The Art of Wood

The Art of Wood

Tony Wolcott

This article appeared in the 2017 September issue of Chips & Chatter.

The habit of wood collecting dominates our once unoccupied spaces. A nice Albany couple opened up their garage to show me some special wood. The garage was stuffed from bottom to top, almost half was various types of wood, lumber for forgotten projects. Against the wall to the right covered by a tarp was the Thomas Jefferson wood. These were ten-foot 2x6 rough lumber. All the wood was nicely spalted and came from a maple on the Monticello property in Charlottesville, Virginia. Tom must have planted this silver maple ( Acer sac-charinum) in 1772.The tree came down in the mid 1990’s and was bought up by MacBeath, a retail/wholesale wood seller. They know a profit when they see it. The Macbeath Hardwood store in Berkeley, 930 Ashby Ave-nue, received some of the wood and sold these pieces to the nice Albany couple. I came around when the wood was occupying too much space and they wanted it hauled away. I have a truck and now I have some Jeffersonian Monticello wood.


Historical note: Indonesia has a long history of violence against people of Chinese descent residing in Indonesia. The Dutch town of Batavia (now Jakarta) was the heart of the Dutch East Indies. Outside of Batavia many Chinese rice farmers lived and prospered until the massacre of 1740. As the story goes, one Chinese farmer got wind of the trouble and headed for the hills. He abandoned his property holdings which included a large Rice barn made from logs taken off his prosperous rice fields. The Dutch and Indonesian gangs never found the farmer but set his fields and home on fire. Somehow, they could not destroy the barn, which included carvings of the massive timbers, all hand hewn and pieced together expertly. The barn was disassembled and stacked on site.


Fast forward to the 1960’s when an adventurous Berkeley lad tossed aside the university notion and signed up to sail the seven seas. His steamer took him everywhere including Jakarta. Just before leaving Indonesia someone offered him the stacked wood that had been there forever. The wood was described as Chinese, from a rice farmer, and had been stacked there for eternity. Berkeley of course took some and upon his re-turn donated the wood to a wood maker of three legged stools. This furniture maker was familiar to me. An old high school friend of mine described him as a character who lived entirely on cigarettes and beer. My friend would know as he operated a little wine shop in the Berkeley hills, and this guy came in once a day for the last 30 years. When I met the stool maker, he was suffering the downside of his diet. The leftover Indonesian wood was deposited into my truck, along with the lengthy story about how far Berkeley travels and how unpleasant some histories are.


Your wood has stories to tell. At a sale on Pender Island in the South Gulf Islands of British Columbia, I sold a few bowls only if they came from trees on the island. Nobody wanted camphor there, just something from this precious little island. Bill Walzer, a turner, told the story of discovering a bullet in the piece of wood he was turning. Being wise he left the bullet in and created a conversation piece of magnitude.


“If this tree could talk,

What a tale its thoughts would tell

Just like the paperback novels,

The kind a drugstore sells

When you come to the part,

The Hero would be me,

Heroes often fail.

Enter number Two

But you can’t read that book again,

Because the ending’s just too hard to take”


Sorry, that was a plagiarized partial copy of a Gordon Lightfoot song. The point is to tell the story of your wood. Let the wood speak. We have stored in our wood piles thousands of stories, The Tree Chronicles.


Wood becomes a little more interesting when you remove a tree and then present the owner with a bowl from that very tree.