18th annual Woodpalooza celebrates the versatility of woodworking

— Created August 24, 2022 by Melanie Hammons

By Melanie Hammons

Is it art, or is it science? Actually, when the subject is woodworking, it turns out it’s both. At the 18th Annual Woodpalooza at Whidbey Island Center for the Art’s Zech Hall in Langley, Sept 3-5, the public will have a chance to see both. The event, sponsored and hosted by the Whidbey Island Woodworkers’ Guild, is free of charge to the public, said Gary Leake, who handles the group’s PR and marketing.

“Our guild is composed of one-person shops for the most part,” said Leake.  

Luthiers (musical instrument crafters,) carvers, furniture makers and restorers, chair-makers, and more are represented. He explained that the guild’s original purpose was to “keep the work local.” Another aim of the group is educational outreach.

“We’ve tried to address the question, ‘How can we best demonstrate our craft and attract work, too?’” Leake said.

The outworking of those two goals has resulted in the annual Woodpalooza event. The selection of finished items for display and sale includes finely-crafted wood furniture which may include chairs, sofa tables and cabinetry, music stands, art and musical instruments. It’s a testament to the creativity and versatility that drives the passion of wood crafters. And that’s where you catch glimpses of “the art of woodworking.”

Local wood-worker Thomas Eller’s approach is illustrative of that creative process.

“I wouldn’t say I have a ‘favorite’ wood, but I do favor any kind of spalted wood (tree wood that’s been infused with fungi, resulting in interesting patterns in the grain.) Usually, that’s alder, maple, pecan, and occasionally walnut,” he said.

“I like to create with my mind’s eye,” Eller continued. “I usually find suitable wood around Whidbey or the Northwest.” He said he has fashioned clocks, art pieces, and traditional wood pieces for the show this year. Interestingly, he’s also created urns for pets and people, having sold three in last year’s show.

Leake and his wife, Sandy, part of the original group who formed the guild, refinish furniture. He said he repurposes wood “whenever I can,” explaining that some clients insist upon that.

“For example, the current trend is to repurpose armoires into smaller cabinets for use as kitchen pantries,” he explained.

Leake said some woods required for restoration are no longer available. However, he said he is fortunate to have inherited a stash such as Brazilian rosewood and Cuban mahogany, which are no longer allowed to be imported.

The artistic and aesthetic qualities of wood are highly appreciated by Leake, who calls it “a natural medium.” For him, it’s tactile, going beyond mere appearance.

“You can feel it and smell it,” he said. “Many woods have wonderful smells as they are being worked, including hickory, cherry, apple, and Hawaiian koa. The tree is still alive, just in a different form. At last count, I’ve worked with 45 different woods, including nine different walnuts, eight different oaks, and so on. Two of my favorites include Oregon walnut and American black cherry. These timbers exhibit a wide range of coloring, grain, character, chatoyance (like a cat’s eye,) and great natural/live edges.”

Even the location for the annual show, Zech Hall, part of Whidbey Island Center for the Arts, carries along the same aesthetic theme.

 “The building has black walls, no windows, theater lighting, and white pedestals,” Leake said. It’s a setting that seems custom-made to highlight the beautiful wood pieces on display. It comes as no surprise that for eight years running now, Zech Hall has hosted Woodpalooza.

The second aim of the Whidbey Island Woodworkers Guild, to foster educational outreach, is an on-going process. Leake’s growing-up experiences underscored for him the importance of that.

“My small school never had a wood shop; instead, I learned the skill at a young age from my grandfather. He was a master craftsman, cabinet/furniture maker and restorer. We hope to have a demonstrator bench at the show to highlight our craft, and continue that sort of educational outreach,” said Leake.

Eller followed a different path to wood working, coming from a career in pipefitting and welding, and later, twisting metal to form metallic jewelry. He filled a vacancy for a woodshop teacher at Coupeville High School, retiring after 25 years of teaching. During his time there, he emphasized the importance of metal trades along with wood crafting, and successfully convinced the school to start offering a welding curriculum.

Leake said he’s seen a lot of changes in his time as a wood worker.

“I still use many of the ‘antique’ tools that my grandfather used,” he said. But over the years, you come across new tools, new woods, and new techniques. And over time, you learn to work with the different properties of different woods.”

It’s in those “new tools, new techniques, and different wood properties,” that the science part of the wood working equation seems most evident. According to organizers, it’s remarkable how the art and science of working with wood meld together so wonderfully, resulting in the wares displayed at Zech Hall.

Woodpalooza is a free event. The show takes place Labor Day Weekend, September 3 – 5, from noon to 5 p.m. each day at Zech Hall, 565 Camano Avenue, Langley. Refer to the website woodpalooza.com for more information. For latest Covid-19 protocol, please go to www.wicaonline.org.