Woodworkers who've carved out reputations as some of the country's best craftsmen
Today's leading talents in contemporary woodworking may embellish with turquoise or iron, or choose to leave the wood grain raw. But for all of the following artists, working with wood is an enduring labor of love.
From the earliest times, artists have carved in wood. Realistic sculptures of human figures fashioned out of sycamore have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs, dating to 4,000 B.C. Continuing a tradition of outstanding craftsmanship, today's leading talents in contemporary woodworking may embellish with turquoise or iron, or choose to leave the wood grain raw. But for all of the following artists, working with wood is an enduring labor of love.
John Gallis, Norseman Designs West
Wyoming-based woodworker John Gallis explains his passion for his livelihood by telling a joke. It goes something like this: "What does a woodworker do when he wins the lottery? He keeps working until the money runs out."
It still makes him laugh no matter how often he tells it, and yet it's also a poignant expression of who he is. "Woodworkers are a different breed," Gallis says. "We do it because we love it."
At 59, more than half his life has been devoted to making furniture. Originally from Long Island, New York, he was Bloomingdale's chief cabinetmaker for 14 years, crafting bookcases, entertainment centers, and workstations for Manhattan condos, including Trump Tower. After a 1995 trip to Yellowstone National Park, Gallis fell in love with Wyoming's blue sky and snowcapped mountains. Soon after, he quit his job and moved his wife and children to Cody. "There's not a day I have regrets," he says.
Gallis has apprenticed with several renowned furniture makers, including Sam Maloof, and has won honors at the prestigious Western Design Conference. With a team of four employees working out of a 5,000-square-foot shop, Gallis' company, Norseman Designs West, produces custom-made "refined Western furniture," including specialty desks, club chairs and ottomans, dining and conference tables, entertainment centers, loveseats, beds, armoires, and lamps. He works mainly in Pennsylvania walnut (tabletops are made from 2-inch slabs), reclaimed wormy chestnut from Amish barns, and fallen juniper, which he gathers himself and uses for table and desk legs.
One of his specialties is making door panels and desk details from spalted maple, a process he perfected by burying maple logs in dank humus for 14 months to give the wood interesting lines and figures. His curvaceous yet solidly built furniture takes inspiration from art nouveau and Shaker styles, two of Gallis' favorites. It takes him about 200 hours to make a single piece of furniture, and he produces only 12 to 14 pieces a year — each of which he delivers personally by truck, with a lifetime refinishing policy.
"I build investment pieces," Gallis says. And he doesn't plan to stop anytime soon.
• Info: 307.587.7777, www.norsemandesignswest.com
Charlie Zeller, Chuck's Woodbarn
Nebraska woodworker Charlie Zeller specializes in the lost art of steam-bending wood. A self-taught woodworker, Zeller began making camelback trunks five years ago in the centuries-old fashion after his wife, Sherry, wanted an antique trunk but couldn't find one.
"I taught myself by trial and error," he says. In the tradition of antique trunks, Zeller uses only quarter-sawn white oak, and he designs and constructs each piece by hand. A standard 36-inch trunk takes about 100 hours or more to build.
"We are not concerned about how long it takes but about doing it right," says Zeller, who launched Chuck's Woodbarn in 2004. "When someone buys one of our trunks, they'll have it in their family for generations. We make it to last hundreds of years."
Each piece is stained and finished to look old, down to the authentic reproduction hardware. Sherry designs the interiors based on the customer's wishes: The inside can be left plain; lined with fabric, leather, or cedar; accented with laser engravings or crocheted pockets; or personalized in a variety of ways. Zeller has even covered trunk exteriors with ostrich skin or a customer's own hides.
While most trunks are sized to store clothing, bedding, and memorabilia, Chuck's Woodbarn also produces show-stopping over-scaled versions to house televisions and entertainment centers. Their newest pieces, steam-bent wall crosses, are a big hit, says Zeller, who signs everything he makes.
• Info: 308.692.3119, www.chuckswoodbarn.com
Lou Quallenberg, Lou Quallenberg Studios
Lou Quallenberg specializes in handmade furniture made from handpicked mesquite grown in the southernmost region of the Texas Hill Country. Mesquite is denser, harder, and shrinks less than many other fine woods, including cherry, walnut, and Indian rosewood. This means your drawers won't stick and your furniture won't crack with changing humidity levels, says Quallenberg, who is known for his signature floating-top desks and sensual, curvaceous designs.
Quallenberg, who was a professional photographer before moving to Llano, Texas, in 2002, is admittedly inspired by the female form.
"I just love the curves of a woman. My wife considers each new piece to be my girlfriend of the moment," he says. "While most mesquite furniture makers look for good, straight, solid pieces of wood, we seek out the mesquite with the unusual curves and character."
Cracks and crevices and insect holes naturally found in mesquite are sometimes inlaid with gem-quality turquoise or bits of gold. Oversize coffee tables are some of Quallenberg's most popular pieces.
