The art of woodworking

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By John Barnhart

Termites would not receive a warm reception from the Central Virginia Woodworkers Guild, but anybody else interested in wood would be welcome.

The guild, based in Lynchburg but with many Bedford area members, always has room for a few more folks interested in the craft. Members range from accomplished artisans to beginners. The organization, founded 10 years ago by Carl Miller, currently has 50 members.

Todd Holt and James Jones represent the professional end of the spectrum, as does Roger Henderson.

Holt restores and repairs harps. When an old harp comes in to H. Bryan & Co., Howard Bryan takes it apart and repairs the mechanical portion.

"There are over 2,000 moving parts in there," commented Holt.

Holt does all the woodwork and ornamentation. When the job is finished, a restored harp could be worth as much as $45,000. Some are very old. Holt has restored 18th century instruments.

"We have a lot of professional musicians we work for," Holt commented.

H. Bryan & Company, which has shops in Forest and Lynchburg, is the only company in America that can restore antique European harps. Holt said that the oldest harp that he's worked on, for which he has a definite birthday, was made in 1787.

While Holt primarily restores old instruments, Jones makes new ones.

"I am a custom builder of hammer dulcimers," Jones said.

Henderson owns H. A. L. Woodworking, a wood products company that he and his father, the late Commander Robyn Henderson (U. S. Navy, retired) founded 29 years ago. The company makes a number of custom and customizable solid hardwood products, including their Virginia Box, a presentation box made of black walnut or cherry.

Along with professionals, the guild also includes amateurs, including some who are quite advanced.

Dale Toms, one of the amateurs, got interested in woodworking in an eighth grade industrial arts class. A technology salesman by profession, Toms has built a woodworking shop that has earned him national attention. It was spotlighted in the Spring, 2007 edition of Wood Magazine as one of America's 15 best home workshops. This year, it's on the cover of Popular Woodworking.

The 32-foot by 48-foot shop contains 17 floor mounted power tools. Toms acquired most of these after his wife, Debbie made a deal with him in 1989. If he quit smoking, he would be able to make a major tool purchase every month that he stayed smoke free, without any questions from her. He hasn't touched a cigarette since.

Toms designed and built most of the shop himself, including the electrical system which has each floor-mounted power tool on a separate circuit breaker. It also has a dust collection system that uses air to remove sawdust from each machine while it is working and an ambient air filter that takes filters sawdust from the air.

Among other things, Toms makes grandfather clocks, Shaker oval boxes and furniture and wooden chests, one of which he made to store his wife's sweaters. His woodworking skills, however, had nothing to do with Debbie's decision to marry him.

"Actually, I didn't know he was that talented," she commented.

Toms has been a member of the Woodworking Guild for 10 years, although he isn't a charter member.

"I was at the second or third meeting," he recalled.

Toms said that the guild has some fantastic craftsmen. It also has some folks who are just getting started.

It's also been good for some of those craftsmen when they first got started. Larry Durey, who owns Goose Creek Woodworks in Moneta is one of them. Durey builds custom furniture and cabinets. When he first opened the business nine years ago, after a career change, getting involved in the guild was useful. It provided him with business networking opportunities and introduced him to the the person who supplies his hardwood.

"I wouldn't have that without the guild," he said, adding that it is also a great resource for knowledge.

The career change was significant. Prior to that, he had been an engineer for Pratt & Whitney, the aircraft engine manufacturer that makes jet engines used in large air liners such as the Boeing 747 and Boeing 777. Surprisingly, his previous career helps him with his current business. He had lots of experience designing, then spending time on the manufacturing floor seeing his designs in production. He also used computer software that creates 3-D solid computer models of designs, which he uses for some complex wood designs.

His work ranges from furniture to custom home entertainment centers. The home entertainment centers must look good and fit in with the house's existing woodwork. They must also allow high powered electronic components to get adequate ventilation for cooling and dampen vibrations. If the cabinetry in a home entertainment center vibrates, it affects the sound system's acoustics.

Why the career change?

"My wife asked if I could build a few small pieces for the house," he said.

Durey had always done woodworking in his spare time since getting interested in a high school shop class, so this was not a difficult request. As a result, Durey realized where his heart was and followed it, even though it meant a substantial drop in income.

He said the guild members range from beginners to advanced hobbyists and professionals. The guys just getting started are important, according to Holt. He said that one of the benefits the guild has is to give experienced woodworkers the chance to pass on their skills to others.

There's also plenty for experienced woodworkers. The guild's July 12 meeting will feature a presentation by Dave Clauss. Clauss, a guild member, is one of Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest's two woodworkers. He does all his work using the tools and techniques that were in use 200 years ago. He will demonstrate how people made wood moldings by hand in Jefferson's day.

"For those of us who know how it's done these days, it's fascinating to see how it was done in those days," Holt said.

Then, there is the social aspect. Toms said that these are gatherings where woodworking enthusiasts are guaranteed interesting conversations. Durey calls them a chance to socialize with people with a like passion.

The Woodworking Guild is not a men's club. Women interested in woodworking are welcome and Holt said that they currently have a few female members.

If you're interested in the guild, or the demonstration, contact Todd Holt at toddholt@verizon.net. James Jones Instruments has a Web site at www.jamesjonesinstruments.com and H. A. L. Woodworking is at www.halwoodworking.com. Durey's Goose Creek Woodworks can be reached by calling 297-4477.