CWB September 2004

Don Stephens uses salvaged American chestnut to make striking interior trim and furniture.

When woodworker Don Stephens buys material for his interior trim and furniture jobs, he often buys it in quantities of whole houses and barns, instead of board feet. That's because Stephens, of the Cullowhee, NC, area, frequently uses a wood from the past, American chestnut, and finding salvaged wood is almost the only way to obtain it nowadays.

At one time, there were 4 billion chestnut trees spread over the eastern United States, and the rot-resistant, lightweight wood was used for everything from fence posts to fine furniture. In the heart of its range, there was one chestnut for every four hardwoods of other varieties. Stephens lives off a dirt road in the North Carolina mountains and he says, "I run into these 'old boys' around here. They used to take a board this big" - he spreads his hands two feet apart - "and bust it up for kindling."

But a devastating blight hit the native chestnut back in the first half of the 20th century, killing all the mature trees. Spores that still remain zap any new chestnuts that emerge before they reach lumber-yielding age.

This chestnut bench with iron supports retains the notches from its former life as part of a log building.

The American Chestnut Foundation is trying to remedy that by crossbreeding the native variety with a blight-resistant Chinese variety. The foundation's Science Coordinator for the Southern Appalachian region, Paul Sisco, estimates the 20-year effort will yield test trees by 2007.

Until a resistant tree is developed, worm-riddled lumber and logs that show the effect of years of standing in the weather constitute the only supply. "The first barn I ever bought, the roof was long since gone," remembers Stephens, who started working with recycled chestnut in the late 1980s.

Special care, unique appearance
The recycled wood requires special care from woodworkers, so not everybody wants to work with it, says Stephens. "I've spent entire days out here pulling nails out of boards," he says from his small shop at his home on the banks of Caney Fork, a tributary of the Tuckaseegee River.

Chestnut is softer than most other hardwoods, he adds, and the quality varies greatly. "The color variations are disconcerting for some projects: 'Here's a dark board. There's a real light board.'

"It's not renowned for its strength, either," he says. "Chestnut is a light (weight) wood anyway. If it's real light, it's probably shaky." For that reason, he steers clear of making doors from it, though he knows another woodworker who has made a beautiful one.

"Anybody used to working with wood can tell a bad board from a good one," he says. If an assessment indicates that a board is fragile, "put it on the kindling pile," he advises.

But Stephens' clients request the wood. One had him fashion a countertop from it, then asked him to wrap her cedar mantel in it.

"A lot of people are really interested in it now because of (the work of) the Chestnut Foundation," he says.

The flaws that come with age are not a deterrent, he adds. "The things I worry about most in the wood are usually the things customers like the best." For example, there are often more worm holes than nail holes, he says. "Nails weren't as common back then."

One woman for whom he trimmed a basement hall, den and guest bedroom in chestnut points to a door frame with pronounced dark stripes and says, "At first we said, 'Oooh, we don't like that piece. And now it's our favorite piece." Weathering produced the stripes, Stephens says.

For that job, he made all the trim from chestnut, including a chair rail, 3-1/2-inch trim for doors and windows, 5-inch baseboards and 2-inch crown moulding.

"This whole house is a testament to Don's craftsmanship," the homeowner says.

From trim to furniture
Stephens, a former landscaper, started working with wood in the early '80s, when he wanted to build himself a house and figured doing it was the best way to learn. He started reading about reclaimed chestnut several years later and, in 1987, a friend gave him a falling-down house that yielded beautiful boards.

Since then, he says, he has been hooked on the wood. "I like the color of it. I think it's beautiful, beautiful wood.

"Light darkens the wood," he adds, describing its attractive coloring. "When you find a 50- to 75-year-old house, its chestnut paneling will be almost a dark orange."

Though most of his chestnut work is interior trim, and often finished by someone else, he makes and finishes some furniture, mostly mirrors, benches and cocktail tables. Examples were included in a chestnut show sponsored by the American Chestnut Foundation at Asheville's Grovewood Gallery last year. Some of his pieces also are shown on the foundation's online gallery at www.acf.org, under "Chestnut Craft & Supply." Stephens sells through the Internet site and also will sell items at the foundation's 2004 annual meeting in October, where he will give a talk on working with chestnut. He also sells pieces on consignment through craft shops.

For his furniture, Stephens cleans the boards, sands them and applies a satin Minwax urethane, which he then hand-rubs. He doesn't like to use a stain, though he says, "it takes a stain very well.

"I prefer the natural color of the wood," he adds, but not all clients do. For instance, at the interior decorator's insistence, he stained the chestnut countertop he fashioned for a Highlands, NC, condo with Minwax Early American.

"I have to admit, it turned out looking very nice," he says. "It made the wood look as old as it is."

Also for furniture, Stephens says he usually sands away the weatherbeaten exterior, although for effect, he will sometimes leave it as the outer edge of mirror frames. He sometimes shaves the frames with an antique tool, a rock maple spokeshave from Sheffield, England.

"I kind of like to hand-form them a little bit," he says. Some benches still retain the notched ends of their former life as logs in homes and barns.

A whole-house project
Since August of 2003, Stephens has been working on one large project, a high-end guest house at a rustic home in the woods. He built the house, using cedar for walls, maple for the floors, and chestnut for the trim, including door and window trim and baseboards and crown moulding.

He chose the chestnut because its brown color will look different from the reddish cedar surrounding it, he says. "I figured it would be a nice contrast. There is such a thing as too much (similar) wood in a house sometimes."

On the porch, he fashioned a railing of hemlock and mountain laurel, using hemlock for the handrails and curving branches of mountain laurel for the pickets. "This is the first fun work I've done in a long time," he says.

Stephens started this part of the project using a 10-inch Hitachi dual compound sliding miter saw to cut the hemlock and laurel, but discovered that "You can destroy a miter saw if you're not careful," he says. "They are meant to do linear things" rather than the curving laurel. So he switched to a circular saw for the cuts and uses a Craftsman pneumatic nail gun to nail the pickets.

The hemlock is recycled from old rafters, and in one 3-foot by 5-foot piece, he counted 200 rings. The tree which yielded it could have been 1,000 years old, he says.

Stephens finds his lumber by poring over newspaper advertisements. He has accumulated such a supply of chestnut that he sells the excess to other woodworkers. If he made furniture the rest of his life, he says he wouldn't get through it all.

Stephens uses a mixture of modern and ancient tools. Though he painstakingly removes nails, the rust left behind in nail holes quickly dulls planer knives, he says, as well as leaving streaks on the wood. "Sometimes I have taken a drill and gotten those holes out," he says.

He is now using his second Delta 12-inch planer and adds, "I've gotten some real mileage out of it."

He also uses a Makita table saw, hand-held Ryobi biscuit joiner, 50-year-old circular saw and - a unique tool - a bench ax that he got from "an old man who helped rebuild the USS Constitution sailing ship and knew Eric Sloane, author and illustrator of A Reverence for Wood."

Stephens can tell you not only where his tools come from, but his chestnut as well. "He has a history with every piece he gets," says his wife, Susie.

As an example, he says a batch of 16-foot boards awaiting future use were cut by a water-powered sawmill in Flag Pond, TN, around the turn of the century. A 14-foot-long, 22-inch-wide board that dwarfs him as he holds it came from the floor of "an old family homeplace" near Dillsboro in the North Carolina mountains. His story about finding that board illustrates the pleasure he gets from salvaging and using the reclaimed wood. Stephens says that when he first saw it, "I thought, 'Boy, can I make some coffee tables out of that!'"

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