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Joshua Lindau photo
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Tom Eblen/Lexington Herald-Leader photo
On a sloping Kentucky hillside, there is a stand of oak, cherry and walnut trees, straight and tall. All of them carefully planted and tended, just for a day like today. Today, they will be harvested, milled and sent out into the world. New seedlings will be planted to take their place. It is a delicate balance of man and nature and need and art.
In London, Campbellsville and Smith’s Grove, there are men who anxiously await their woods. They make their living by their art and find fulfillment in shavings and sawdust on the floor, in the gentle curve of a nicely turned leg, and in the very motion of sharing their work with the world. These men listen, and respond, to the call of the wood.
Red Dog & Company
On a typical day, Mike Angel works from 9 to 3, although he admits he rarely has what others would call typical days. He started his career in law enforcement, and it wasn’t until he retired in 1994 that he seriously considered opening a woodworking business.
“I always had an interest in woodworking. It was something I liked, and I didn’t want to just sit home and watch Oprah,” he says. “I started making these chairs and found that I couldn’t make things fast enough because they sold so quick. I told my wife I might just make a business out of this, and she asked me what I was going to call this business. I laughed and said, ‘Well, I might just name it after Red Dog.’ ”
And that’s exactly how it happened. What started as a hobby turned into a business named after man’s best friend. One day, 10 years ago, Red Dog walked away and never came back. “That’s life,” Angel says. “She was old. It was time.”
In his shop, he is surrounded by potential—tools waiting to be used, woods waiting to be shaped and cut, designs waiting to be applied. His favorite design is an old Appalachian art form: the mule-eared chair.
“Appalachian furniture was handmade, and there was, more or less, a standard look. [The pieces] flared out, and they were hickory-bottomed, handmade with a spoke shave and a drawknife, using a shaving horse,” he says, then chuckles as he tells of being born at Pine Mountain Settlement School. It’s there, in the chairs, tables and rockers, that he was most influenced.
The mule-eared style is similar to the Shaker style of furniture, with one major difference. Instead of a stiff, straight back, the backs of mule-eared chairs and rockers are curved. Angel says they just fit the back better. The mule-eared description refers to the finials at the top of the chairs, which flare out like … well … a mule’s ears.
Angel uses native Kentucky woods whenever possible: walnut, cherry, ash, oak and maple. On occasion, when someone requests it, he will use exotic woods like purple heart, also known as amaranth, which typically grows in Central and South America. He also receives requests for American chestnut, which no longer is grown commercially. In its stead, he seeks out old barn wood.
“It has a rustic look, a weathered look. When it’s done properly, it’s beautiful,” he says and then chuckles. “Maybe that’s why I use it, because I’m getting old and weathered.”
Angel mounts his shaving horse, a rustic contraption similar to a cobbler’s bench. He sits on one side of the horse, which is fitted with a foot-operated clamp that holds a rough piece of wood on the other side. His hands grasp the dual-handled spoke shave and drawknife, two tools designed to help remove wood by “shaving” it away to reveal a piece’s rough shape.
He is also adept at bending wood to be able to form the comfortable back parts of each chair and rocker. He uses a stainless steel chamber, about a foot in diameter, which is filled with steam. After 20 hours, he brings out the now-pliable wooden pieces, places them in a jig, clamps them down and bends them. When the wood cools and dries, it maintains the bent shape.
In the beginning of his woodworking career, Angel strictly used hand tools. He has since employed power saws and lathes, mostly out of necessity. It saves time, and it helps him with his biggest challenge—his age. He turned 73 in May.
Angel uses community folks, such as carvers, artists and local mills, to “keep the economy in this area.” He also works with his newly retired son, who he hopes could continue the business. So far, it’s working. Angel is a juried craftsman in four guilds and usually has several projects going at once. He supplies chairs, rockers, stools, pagoda benches and tables to craft venues far and wide.
Until the call of age reaches further than the call of the wood, Angel doesn’t see himself going anywhere. “In 10 years, hopefully I’m still around,” he says with a laugh. “And hopefully, I’ll still be doing this.”
Campbellsville Handmade Cherry Furniture
Eugene McMahan can remember watching the men of his family turn cherry wood into furniture. The McMahan family has produced four generations of woodworkers. Eugene is part of the third generation.
Born in Grant County in 1942, Eugene learned how to make just about anything out of wood.
“I’ve always enjoyed it. When you start something from scratch and then you see it when you get through,” he says, “it’s satisfaction. That’s real pleasure.”
It’s a pleasure he has passed on to his son, Patrick, who now works in the Campbellsville shop.
The McMahans specialize in making what is called antique reproduction furniture. The style is called Early American, or Federal, and includes features such as drawers that are dovetailed, intricate carvings on finials and four-posters, hand-rubbing in between each coat of finish, and solid wood construction.
“We use those methods because it is the example of a quality piece of furniture that is going to stay put together for years,” Patrick says, and then tells a story of a family who had purchased their furniture and moved it down to Louisiana.
