Genius in Wood: in the woods

I’m not going to tell you Jeff’s last name or where he lives because I’m pretty sure he doesn’t want you to know. I’m pretty sure he didn’t want me to know. What I do know for sure, is that Jeff is a genius.shipshanging

Jeff takes trees and turns them into things. All sorts of things. Most recently he enjoys turning them in to machines with gears, sprockets, and spinning bobbles. He goes through phases. He used to like making trains. He would make fully articulating train engines and cars, all out of hand crafted wood.millpanorama

He went through a viking ship building phase, a large spherical planter phase, and overall an “I will build as I please” phase that I think has lasted his entire life. His desire to build as he pleases does not include a lumber yard. He was pleased to build his own saw mill behind his house. He told me he wanted to explore the entire process, which is why he bought the mill. Further into the conversation I realized that when he says he bought a mill, what he really meant was he bought the giant saw, then he built what most of us think of as “the mill” up around it. He built it himself. He said it took him an entire summer.notebook

This claim became even more fantastic, and believable, when we found a home made ladder inside the mill. He made it. He made all of it. Alone.

Jeff is very soft spoken and polite. He was quick to meet any of our requests, showing us this and explaining that, even though it was obvious, painfully obvious, that he led a life of intentionally avoiding most of humanity. You will never meet someone who treats you so nicely, despite the fact that they likely wish they never met

I asked him how he learned to do all of this. I wanted to know if someone taught him. He responded, “My father did some work with cabinetry but I’m pretty much an autodidact.” He showed me his shelf of books. Engineering, machinery, projects. He says he studies and plans things out. I asked if he networks with other woodworkers or has ever had any desire to  market his skills.

He responded that for a while he was selling his trains, he had a business, but he got tired of trains. He said he has seen and been inspired by some inventors he saw on television making large oscillating wind driven sculptures. I responded that I have seen those sculptures on YouTube and was curious if he has ever reached out to those others directly, sent them an email perhaps.train

He looked right at me and flatly said, “No. I hate computers. I really. Hate computers.” He went on to tell me that he was in high school right as personal computers were coming out. He and his best friend were excited and wanted to learn everything about them but his school didn’t have any curriculum or equipment. The two of them worked on getting a grant and special approval to get equipment and books and they dove right in. “To give you an idea how much I hate computers, my friend has gone on to become a huge computer tycoon while I don’t ever want to touch one. They aren’t for me.”

He finds them invasive.

My brother has sailed around the entire globe and now works for a Norwegian shipping company, so he had to buy one of Jeff’s ships. These ships did not come from a kit, they came from a tree and Jeff’s research on the Gokstad Ship. He reconstructed the entire thing.shipshadowheadon

Jeff was happy to sell it to him but when my brother giddily remarked that his associates were all going to want one too, Jeff politely requested that he be careful because he doesn’t want to build any more ships.

He is past that phase.

Sam Maloof Does Not Own a Basketball Team

I am not a woodworker but I know a grizzly bear who is.

sunburstHad I been a woodworker I might have known that I have recently relocated to the town where once lived one of the greatest woodworkers of all time. Now that last descriptor is all mine, neither the woodworker nor the grizzly made that claim, but I am sticking with it. The man won a MacArthur Fellowship for heaven’s sake. Most of us call the MacArthur Fellowship the “Genius Awards”. I saw hanging on a wall in his house, a legit certificate certifying that this woodworker was in fact a genius.

This woodworker, the famous one not the grizzly, was Sam Maloof.

Sam_Maloof_rocker_1994“No, this guy didn’t own the Kings. He made a rocking chair. Yes a rocking chair. So do you wanna go with me to his house or what? No, its a cool rocking chair. Shut up. Do you wanna go or not?”

I think that’s pretty much how the conversation went. While generally an idiot I am occasionally smart enough to listen to Kaleo Kala and we drove down the street to visit the house Sam Maloof. Good heavens am I glad I did because this guy, this carpenter from Chino, if judged by his house, was the coolest man to ever live.

Okay that may be an overstatement, but his house is almost exactly what I wish for when I drift off to my happy place.porch

Its not just the house, its everything about the house. Its everything in the house. It is a house that became a museum the day the inhabitant passed away. This means that this guy created a space and place to live, and did it so well, that everyone else wanted to come and see it. And so we did.

When I say created I mean he built the house. He designed it bit by bit, adding on to it with time and when funds became available. It isn’t a box to live in, because it grew with time, grew out of his mind, it became this organic living thing. It became… interesting. I crave interesting.

Interesting was everywhere in that place.bell tower

The furniture was all custom, the art on the walls was all original, and every item had a story behind it. It looked good. It was comfortable. It was interesting and t was real.

