BENTON CITY -- Leo Alvarez carefully dropped blue, red and white oil paint on the surface of the water-borax mixture in the shop at Kiona-Benton City High School.
The Ki-Be senior swirled the spreading color with a small scrap piece of lumber before someone handed him his double cut-style guitar, covered in black primer.
The 18-year-old slowly dipped the wooden instrument into the tub. Fellow classmates used paper towels to wipe up leftover paint on the water's surface before Alvarez pulled the guitar out. It was covered in a thin coat of sky blue with a couple wavy streaks of red and white.
He smiled as he dried the guitar with compressed air.
Painting is only a small part of making an electric guitar in shop and drafting classes in a few Mid-Columbia high schools. But teachers and students said the new curriculum allows students to create something unique while learning valuable skills in woodworking, math, science and art.
"This is a huge carrot," said David Lake, industrial arts and engineering drafting instructor at Kiona-Benton City High School.
Training the teachers
The curriculum was developed by two community college instructors, Lake said. They caught the attention of the National Science Foundation, which provided grant money because of the curriculum's emphasis on math and science.
Lake and his colleagues -- Brian Smith and Ed Ufford from the Richland School District, and Scott Shadler and Lane Winsor from the Pasco School District -- were among 14 educators invited to a workshop in August at Edmonds Community College north of Seattle to learn the curriculum.
It took five days for the teachers to make a guitar. They said they knew early on their students would enjoy the work, and they haven't been disappointed.
"When I showed them the first guitar at the beginning, they started to froth at the mouth," Lake said.
Interest in the program has exploded since September. Lake went from having five students working on guitars to now having more than 20. Some are building their second guitars.
"I was seeing the kids that were making them," said Trevor Nichols, 18, a Ki-Be senior. "They were having fun, whether they messed up or not."
Ufford said he had about 30 students building guitars between his engineering design and material science classes at Hanford High. Smith's classes at Richland High include 20 guitar makers.
The Mid-Columbia teachers implemented the curriculum differently. The guitar is a side project that students can work on outside of class at Richland High, while Ki-Be students can complete it as part of their coursework.
Each guitar is unique
Students use a $175 kit with all the basic physical pieces needed -- body, neck, fretboard, strings and electronics -- to build their instrument. How they go about it, though, is up to them.
Some are more traditional, such as Alvarez's, with classic profiles drawn from Gibson and Fender electric guitar models. Ki-Be senior Josh Lucatero, 17, said he also stuck with a classic look for his first guitar project.
"I didn't want to go too crazy," he said.
Others are original designs. Ki-Be junior Kris Young's first guitar was modeled after a dragon's head.
Then come the paint jobs. Smith said most of his students stick with single color or wood finish, with maybe some extra embellishment. A Thai foreign exchange student modified hers with geometric designs and her name. The second guitar designed by Young, 17, is made from a variety of woods, including purpleheart, maple and walnut, all stained to different shades.
Ufford's and Lake's students frequently make use of the swirl painting method the teachers learned last summer. The result is a tie-dyed or marbled look that is unique to each guitar.
Some students spent months working on their instruments. Others were so focusedm they blazed through it.
"I had one of my kids make it over a weekend," Smith said.
Using math, science skills
Along with the skills needed in operating the various tools and machines used to craft the instruments -- from computer-based drafting programs to routers -- various math and science skills are used to make the guitars.
For example, students use an algebraic formula to calculate where each fret on the fret board must be located so the instrument has proper sound.
Even the swirl painting method has provided valuable lessons in water chemistry. Teachers have experimented with the effects of water temperature and water source on the resulting paint job.
Some students, including Luca-tero, know how to play guitar and plan to possibly use their finished instruments. Other students don't play, but the projects are inspiring some to try their hand at it.
"Once you build your first guitar, you want to learn how to play it," said Alvarez, who plays drums.
Offsetting the cost
Some students have struggled to pay the costs of the guitar kits. It's a problem the teachers have tackled in different ways. Ufford said a few students work in his shop to pay off the cost of a kit. Lake said he has had some students apply for scholarships through the Dream Builder's Education Foundation to pay the cost.
The new nonprofit foundation awards small grants to area K-12 students and was established by Educational Service District 123, which encompasses 23 school districts from Othello to the Oregon border, and from Prosser to Idaho.
The Dream Builder's Educational Foundation is a nonprofit group established by Educational Service District 123.
Community members also are getting involved and trying to help. Smith said a Richland business owner donated $1,000 to his program to help pay for guitar kits. Lake said he has plans to work with Vintage Electronics in Richland to help kids with the electronics in their instruments and build amps to accompany them.
The teachers hope to expand the program during the next school year. There are plans to move into acoustic guitars, which some of Smith's students are doing, and similarly stringed instruments.
Teachers also are kicking around the idea of holding a raffle to sell off instruments students don't want to keep, with the proceeds helping to pay for guitar kits for students who are unable to pay.
The teachers also will offer a workshop at Hanford High in August for other educators wanting to learn the curriculum and take it back to their schools.
Ufford said he wants to expand parent involvement in the program. It can be hard for him to work with more than two dozen students, all at different stages, at a time, so having some parents in the classroom could help.
There's already one student signed up for next year.
"(Her father) actually wants to come in and help out," Ufford said.
* See a video of the guitar program at