“When Hurricane Katrina hit, the family sent us pictures. The only furniture that was standing in their entire house was our furniture. Most of the stuff you find today is not going to do that,” he says. “Nowadays, when you go to a furniture store, it’s all veneer and laminate glued to particle board.”
Large retail stores that have taken to selling the cheaply made furniture might be a part of the biggest challenge for the family business. Patrick says at one time, the business was doing half a million dollars a year. Now, they shoot for $20,000 a month. Despite the market pressure, the McMahans keep piecing together their best.
Their primary wood is cherry, with poplar used as a secondary wood in the construction of the side and back pieces of drawers and cabinets. This is customary, Patrick says. The major changes with their furniture over the years have been the sizes of beds and chests. Beds used to be high off the ground for storage of trundles. The McMahans have styled their pieces closer to the ground to fit in with modern times.
Another thing that has changed is the workforce. Instead of the original eight McMahan brothers, there are four people working in the shop—two of them are McMahans. Eugene works mostly with turning the wood, and Patrick’s specialty is finishing. Eugene’s wife, Linda, handles the books, and Patrick’s wife, Leah, helps out with other facets of the business, such as social media.
Cheaper imports and a disposable society have dampened their business, but the family stays as competitive as they can. A five-piece bedroom suite—including a chest, a dresser, a bed and two night tables—runs around $6,000, depending on the style and materials.
Patrick, who collects mid-century modern furniture, is incorporating a lot of Danish Modern designs with an emphasis from the 1960s. Most of that wood, he says, is walnut and has a more contemporary look. The McMahans use Kentucky woods, and while the business is there to make a profit and support families, the quality of each piece is what truly counts.
Eugene, who turned 73 in March, comes in at 7:30 each morning, six days a week. He works until 3:30 or 4. He says he comes in a little earlier on Saturdays, as that’s the day most people are off work. Eugene anticipates a crowd, but he might come in early just to get his hands on the wood.
“I gotta be doing something,” he says. “It’s exciting when you do something and it turns out beautiful.”
Mark Whitley Studio
Mark Whitley bends his 6-foot-4-inch frame over a slab of found wood. He tucks his hair behind one ear and runs his hands along the still-rough surface of the wood. Before him is not only a nice piece of Kentucky walnut—his favorite wood—it is a project.
“I create things; that’s what I do. I am completely driven by projects. What am I working on now? What is coming up?” he says. “Everything from restoring an old Volkswagen, to building a fine piece of furniture, to building a treehouse, to rebuilding an engine.”
Whitley grew up in Smith’s Grove, just north of Bowling Green. His father, a cabinetmaker, gave him a rudimentary tool set. Whitley still uses the hammer from that set. Some of his earliest projects included a 15-foot-wide glider and, later, a canoe.
“What Dad taught me was how to read a tape measure. He exposed me to the tools and taught me how to use a table saw, how to measure, and to be accurate,” Whitley says. “That was my childhood. I used all my dad’s scraps, and I always thought that was such a gift to have what seemed like an endless supply of wood to make things out of.”
He was 12 when he first started to experiment with wood bending and laminations.
“I remember the first time I did that,” he says. “I remember taking a stack of slices and bending them into a curve, sticking a few clamps on them, and when the glue dried, it stayed curved. I was just blown away that I could do that. I made a bigger chunk of wood out of a bunch of small ones. And it was strong.”
It’s the curve that defines the look of most of Whitley’s work. His River Chest is a compilation of undulating wooden curves. It is based on the original River Bench, commissioned by Jerry Baker out of Bowling Green. A cabinet called the Giraffe Cabinet has a sweeping curve. The Giraffe Cabinet took more than 400 hours to craft.
“I’m real tied to a 42-inch radius. I use that on a lot of stuff. It started because that is the radius that a rocking chair feels most comfortable to rock. There is some sort of cosmic connection between a 42-inch radius and the human body,” Whitley says and smiles. “The way I put them together and make them sort of dance—that is what I call the gift. That’s the magic.”
Unlike Angel, who can put together 30 stools or two rockers in a week, and the McMahans, who produce entire suites of furniture, Whitley begins a project and won’t stop until he finishes it. He maxes out, generally, at 20 pieces a year.
“I never use any nail except on the back of a cabinet where I have to hold the back on. I don’t try to hide anything. I rarely need to reach for the wood putty. When I cut the dovetail joint and you open the drawer and look at it, you are going to see exactly what I was capable of doing that day. You are not going to see something filled with putty to make it look like I was perfect that day,” he says. “It’s real strong, and it’s well done.”
The price reflects the value. A hand-crafted guitar stand starts at $750. The most expensive piece he’s ever sold brought $21,000. The median price of his work runs $5,000.
“It took about eight years of being flat broke before I started reaping the rewards,” he says. “I just try to be genuine and to be exactly who I am. I’m happy when people like my work and when they get into it. When they don’t, that’s cool. It’s a treat to be able to use my hands, to build, and to make the next project.”
Back on the hillside, the saplings reach toward open sky. They are learning to make their calls, and the men, they listen still.