Wooden Dreams


Modern Pioneer - - Con­tents - By Dana Ben­ner

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.

Ob­tain­ing Wood

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

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