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Tools of the trade: Wood, meaning and memory

Wood carries a memory — of a landscape, the climate, the forest that nurtures and feeds its growth. The hands that shape that wood, those who craft fine woodworking seek its story, the essential form of that wood and find their own meaning in the process. With hands strong and callused, nails often broken and fingers stained, each woodworker discovers how to express the wood they shape.

The beautiful art pieces created by the hands of skilled woodworkers were on display at the 39th annual Siskiyou Woodcraft Guild Fine Woodworking Show last weekend along with a collection of antique hand woodworking tools.

Dev Klarer with Dances with Woods of Ashland is a woodworker who makes unusual art pieces with different kinds of woods that show off the wood’s grain that reflect light and color. Klarer creates optical illusions based on the work of Roger Penrose, a British mathematician.

“A spiritual awakening let me see the world in patterns, to see the geometry of the world and how the world is constructed,” Klarer says. “Wood is the medium I choose to represent how I interpret the world.

Will Sears, a Talent craftsman, has worked with almost every kind of wood over the course of his career building custom musical instruments. Now he seeks simpler forms and simpler materials. Sears makes bowls that begin as perfectly formed turned rounds that find their own shape as they dry, a knot or narrow set of rings affecting the transformation. It all takes time and patience.

“Woodworking is a kind of meditative practice for me,” Sears admits. “I’ve lived in Talent where the wood comes from for 40 some years and the wood is offered up by the land for me to work with. The wood has a big hand in creating what I’m making.”

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A fine woodworker isn’t rushing through production to churn out cookie-cutter items. There’s a respect for tradition in the craftsmanship that causes many to use hand tools instead of power saws, to work more slowly than quickly.

“There’s a lot of things that you can only do with hand tools: different kind of fine joints and carvings, a really good finish is better with a finer and a scraper rather than sandpaper,” explains Sears. “There’s something about planing with a hand plane and the sound of the plane cutting into the wood, your muscles doing the work. It’s much more satisfying, a more intimate connection with the wood.”

Sears understands hand tools, and when Ashlander Ray Barry decided to downsize, he gave his grandfather’s woodworking tools to Sears, who displayed the collection in the Siskiyou Woodcraft Guild’s show windows. The woodworking tools of Gustav Theodore Mellquist, Barry’s grandfather, bear the legacy of a man who loved to work in wood and they also carry a heritage of World War II patriotism.

Mellquist’s tools include a handsaw, some planes, spokeshades, an odd auger bit and brace and chisels, tools all made in the 1920s and 1930s. The wooden handles are solid, the edges razor sharp, the best money could buy at the time. These are the tools that Mellquist used to teach manual arts in Cleveland, Ohio, where his students built model airplanes for the military.

Between 1940 and 1945, newspapers around the country caught the wartime fever and started Air Cadet Corps, with local chapters sponsored by schools, YMCAs and local chambers of commerce; Gustav Mellquist headed up a chapter in Cleveland’s Patrick Henry Junior High School. For just 15 cents, boys would receive a bronze pin, directions to make model airplanes, information on how to identify aircraft, build engines and learn radio operations. Girls received a booklet on how to be a stewardess.

Mellquist was exempt from the draft but traveled to Sweden during World Wars I and II, so he may have had a keener sense of wartime danger. While most boys focused on rubber-band powered and gas engines, models of any design that could fly and win competitions, Mellquist’s students built scale models, exact replicas of wartime airplanes, pursuits, bombers and transports. Newspaper articles report that Mellquist’s models helped “Navy pilots recognize the different types of friendly and enemy aircraft.”

Now, Gustav Mellquist’s woodworking tools are in Sears’ capable and callused hands and will be made available to other woodworkers.

“Ray wants me to find people beyond myself who can actively use and appreciate these tools,” Sears explained. “I’m talking with some of the other woodworkers and those who can really appreciate what Ray’s grandfather had.”

“I always hoped that I had someone to pass these tools to, but I don’t, so letting them go is painful,” Barry says. “I thought this was a way to honor my grandfather and the legacy that he’s left behind, the trades and craft that were his livelihood. It’s part of my letting go.”

For more information on Gustav Mellquist’s vintage woodworking tools, email Will Sears at willcsears@gmail.com. For more information on the Siskiyou Woodcraft Guild, visit www.SiskiyouWoodcraftGuild.org.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

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