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Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, August 11, 2011
In a world of plastic, woodworkers carry on an age-old craft
By Jordan J. Michael
ALTAMONT The smell of sawdust indicates a woodworker is nearby. The lathe spins, sawdust flies, and a piece of wood is transformed into something greater.
“It’s not a good day if you can’t smell sawdust,” said Warren Stoker, a Northeast Woodworking Association member from Delmar. Stoker makes durable wooden toys he gives to children for free.
The Northeast Woodworking Association is a not-for-profit organization based in Cohoes with over 800 members. Some of these members, like Stoker, will be at the Altamont Fair next Thursday and Friday. Woodworkers will turn their spindles in the 1890s Building in hopes of engaging the public.
“We want to get people interested in woodwork,” said Altamont’s Bob Bernardi, who will also be volunteering at the fair. “We like to share with people. We like to excite people. If someone wants to know how to do woodwork, we can show them how to do it.”
Bernardi has been turning wood for 13 years making bowls, tops, circular boxes, and jewelry dishes. He’s also an organic gardener, so he’s particular about the types of wood and the different colors each can provide.
“I went to woodworking shows with my uncle many years ago and I would see all the wood chips flying off,” Bernardi said. “Many different shapes were being made. I thought it was cool.”
To make a bowl, Bernardi starts with a piece of wood with the bark still on it. He uses a chainsaw to cut out a rough shape and then puts the wood aside for five months to season. The wood, now lighter, is turned into its final shape and coated with a light finish of mineral oil and beeswax.
Bernardi told The Enterprise that it takes a certain sense of touch to smooth and shape the wood. The texture starts out quite rough, so woodworkers use plenty of sandpaper.
“I do crafts,” Bernardi said when asked if woodworking is an art or craft. “But, there are people who go further that do amazing artwork. I’ve seen some drop-dead gorgeous work out there.”
The association puts on an annual Showcase at the Saratoga Civic Center in late March; the 25,000-square-foot exposition features some of the finest woodwork in the region. The Showcase attracts about 4,000 people and displays furniture, toys, turnings, carvings, miniatures, and sports equipment.
Stoker remembers a man who had a turned piece sold to a New York museum for $25,000. “I can’t really explain what it was, but it took him over 300 hours,” he said. “There was a half-inch hole in the middle that was 10 inches wide. It was repeatedly hollowed and vacuumed out. Phenomenal stuff.”
NWA members volunteer their time without getting paid. They make thousands of products for numerous charities: Toys for Hole In the Woods, wheelchairs for disabled people, and a special bed for a child served by the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
“It’s a fascinating group of people,” Ken Evans, a woodworker from Valley Falls, said.
The idea of the NWA is to get people more skilled at woodworking, Stoker said. The members help each other and are willing to teach anyone who wants to join.
“You’ll see everything in action and get a pleasant conversation,” said Stoker. “Want to go further? We’ll teach you how to work.”
Pens and Harry Potter wands will be handed out to the public during the fair. Stoker said that it takes 30 minutes to an hour for someone to make a wooden pen. “We can probably work something out for you,” he said.
For turning, a piece of wood is mounted between the centers of a lathe. The lathe rotates at speeds from 60 revolutions per minute to 3,000, but the general speed is anywhere between 800 and 1,200 rpm. A woodworker uses a chisel to chip off little pieces of wood until the desired shape is obtained. Finally, sandpaper smoothes the surface.
“It’s a wonderful way to use spare time to make something you can be proud of,” Stoker said. “There’s so much plastic out there, but this is sturdy wood. You get the satisfaction of making something yourself. Pure, personal enjoyment.”
The NWA won’t be making tables or chairs at the fair, but woodworkers will show the public how simple it is to get involved with such a craft. Mainly, they’ll be looking for some good conversation.
While Bernardi was turning wood at last year’s fair, he overheard a girl say something to her mother about his not wearing safety goggles. Turns out the Berne-Knox-Westerlo student had gotten points off in her shop class for not lowering her goggles.
“That was a nice interchange,” Bernardi said.
“We’re good at talking,” said Stoker. “We laugh, learn, and leave happy.”