Safety first: Yale’s campus millwork shop shifts gears amid pandemic

If you want to know who to thank for the hundreds of plastic partitions and dozens of self-testing booths across campus, you can look to Yale’s millwork team.
Photos by Dan Renzetti

When a door, cabinet, or just about any other wooden fixture on campus needs replacement or repair, the craftsmen in Yale’s millwork shop stand ready to help. But as the university prepared to welcome back students this fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the millwork team shifted its focus from wood to plastic in order to help minimize the spread of the virus.

And they’ve been at it since. 

The shop’s five-member team has produced and installed hundreds of plastic partitions of varying shapes and sizes on desks, tables, and workspaces in more than 80 locations across campus, including in classrooms and all of the residential-college dining halls. They also played a crucial role in the university’s successful COVID-19 testing program by designing, building, and maintaining more than 70 fully enclosed self-testing pods, which were used all semester by students, faculty, and staff. 

The team maintained a positive spirit through it all, said Scott Neeley, senior supervisor of carpenters, millwork, and painting.    

They’ve been fantastic through this whole experience,” Neeley said. “They’ve not once said they can’t do something. If it’s a challenge, they figure out a way to make it work.”

The team’s 8,000-sqare-foot shop, located at 344 Winchester Ave. in Science Park, is outfitted with a range of table saws, sanders, and lathes, as well as more high-tech equipment. The millworkers cut the plastic partitions to meet specifications of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) using a computer numerically controlled milling machine. So far, they have shorn through more than 600 Lexan polycarbonate sheets, which were sourced from a vendor in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  

Cutting the 4-foot-by-8-foot sheets requires a close eye, said Philip Vitale, who’s worked in the shop for about three years.

It’s quite different from working with wood,” said Vitale, who is responsible for programming the machine. “You’ve got to pay attention to tooling the machine’s feed rate to make sure the cuts are precise.”

Vitale quickly grew accustomed to fabricating the plastic — outfitting the residential-college dining halls alone required 385 sheets of polycarbonate. The clear and opaque partitions were installed to limit the spread of the virus in accordance with health and safety guidelines issued by the CDC and U.S. Department of Labor.  

This fall, millworker Barry Vansteenbergen has spent much of his time building and installing testing pods, which are equipped with air scrubbers to circulate clean air. They also have plexiglass fronts so that Yale Health workers can watch as individuals self-administer the COVID tests. 

Wherever you see a testing pod, we built it,” said Vansteenbergen, who was a high-end cabinetmaker before coming to Yale eight years ago.   

The most recent pods were installed in December in the Watson Center on the corner of Sachem and Prospect streets, Vansteenbergen said. 

The team could churn out eight to 10 pods in less than two days, he said, adding that installation of the same number of units requires another four hours. “At this point, we can knock them out pretty quickly,” he said. 

The shop’s latest task is building housing for air purifiers that will be installed in classrooms and lecture halls during the spring semester. It’s a big job; more than 70 units must be built by February. But it brings the millworkers back to their roots — working with wood. Each unit is constructed of exterior-grade plywood. 

A thin layer of sawdust covers expanses of the shop’s concrete floor as the millworkers assemble the units, which resemble large bass speakers when completed.  

While pandemic-related projects take priority, the shop also still tackles its usual work of restoring and reproducing wooden fixtures and furniture. One of the larger ongoing projects involves refinishing a series of ornate doors in the Payne-Whitney Gymnasium.

We’re juggling a lot,” Neeley said. “My whiteboard is loaded with projects.”

Colin Evans, Kevin Gardner, and Marc Lussier round out the millwork team. As they’ve toiled to make campus safe, the millworkers themselves have felt comfortable working in the shop, Vansteenbergen said. 

We’re provided masks, wipes, and hand sanitizers,” he said. “It’s a big shop and we each have our own corners of it. I think Yale’s done a very good job providing a safe work environment.”


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Part of the In Focus Collection: Yale responds to COVID-19

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