"Our clients tend to build a room around them," he says. Many of his clients participate in the process from start to finish, helping to choose the tree and receiving updates and documentary photographs every step of the way. "They feel especially connected to their piece in a way you can't be with a piece of mass-produced furniture," he says.
• Info: 325.247.4304, www.louqart.com
Cappy White, Old Stones Furniture
Pagosa Springs, Colorado
Cappy White's handmade furniture is crafted with traditional joinery from south Texas mesquite and inlaid with stones gathered from the high-mountain forests of southwest Colorado near his home in Pagosa Springs. Inspired by the stone ruins at Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon, White began incorporating stones into his work several years ago after he and his wife built a home from stacked stone and timber.
"We'd literally just finished it and I stood back and looked at it and said, 'You know, that'd be a great way to make furniture,'" remembers White, who had 20 years of furniture making under his belt when the idea sparked. "My work took on a whole new energy after that," he says.
It also won immediate accolades, including the People's Choice award at the 2007 Western Design Conference. Indian ruins may have inspired his latest furniture style, but it's music that inspires his daily creative process.
"I listen to music all the time when I work. I like the freedom of the musician to create as he goes, and I like the unexpected in music, the improvisation. It frees me up to create," he says.
Recently he and his wife bought a winter home in Austin, Texas, where the music is fine and the locals appreciate his handiwork, he says. He plans to open a second workshop there soon.
• Info: 970.264.9663, www.oldstonesfurniture.com
Tom Dean, Milo Creek Carvings
Great Falls, Montana
In 2005, Tom Dean quit his busy, lucrative job with a pharmaceutical company to spend more time with his children. For a while he lived off his savings and enjoyed his time off with his family in their Great Falls, Montana, home.
During his eight-month repose, his sister gave him a used Dremel. Says Dean: "I tinkered with it and made a fish. I love fly-fishing — I'm 47 and I've been fly-fishing since I was 6 years old." Next, he made a dragonfly. But the family coffers were dwindling, so Dean went back to work as a salesman. He kept carving in his spare time, and eventually someone suggested he sell his carved fish.
"I sold one for $60 and it was the most incredible feeling," he says. One thing led to another, more fish sold, and Dean quit his job to carve full time.
Milo Creek Carvings, named after his fly-fishing grandfather Milo Dean, opened in 2008. Dean's pieces fetch thousands of dollars (a large sculpture can go for five figures) and are represented in a number of fine galleries. Dean's depictions of freshwater fish often include brown, brook, rainbow, and cutthroat trout, as well as salmon, swimming in their natural environments. Except for inlaid river rocks, the sculptures are entirely carved in wood. He works mainly with exotic woods, such as African mahogany, tigerwood from Brazil, lace wood from Australia, koa wood from Hawaii, and bubinga wood from West Africa.
"I prefer exotic woods not only for their beauty but because they are dense and tough. I can make the fish's fins delicate that way, or the wings of a dragonfly like lace," says Dean.
Unlike many fish carvers, he doesn't use paint but allows the natural colors and patterns in the woods to show. A small sculpture can take up to three months to carve, while larger pieces take upwards of six.
Dean's currently working on a 10-by-5-foot commission for a sporting goods store from a huge slab of bubinga wood. Next up: otters, birds of prey, even bulls, says Dean.
• Info: 406.868.8889, www.milocreekcarvings.com
Edward Wohl, Edward Wohl's Woodworking & Design
Wisconsin-based Edward Wohl's sinuous furniture is immediately recognizable for its soft corners, rounded edges, and unstained figured wood.
A master craftsman with a degree in architecture, Wohl has been designing furniture since 1970. He learned how to engineer and design a functional, beautiful chair from friend and mentor Bill Stumpf, legendary designer of Aeron and Ergon chairs for Herman Miller.
"If you know his chairs, he wants everything to be comfortable and impeccably crafted," says Wohl, who takes the extra time to round corners and finish the undersides of each piece.
He never uses stain, instead letting the natural color of the wood shine. He prefers hardwoods, such as bird's-eye maple, white oak, black cherry, and black walnut.
Wohl crafts blanket chests, benches, rocking and dining chairs, tables, specialty cabinets, and other pieces, often using hand-cut dovetail joinery and other fine woodworking details.
He's perhaps best known for his curvaceous bird's-eye maple cutting boards, which are sold in galleries, museum shops, and stores in Italy, Japan, England, and the United States.
• Info: 608.924.9411, www.edwardwohl.com
Joni Hamari, Hamari Fine Art & Furnishings
Wasilla, Alaska, and Cave Creek, Arizona
A rtist Joni Hamari, who has studios in Cave Creek, Arizona, and Wasilla, Alaska, works in multiple mediums, including stone, wood, bronze, and paint on canvas. Sculpting since she was a child, Hamari carves her nudes from soapstone, casts them in bronze, and sometimes layers them with copper, silver, or pure gold.
