An artful ‘bodger’ from Paint Lick, KY, preserves chair-making techniques from the past.

 

Artisan Don Weber keeps the traditions of bodgers alive in his shop in Paint Lick, KY. Photo courtesy of Popular Woodworking magazine.

Woodworker Don Weber grew up in a home in Wales where he learned the basics of fixing just about everything from his father, a man who “kept the factories running when they had problems,” Weber says. He apprenticed to an uncle who ran a joiner’s shop, but followed his family to the United States at the age of 19.

Early in his career in America, Weber restored and rebuilt Windsor chairs and tables and grew increasingly interested in the old ways of turning wood. He returned to Britain, determined to study and learn all he could about those methods, eventually apprenticing with the Deans, one of the last of the “Bodgers.”

Weber offers a quick definition of a Bodger: “In Britain, a Bodger was a person who did a rough job of things, usually making do with that they could find at hand. Traditionally, the Bodgers built a very primitive lathe in the woodlands and turned parts for Windsor chairs, then dismantled their gear and moved on. It was a primitive, non-permanent approach. When you make do with what you have at hand, you are ‘bodging.’ It is an English term most Americans will not recognize, but the Brits use it. To bodge is to cobble something up.”

Weber has been working on a spring pole lathe ever since his experience with the Deans, beginning in Mendocino, CA, and, since 1998, in Kentucky. He began by making English- and Welsh-style Windsor chairs using green wood, the spring pole lathe and a variety of hand tools, including a beetle (large, iron-bound mallet), wedges and a froe (an L-shaped tool for splitting or riving green wood). He relies on “body-powered” traditional hand tools, such as a shaving horse, drawknife, block planer, side axe, jackplane and hand drill.

“Doing what I do puts me in a unique niche,” he says.

In addition to operating his woodworking business, Handcraft Woodworks, Weber teaches at his studio in Paint Lick, and at places like the Kentucky Artisan Center in nearby Berea. His workshop is housed in an old general store, built in 1901.

“The last owner was the Calico and Brown Grocery, Feed and Seed,” he says. “The shop is about 1,800 square feet with 12-foot-high ceilings and wooden floors.”

A warehouse attached to the back was the site of the last blacksmith in the village of Paint Lick. “I’m keeping the tradition alive,” Weber says. “When I am at the forge, the local people hear a familiar sound.”

 

Bodger Don Weber made this chair with a trio of woods: white oak for the legs and arms; elm for the seat and hickory for the back. He routinely works with beech, maple and oak but uses other species as well.

Sharing Knowledge

Initially living in Mendacino, CA, also an artisan community, Weber decided to settle in Kentucky after being invited to demonstrate on his pole lathe at a craft fair. His regular visits led to an an ultimate invitation from the Kentucky Arts Council to do programs in the schools. “The tradition I was demonstrating, the English tradition, had a very close connection to the Appalachian tradition of craft,” he says. “I was doing what many of the students’ great, great grandfathers had done.

“I felt more at home in Kentucky than I did in California, which was a little too contemporary for my liking,” Weber adds.

“Mendocino was a beautiful place by the ocean but the artists there were more into contemporary styles and my work did not relate to many people. In Kentucky, I found a culture that was more close to my own,” he says.

“I fit in quite well with some of the old timers in the hollers who had been making chairs all their lives with a pocket knife and an axe.”

Weber says that working with the children was “brilliant. I focused a lot with at-risk and Special Ed children because they had more of an interest beyond academia. We set up a timber frame classroom outside the school, our shaving horses and lathes, and we started to make stools, chairs and benches, which the kids sold at a fair at the end of the school year.” In addition to building things, the children wrote about their work as a project for English class. “We covered science and mathematics in a different way than the academic view, showing how to measure a distance with two sticks instead of a ruler and how to see things are square by using a pair of sticks,” Weber say. It showed them a different way of engineering and a different approach to learning the arts, humanities, math and English.

Government funding cuts curtailed some of the classes, but Weber continues to offer private lessons at his shop and local artisan centers.

In a typical workshop he might teach students how to build a shaving horse, pole lathe, or a Welsh Stick Chair. In his plane craft class students learn to use hand planes to do basic joinery, shoot an edge, and smooth and true up materials for woodworking projects. In another course, he teaches how to build a tool box/chest, including the woodworking plus how to make hand-forged hardware. He also leads blacksmithing classes, teaching tool and knife making and hinges and hardware.

Weber has also been a part of programs outside the United States, in Honduras, Africa and Central America, teaching “early technology.”

In Africa, he was part of a group teaching how to build micro hydro-electric systems, and in Honduras, he helped with furniture manufacturing projects as part of the Woodworkers Alliance for Rainforest Preservation.

He is a member of the Association of Pole Lathe Turners, the American Artist Blacksmith Association and the Timber Framers Guild.

“I work in developing countries and economically depressed areas, setting up projects to create cottage industries in an environmentally friendly way,” he says.

Weber hopes to extend the artisan footprint of Berea to Paint Lick. “I plan to turn part of a new building on my property into a cultural center for musicians, storytellers and other artisans,” he says. He also takes time to travel the mountains, tracking down Appalachian craftsmen. His goal is to keep the traditions alive and be an advocate for traditional technology.


This table is made from a huge hand-sawn slab of elm for the top. The legs are hand-cut from white oak, with a butterfly spline made from cherry. All joints are hand-cut, and the top edge is hand-beveled. Photo courtesy of the Kentucky Artisan Center at Berea.
Don Weber has been working on a spring pole lathe ever since studying with the Deans, one of the last of the ‘Bodgers’ in Britain, beginning his work in Mendocino, CA, and, since 1998, in Kentucky. Photo courtesy of the Kentucky Artisan Center at Berea

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.