Markland Harris, Savannah Puccio, Michael Friedman, and Jason Liu pose with the guitar they plan to auction off in support of Hurricane Sandy relief efforts.

Michael Friedman helps student Nathan Bunjani work on the neck of his guitar.

Guitars and ukuleles are not your average woodshop fare, but then again, Michael Friedman is not your average woodshop teacher.

Friedman, a Ewing resident and teacher at Grice Middle School in Hamilton, was recently named Mercer County Teacher of the Year after introducing the “Woodshop Rocks” program to his classes. Students construct real, playable electric guitars and ukuleles over the course of two marking periods. He was previously named Grice Teacher of the Year and District Teacher of the Year.

Friedman came across the idea for Woodshop Rocks while searching online for unique woodshop projects for middle school students.

“I’m always trying to come up with new ideas,” he said. “I found the link, and I clicked on it. There were pictures of these eighth-grade students holding guitars, and I was blown away. It was amazing.”

Duane Calkins, a woodshop teacher at Buljan Intermediate School in Roseville, Calif., started the program 12 years ago. Friedman got in touch with Calkins through a link on the website and soon received patterns to build his own guitar.

“He would give me tips over the phone,” Friedman said. “I’ve been woodworking all my life, but I have no musical background. When it came to something technical, I would have to call him. There’s a three-hour time difference, so a lot of times I would have to wait a couple of days before he got a chance to get back to me. I finally built the first guitar after a couple of months.”

For Friedman, though, brief contact on the phone and over email was not enough. He wanted to meet with Calkins in person to grasp the full reach of the program.

“Actually being out there and being able to get immediate feedback would be priceless,” he said.

So he did. Friedman flew out to California with his brother, a woodshop teacher at Steinert, on his own dime at the end of the 2012 school year.

“School let out June 19,” he said. “June 20, we got on a flight. We spent six days out there, four of which were spent working with the program. We each built a guitar. We were working full eight-hour days. It was an invaluable experience and worth every penny to go out there.”

Once he returned, Friedman spent the rest of the summer preparing patterns and setting up new machinery to make sure the classroom would be ready come September. He also had to convince the school, his students and their parents that each child would possess a working guitar and not just “a pile of parts” at the end of the semester.

“The notion of woodshop classes is birdhouses, cutting boards, napkin holder,” he said. “They did all of that stuff before I got here. To take that idea and shift it into something like this, it was a little tough to get them on board. What was good was that I had the examples that I did in California to show them. Once we got working, the kids really got on board with it. The community and parent support has been incredible.”

Friedman thinks his trip to the West Coast helped his case.

“They could see that it wasn’t just this fly-by-night idea that we’re going to give up on in a day or two,” he said. “That showed that it was very possible to do. From a parent’s perspective, I think it showed that I was serious about it.”

Friedman has always been serious about woodworking. His father, a former woodshop teacher at Harrington Middle School in Mount Laurel, often took him and his brother to his classroom on off days.

“We were kind of born into it,” he said. “He would take us down to the school with him, and we’d watch him work with the kids. I’ve always loved it. It’s in the blood.”

Now, Friedman gets to pass that love along to his students. By the end of 2012, his classes crafted 15 guitars and nine ukuleles. He is anticipating 13 additional guitars and 10 more ukuleles at the end of this semester. The student reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, Friedman said. He has kids voluntarily staying after school or using their study hall periods to work in the woodshop.

Students from last semester’s class even helped come up with the idea to build a guitar for a cause. Friedman and his classes are currently in the process of putting together a New Jersey-themed guitar to auction off for Superstorm Sandy relief. Once it’s completed, they’re hoping for signatures from state-based musicians like Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi to increase its value. They were inspired by a project Calkins’ class took on.

“They’re working on a project for Wounded Warriors,” he said. “We wanted to get something like that going back here with a cause that was close to us.”

Because of his county honor, Friedman is now eligible to become State Teacher of the Year. He is on the fence about applying, though, due to the mandatory six-month sabbatical he would have to take if selected. The sabbatical is necessary since the State Teacher of the Year is required to represent New Jersey at events like the National Teacher of the Year Conference and International Space Camp. Instead of missing weeks of school here and there and balancing dual roles of teacher and spokesperson, the honoree merely focuses on the Teacher of the Year duties for six months. ETS pays the teacher’s salary and benefits during that period.

“My big thing is that I can’t be away from this program for six months,” he said. “It’s kind of a tough, specialized thing for someone to fill in for. I don’t necessarily want to be out of the classroom. It doesn’t feel like work. That old saying, ‘if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life,’ that’s how I feel. It’s just a blast.”