Real. Real like the Navajo rugs were obtained from a Navajo down on the reservation. The bell up on that bell tower was salvaged from an old church down in New Mexico. The kachina dolls were from a Hopi not a factory. Well, except one kachina that he made himself. But the idea that he made one adds to the interest of the item. There was pottery from Egypt, that he got in Egypt, African masks that he got in Africa, and the most beautiful wood canoe I have ever seen hanging from a vaulted ceiling. It was a real canoe, hand made by some guy but I don’t think it ever made it into a body of water. It was a useful item made so beautifully that it became art.

There were books everywhere. Family photos. Dishes and silverware that had never seen the inside of a big box store. There was stained glass, old things, new things. Straight lines and curved lines. Al of this stuff that spoke and told stories despite the man having passed.

Mr. Maloof and I never met. I know little of how he treated people, but I think I want to be him. Or at least I want to be the kind of guy who can create the sort of things he created, either directly or by assembly. Man did he do it right.


Have you ever been to a candy store, when you don’t really like candy, but there was a kid there and it was fun to watch? I haven’t, but I’m guessing it would be much the same as seeing Kaleo at Sam Maloof’s house. Its like I, and most all of us, are ducks, then we go to Mr. Maloof’s house and I look over next to me and doggone it if Kaleo isn’t really a swan. Its fun to watch a swan in its element.

He was the only one in our tour group that was more excited to see the wood shed than the actual house.touch the wood

Mancation: Center for Furniture Craftsmanship

Kaleo took control of the GPS and started barking out directions. The man now had purpose. We had a destination.

The Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport

We parked in a dirt lot and walked a gravel path and into a manicured collection of cabin like buildings.

The place appeared well cared for but deserted. The door was open but the lights were off. We went into a gallery filled with wooden works of art and started nosing around. It did not take long before a well dressed woman to welcome us and inquire as to our display

Kaleo dropped two names and she pretty much handed us the keys to place.

Again, well done were-bear.

We wandered in and out of workshops and class rooms. Chairs half made and projects half done were littered about. Students and craftsmen nodded hello as we made our inspection. school chairsWe stopped and chatted with some.

Kaleo studied furniture design at a similar school in Tasmania. These folks here in Maine knew his folks over in Australia. Small furniture world I guess. school talkingSo small that our unplanned arrival caused us to just miss one of Kaleo’s old instructors. He had just dropped off a new piece for an upcoming show. A piece that had not yet been revealed to the public.

When we finished our rounds the well dressed woman fetched a set of keys and led us to the back of the main building. She opened the cellar and led us underground for a sneak peek. school going underUnder a blanket in a basement that looks very much like my own (messy), she pulled a blanket off a wood crafted octopus/spider that doubles as a spider desk

Kaleo touched the tentacles, pulled out the drawers, inspected the joints. Preston and I just watched Kaleo as he looked.

 school iphone

Sufficiently impressed we remounted our ride and readied for the next locale. “How long doe sit take to get to Eric’s over in Vermont?”

“Six hours.”

“We better get going.”

Mancation: Lie-Nielson Tool Works

Portland Maine is a nice town, even in the rain. Having realized that we hardy campers failed to pack a tent, the early evening was spent wandering the cobble stone streets, happily wasting time. We had no tent but we did have time. And Portland has plenty of pubs and eateries. Our kind of pubs.ginger beer

As the night wore on, we wore out, and the rain persisted. We found a rest stop a few miles north of town and considered the last parking spot, the one farthest from the street light, our camp. As I turned off the ignition Dr. Chadwick happily said, “Well. I forgot to bring a rain jacket, but I remembered my ear plugs.” After which he promptly curled up on the back seat and slept. I looked over at the were-bear as he reclined the passenger seat, not yet knowing his nocturnal secret. I would soon find out. It must have been a full moon because not long after that seat laid back I was amazed as this docile furniture designer transformed into an aggressively grunting and snorting beast.mate dalyn

At about 7am the next morning, on the shore of a foggy inlet, the beast was quickly forgiven. Were-bears are apparently great hunters because this one produced 2 lbs of butcher cut apple smoked bacon. Good bear. We ate, I sipped mate and watched fog roll across the water, and by 8am we were back in the car looking blankly at each other.


Why not.

Around 9:30, with no destination, not really knowing where we were, Kaleo’s face hit the window like a kid spotting Disney world and ordered us to pull over. Fortunate happenstance, serendipity, or maybe fate. We happened upon Lie-Nielson Tool Works.tool kaleo

In 1981 Thomas Lie-Nielson left his job at a NY based company that made hand tools, moved to Maine, and started making hand planes himself. What was once a small one man shop, is now a 13,000 square foot world renowned producer of woodworking tools. So much so that when three wanderers arrived in the middle of no where and wanted to take a tour, they were not just prepared for us, but were obviously used to visitors.goggles

Wandering through the warehouse, watching people toil at machines, I half expected everyone to break out into a seven dwarves sort of song and dance number. These were laborers, craftsmen and women, one with a tattoo of a spider on his bald head, and they looked as if they -wait for it- liked their jobs.tool not shiny

Whether that is true or not, people love their tools.

tool tools

tool shiny

 tool spider head11 am. Back in the car. Where too?

North some more.