FROM FISHING TO FURNITURE, WOODWORKING IS TRULY A USEFUL SKILL
From fishing to furniture, woodworking is truly a useful skill
The term “woodworking” is broad, and can be applied to the many skills that involve creating with wood. People who build homes can be considered woodworkers, as can those who make small wooden toys. How about those who still make wooden boats or gunstocks? Yep, they’re woodworkers, too.
I’m referring to woodworking that’s a utilitarian art form; specifically, the type of work people do who handcraft wooden toys, fishing lures or furniture. It’s a style of woodworking that’s functional and truly a work of art. It tells a story about the person doing it, the culture and even the time period.
At one time in America, everything was handmade. People who worked with wood put their hearts and souls into the things they made. They took pride in their work, and made things to last. Unfortunately, our world has changed. Most things we use are massproduced by machines, and machines have no heart. By default, these products don’t have the same quality as products made 100 years ago. Take a good look at what people throw out. You very rarely see quality-made products being tossed out.
Wherever my travels take me, from the Hawaiian Islands to Alaska and from Maine to Florida, I always root out the woodcrafts of times gone by and a few individuals who still use traditional methods.
In Alaska, I met people making totem poles the old way. Totem poles are more than works of art, they tell the story of the people who make them, and they depict the different clans and spiritual beings.
On a visit to Hawaii, I met a man carving turtles and other creatures that have special meaning to the Hawaiian culture. It’s believed among the Hawaiian people that whenever a person creates something, they put a part of themselves into it. It’s called “Mana,” or spirit. It was my honor to purchase a piece of this man’s work.
“At one time in America … people who worked with wood put their hearts and souls into the things they made.”
A Way of Life
I’ve been making things out of wood for more than 40 years. For me, it began when my father gave me my first pocketknife. I started by carving wood scraps and sticks. I improved and linked myself to the past with each completed project. I imagined those early pioneers, sitting by the campfire at the end of a long day. With knife in hand, they created things that represented what they saw and their way of life. I imagined sitting on a front porch in the mountains of Kentucky with just a few simple tools and some wood, creating
items that could be used around the home.
When I got older, I started making other things. I made my first kitchen table out of scrap 2x4s when I got married. We couldn’t afford a nice store-bought table, but mine lasted many years. I took the wood from pallets and made sconces to hold oil lamps. I made picture frames and candle holders, all out of scrap wood. I still do these things today, and I continue to carve.
People often ask me where I get wood for my projects. I get it wherever I can. Unless you’re looking for something specific, like the cedar I used to make a chair for my son-inlaw, there’s really no need to go out and buy wood. Scrap wood is all around. Just go to any landfill and you’ll find all the wood you need. Further, old broken furniture can be refurbished (see Darron Mcdougal’s article “Refurbishing Old Wooden Chairs” in the Dec./ Jan. 2017 issue), or at the very least, some of the wood can be salvaged.
Like the early pioneers, I waste nothing. Everything can be reused, maybe in a different form, but reused nonetheless. To buy something when you don’t need to is a waste of money, and money is something I can’t afford to waste. I keep every scrap of wood. Wood no longer suitable for projects lands in a bucket to be used in the woodstove. My wife jokes, “When wood leaves here, it’s usually in the form of sawdust.” She’s probably right.
Construction sites are always good sources of useable lumber. Just make sure you get written permission to take what they throw away, otherwise you’ll be considered a thief. I was once given numerous rough-cut 1x6 cherry boards that were considered scrap. These were the “bad” ends of wood being used to make cabinets. To me, they were like gold, and they soon became a bowl (I glued three pieces together) and numerous trivets, all of which I gave as gifts.
Every year I get three tons of pellets
“On a visit to Hawaii, I met a man carving turtles and other creatures that have special meaning to the Hawaiian culture.”
delivered to heat my home, and they arrive on pallets. I know people who burn pallets in their woodstoves, and I often give them a few, but I keep the better pallets and use the wood for other things.
Even sticks can be used to make unique gifts. I often make little log cabins for people to use as birdhouses and other decorations.
My friend, Brett Fowler, is a carver. Using a chainsaw, he produces some of the finest carvings I’ve ever seen. He gets his wood, mostly white pine, from tree-removal companies. The wood he gets, usually entire logs, cannot be sold for commercial lumber. He turns wood that normally would be left to rot into beautiful works of art (see sidebar, “Fowler’s Chainsaw Carving,” pg. 66).
I have my fair share of power tools, and sometimes I use them, but I prefer to use old-fashioned hand tools. I can do a great deal of work with a sharp knife, a bow saw and a hand-operated cross-cut and ripping saw. While these tools may take more time to use, they also put me in touch with what I’m doing—remember the Mana of the Hawaiians. But, when the job needs to be completed promptly, I always turn to the power tools.
When I started out, besides my hand tools, I had a jigsaw and circular saw (some people call them “Skilsaws”). I now have a scroll saw and a table saw, but honestly, I don’t use them often. I also have various clamps for holding things together.
Whenever using any tool, safety is always top priority. Always wear safety glasses. If you’re using power tools, also wear hearing protection. Before you use any power tool, please read the manual and follow the directions. It’s no different than a firearm: One careless move can cause injury.
There’s something about working with wood that harkens back to earlier times. There’s satisfaction in producing something with your hands. If it’s something that you or someone else can use, so much the better. In our world of cardboard and press wood, we’ve forgotten what it’s like to build something, to put a piece of yourself into your labor. Woodworking allows you to express yourself, and that feels great.
(below, left) Brett Fowler carved this bear using a chainsaw.(below, right) The author cuts miter joints with a hand miter saw.(opposite) Fowler poses beside one of his chainsaw creations.
(above) Woodcarving is done the traditional way in Hawaii. It’s believed woodworkers put a piece of themselves into every creation. (below) A Tlingit woodcarver in Alaska is hard at work. (opposite) Brett Fowler carves one of his popular bear sculptures.
(left) A hand-carved totem pole tells the story of a culture. (above) This candle holder is made from scrap wood. handcrafted chessboard like this one makes a great conversation piece on game night. (right) A