s going to be amazing,” he said.

Frrokaj said her team represents “girl power” while learning new things about the art of woodworking. They have also taken to heart Branson’s philosophy of saying yes to amazing opportunities and then learning to do them afterward.

“As girls coming into this ‘mainly male’ woodworking class, we did not know much, but with a great teacher, we were given this amazing opportunity to learn and realize that we are capable of anything,” she said.

“This has been such (an) incredible experience for us girls and through Richard Branson’s inspiring philosophies. It’s pushing us to reach higher and accomplish what we never believed possible.”

Frrokaj said she and her classmates carefully designed Branson’s board, keeping his tastes in mind.

“We incorporated waves and palm trees representing Necker Island, Richard’s very own private island,” she said.

“We also incorporated a hot air balloon to represent one of his incredible accomplishments of setting the world record for being the first person to cross the ocean in a hot air balloon. Richard is big on ocean conservation, so building an eco-friendly board was absolutely perfect.”

Davis said the girls started on Branson’s paddleboard this year, though it won’t be done until after Christmas. He added that the students hope to pass on their legacy of a female woodworking group to other students so they can continue the tradition for years to come.

Find out more about the Henry Ford II High School woodworking class by visiting its Instagram account, @henryfordiiwoodworking.