Autumn in the south, slightly before the sun is realized above the horizon, brings a feeling unique to this part of the world. It’s crisp, but not truly cold. The air smells like the rolling smoke off of smoldering apple wood logs. Nostrils tingling and chainsaw in hand, I meet up with five other woodworkers under the autumn spell. Early shift workers and little children aside, most people are still wisely nestled between their sheets. Still, here we are, steam swirling off the gas station coffee, gathered in a heavily wooded yard in West Columbia. Our mission is simple: remove the 250 year red oak that has fallen in a recent storm and turn it into lumber. This is no average tree. At its base it is the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. Lying head first down a hill, the trunk looks like the tail of a shooting star over our heads.
My compatriots are a mixed lot. I stand alone as the only professional woodworker, but by no means am I the most talented. In addition to myself, there are two master wood turners, and a jujitsu master who brings his patience and concentration to both his own woodworking and often, when needed, mine. We have all come, drawn by our individual love of the natural beauty of wood, to salvage and conquer this log. As the first rays of sun begin to break through the branches of the leafless trees, we begin. In the first six hours of work the cutting of chainsaws, swinging of axes, and hammering of wedges create a choir of work. The chainsaws take turns between singing solos and duets. There is something beautiful about the sound of a sharp chainsaw cutting through wood.
Lunch time finds us leaning against our axes. We stink of chainsaw bar oil and fresh cut oak. We need food. There are recommendations for fast food, but I resist. We need real food. Good food. Our food must match our task. I pile everyone into my truck and drive. 45 minutes later we arrive in front of a small town diner outside of Columbia. I am unsure of exactly the small town we are in. I am not sure of the name of the diner either as it has changed owners and names over the years, yet all the old signs still remain. I know this place from previous travels looking for a rumored source of black walnut. I never found the walnut, but I did find a classic meat and three. Clean and simple in appearance, the restaurant is unpretentious, as are its patrons. We are welcomed in as if we have had lunch there everyday for years. The price is right, the food is genuine, and the drive has afforded us time to rest and regain our strength.
Free from our work at the moment, and fortified by the meal, the conversation is light and jovial. We talk of uses for the lumber, things we will create when the wood is cured. Technique is questioned and argued. Jokes are made at each other’s expense. In one of those moments of quiet that comes after a satisfying meal, I am asked a simple enough question, “what separates southern woodworking from the rest of the country, if anything?” The question was asked expecting an answer that would reflect on various connections between established artistic styles and possibly different influences of well known woodworkers. In my work, I have often made a study of historic styles and the work of other great American woodworkers, such as George Nakashima or David Marks. Typically, I would enjoy the chance to try and understand the differences and similarities. Hobbled by the empty plate in front of me though, I simply shrug my shoulders and tell him I would have to think about it. I push the question aside along with my plate. We pay the check and leave.
Six hours later, two giant log halves sit upon our trailer, awaiting their trip to the mill, where we plan to turn them into lumber. There have been no major injuries, but blood has still been drawn from burst blisters the size of quarters. The open sores sting from the salty sweat washing over them. It will take several more hours, but the oak will eventually give itself to us completely, producing a grade of lumber that can never be purchased. Unlike most modern farmed wood, the growth rings are dense and pronounced. We count the rings back to the year 1746. This tree has stood as a silent witness to our history. I catch myself day dreaming about what it must have seen watching both the revolutionary and civil wars. It withstood hundreds of storms including the infamous Hurricane Hugo. Now with due reverence, it is ours to craft.
Two years has elapsed since that autumn day in West Columbia. I have waited patiently for the lumber we cut to properly dry and be ready to use. As the time has passed, I have allowed my mind to plot the perfect use for my share of the red oak lumber. I have developed a plan for a modern version of a classic southern pie safe my father saved from our family farm in Kershaw. Often surprising to my clients, simple rustic or farm furniture lends itself well to modern interpretation. Additionally the piece will offer excellent storage and plenty of surface area to display the unique beauty of the quarter sawn red oak.
As I prepare to work the oak into fine furniture, I am reminded of my friend’s earnest question about southern woodworking style. It is a valid question. What does make our work special, if anything? I have seeped this question in my mind for a long time and preparing the oak for work I think I have stumbled on my answer. It is not the answer that I think was originally expected. To me, the south, its people, and its woodworking artisans are a group that no longer creates from an established style. There was a time in our past when local work was built around schools of design and style, but today the influences are more literal and individual. You will rarely hear a reference to an obscure influence learned in art school or from the internet. In many regards, southern woodworking is a cliché: We are the sum of the parts of the world around us.
Our influences may be found in simple outdoor tables surrounding a BBQ pit, built by a local farmer 80 years ago, or by the unique variety of functional tables in one of my favorite pubs in Columbia, the Hunter Gatherer (whose owner is also a talented woodworker). Like well cooked pulled pork, we are a low heat, slow cooked, worth the wait group of artists. One local artisan, who often escapes the summer heat by floating in an inner tube down a slow moving river, has turned that feeling of a Saturday on the river into a beautiful and calming rocking chair. Another woodworker, who loves to get lost in cypress swamps, has recreated the towering heights and twists of the cypress trees into a majestic spiraling stair case.
I have witnessed incredible talent, and cutting edge design, ahead of anything found in the galleries of New York City, down lost and wash boarded dirt roads. I have discovered history in new furniture being created from 200 year old heart pine siding reclaimed from a collapsing farm house. Southern woodworking grows directly from the soil and soul of this place we call our home. Southern craftsmen are part dirt and sweat, part story tellers, and sometimes part crazy. Our work is our lives. Our influences are our homes. I have driven a hundred miles for the perfect piece of wood and fifty more for the perfect pulled pork BBQ because the woodworker I was visiting recommended it. That is the difference. That is who we are, and that is what defines our work.
Inspired by the question of what makes our southern style unique, I have been thinking about all the great local woodworking artisans we have in the area. I thought about some of the crazy adventures and all night work sessions I have had with gifted woodworkers. I am awed by the passion I have encountered and the beauty I have been fortunate enough to witness. There is humble, quiet, but still world class talent working all around us. There are skills and styles mingling in garages and workshops. There is collaboration everywhere, cutting edge design and ancient craft are finding common ground. Additionally, though their numbers are painfully low, a new generation of woodworkers is giving birth to a whole new vision. Woodworking in the south is as rich as our farmland. There are artisans in our midst, and yet, most people remain unaware that they are here.
That must change.
Over the next few months, I will begin to document my travels around this south of ours and help to shed light on the local artisan movement. I plan on helping people discover and share in the work of these skilled craftspeople. It will always be an adventure, it will most likely always involve food, it may involve the occasional soap box rant, but most importantly, it will reveal the amazing talent of our local, southern inspired woodworkers.