Her Western and wildlife bronzes include limited-edition bulls cast in bronze and layered in pure gold, limited-edition bronze herons, a life-size gray wolf in bronze, and tabletop-size bronze sculptures of the early Texas Rangers on horseback.
Hamari also creates massive conference and dining tables — some longer than 15 feet — from giant sequoia, old-growth redwood, and burl slabs, with stunning stone inlays of white buffalo turquoise, natural amber, or precious metals. Hamari signs and dates each piece.
• Info: 907.841.8827, www.hamaridesign.com
Christine and Ron Sisco, Treestump Woodcrafts
Wood artisans Christine and Ron Sisco create furniture and kitchenware from hardwoods, filling the wood's natural grain with inlaid turquoise, much the way ancient Chinese filled porcelain cracks with gold.
The Arizona-based Treestump Woodcrafts sells its handcrafted pieces in stores and galleries in almost every state in the country. Some of the Siscos' most popular works are their cutting boards, knives, bowls, and salad serving pieces, all inlaid with Sleeping Beauty turquoise, valued for its tranquil blue color. The amount of turquoise used determines the price of the piece.
They also craft custom furniture and lamps from mesquite and inlay them with turquoise. Colorful lampshades, sold separately, are created using papers imported from Nepal, Thailand, Japan, and the Philippines and are made from silk, banana, mulberry, mango, and abaca fibers.
• Info: 800.306.8733, www.treestump.biz
Scott Strikwerda, Lone Peak Carvings
Salt Lake City, Utah
Salt Lake City-area woodworker Scott Strikwerda is known for his detailed and realistic depictions of animals and nature on wooden mantels, doors, and oven hoods. The 53-year-old Strikwerda, who grew up in Utah and California, is a third-generation paper hanger who picked up his first wood-working tool 17 years ago and basically taught himself.
By 2003 he had enough business to quit his day job as a regional sales manager for a commercial cabinetry company, and he began carving full time.
"It's hard to ignore the sensuality of wood. If you are a guy who's motivated by passion like I am, and not by money, carving wood was an attraction I couldn't ignore," says Strikwerda, who recently teamed up with local artisan Byron Pixton to create Lone Peak Carvings.
Their specialty is personalized architectural embellishment for cabinetry, oven hoods, wine-cellar doors, mantels, and entry doors, primarily using alder wood and rustic cherry. "We bring in the details of our clients' lives," says Strikwerda, who often photographs clients' horses at their ranches or the grapevines in their vineyards to use as inspiration for the carving.
A recent commission for a large entry door involved the client and his son depicted on a favorite horse. Doors provide a large enough canvas that he's able to bring out the details of a face.
"They cried when they saw it," he says. Strikwerda carefully studies the anatomy of the animals he carves to get "the motion and the emotion" right. He'll sometimes bleach the wood for highlights and then stain it, but he never uses paint. "When the carving is good, you don't need it," he says.
• Info: 801.301.7050, www.lonepeakcarvings.com
Mike Roths, Bear Paw Designs
When Mike Roths was a kid growing up in central Iowa, he played a joke on the fishermen in his hometown of Vinton. Roth carved a pair of realistic bear paws from basswood and attached them to his feet, then stomped around the woods near the river. Bears don't live in Iowa, so the discovery of tracks ended up on the local news and in the papers.
Roths' tracks were so convincing that experts were called in to study them. A woodcarver was born.
The prank earned Roths the nickname Bear Paw, which also inspired the name of his Montana furniture-making company, established in 1982. He employs three craftsmen at his 4,500-square-foot shop to design and construct Western-inspired pieces made from leather, hand-forged iron, and hardwoods like cherry, oak, walnut, and antique barn wood.
He emphasizes Old World craftsmanship, using dovetail, mortise, and tenon joinery, and is known for his custom cabinetry and Western-style furniture.
But his unusual custom commissions are, like the bear paws he created decades ago, what grab attention: a wet bar built to look like a 1920s Great Northern caboose and a back bar made to resemble a late-1800s saloon complete with seven secret compartments.
• Info: 406.777.5388, www.bearpawdesigns.com
Jerry Van Vleet, Legendary Heirloom
Colorado native Jerry Van Vleet lives on a ranch inside Montana's remote Flathead Indian Reservation, where he designs and crafts rustic and Western-themed furniture.
Van Vleet's antique reproductions include a hall tree, designed to hang coats and umbrellas, crafted from black walnut with hand-forged steer horns; and an ice-box chest made from hickory, which can be used as a bar or game cabinet.
He's probably best-known for his one-of-a-kind interpretations, such as the Alamo gun cabinet, carved from burly walnut and featuring dried cactuses on either side. Inside it holds 14 rifles, five fly rods, and 12 pistols, and it can be converted into an entertainment center.
Van Vleet's cactus executive desk is carved from monkey-pod wood and boasts a large green-painted wood saguaro cactus, a real buffalo skull, lava rock, and a chair made from an authentic tractor seat that swivels.
• Info: 406.883.3046, www.legendaryheirloom.com