By Jeff Baur

OPEC Staff

A new shipment of wood has put the vocational carpentry program at California State Prison-Solano in full swing these days, but that hasn’t always been the case. Just a short time ago, inmates were stuck doing bookwork while waiting patiently for new material to arrive.

Months passed, and still they waited- all except for inmate Jimmy Sternbergh. He used his bookwork and down time to build a miniature house.

The idea was born one day when a teacher’s assistant found a case of balsa wood tucked away in an upstairs storage area of the workshop and suggested to Sternbergh that he should build a house out of the wood.

Sternbergh found a book and used it to help him draw the plans from the foundation to the roof. With the plans completed, he began the tedious process of cutting down the 2” x 12” strips of balsa wood to substitute for the numerous 2×4 studs normally found in a standard production home.

Video by CDCR staff videographer Jeff Baur

(You may not be able to view this video on a CDCR computer.)

Jimmy initially intended the structure to be a single story house but later modified the plans to make the home two stories at the suggestion of his instructor Dan Smith.

“I was fascinated with how much focus and determination he showed with it,” he said.

Sternbergh, a self-described plumber by trade with no prior carpentry experience, accounted for even the smallest of details during the planning phase of the project. The meticulously cut roof shingles, precise measurement of the stairs and the cantilever deck on the second floor are just a few of the highlights that stand out on the model.

“You definitely learn about yourself in this,” Sternbergh said. “You learn about what you can and can’t deal with.”

Sternbergh attributes his completion of the miniature house to the importance of accuracy and following the step-by-step process of construction and not working on different phases out of order.

A second miniature model home sits next to the first in an unfinished state, somewhere between rough framing and completion. It is a by-product of the success of his first project.

This version is a little larger with more defined living areas. Bedrooms and closet space are divided by the same intricately cut, meticulously-placed pieces of balsa wood.

Sternbergh said the vaulted ceiling on the backside of the house is his greatest accomplishment of this design. It took approximately four months to build from the start of the project to its current state.

He doesn’t get much time to work on the structure anymore. Sternbergh spends most of his days outside the workshop building full scale two-story houses on the prison grounds as a part of the vocational carpentry curriculum.

Both of his models are used to visually explain the framework of the life-size construction the inmates are building outside using their new shipment of lumber.

Even though he’s been locked up most of his life, Sternbergh said he would like to use the skills he’s learning in the vocational carpentry program to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity someday. He currently does not have a date to be released.

He has no desire to work in the trade either, should he parole in the near future. Sternbergh said that he’d be “a little old” and doesn’t see himself working as a carpenter for a living.

With completions in milling cabinets, computer repair and computer refurbishing already, he plans to sign up for the fiber optics program after he finishes carpentry.

“I’ve got to hedge my bets,” Sternbergh said.

Related stories:

With new home construction beginning to rebound in California, CDCR is training inmates to take advantage.

Emmanuel “Ezy” Ezenwa’s welding program is one of Folsom State Prison’s most successful vocational programs. Inmates have the potential to earn $30 to $40 per hour immediately after their release.