David Wolfgram: Reclaimed Woodworker

7 February, 2011: David Wolfgram: Eco-Hardwoods

Ogden, Utah. With a couple of weeks available to devote to the Project, I’ve set my sites on a westward journey. With an ultimate destination of California, I figure that along the way I’ll look for tradesmen in Utah and Nevada. Calling on my resources in those regions, it is my friend Reese Zollinger that makes some notable recommendations in the Salt Lake area. As a native with a historical perspective on farming and handwork in the area, Reese suggests that David Wolfgram is someone I should meet, a renaissance man who is living an “artisanal existence.” An email introduction is made, and soon I am driving into Ogden to see for myself just what that means.

Before our meeting I am not sure if David will qualify for the themes of my photo essay. While a jack-of-all-trades is always interesting to me, the breadth of skills exhibited by that type can overshadow the specialization of the tradesman. After all, the investment in and mastery of a particular skill is what this project is about. Knowing that David makes a living from his woodworking puts us in the ballpark, but learning that he uses only reclaimed wood is more profound.

The Wolfgram residence is located in Central Ogden, in a middle class neighborhood comprised of tidy blocks of early 20th century single family homes. If ever there were a Norman Rockwell town, this would have to be it: a tight grid of sidewalks, stop signs, tree lawns, churches, and, as a bonus, glorious views of the Wasatch range down every east-west avenue. But, upon closer inspection, the Wolfgram residence is different: besides boasting a double lot, it is covered with massive pines. In fact, this is the cue David has given me on the phone: “Just look for the pine trees.”

I am greeted at the door by an athletic fellow with bright eyes and an impressive beard. This is David, and immediately he wants to know if there’s anything I need after my long drive. He and his lovely wife Shauna are intent on making me feel at home, and I am nearly overwhelmed by their hospitality. No sooner than I’m through the door am I treated to a multi-course spread of homemade vegetarian stew, homemade bread, homemade beer, and homemade cheese, around which I am given a tour of the house and grounds.

The former is a fixer-upper David has been working on since buying the place several years ago. It’s filled with personal touches expressing a craftsman’s attention to detail, with an emphasis on workability. He’s leveled the foundation and replaced the floor– not with a prefab product or lumber from The Home Depot, but with a thoughtfully designed mosaic of reclaimed–and personally milled–hardwood. He’s added a passive solar hot water system to the roof, an efficient wood burning stove to the living room, and he’s rented out the upstairs apartment to offset the mortgage (which he makes extra payments on at every opportunity).

The latter is a multi-zone patchwork of permaculture, including various gardens and beds, grape vines, DIY sculpture, and a pond project in mid-construction. A few chickens patrol the area, and lay eggs in their coop. Though it is still winter and no crops are growing, it seems that nary an inch of the double lot is wasted. David admits that it is difficult to justify any presence of lawn where food production can be maximized. This refinement ethic, combined with seasonal canning sessions and a killer root cellar, necessitates few trips to the grocery store. “We’d love to have some goats around here, but I don’t know where the neighbors would draw the line.”

As impressed as I am with the degree of sustainability the Wolfgrams have created, I am not convinced of David’s role in my photo essay until I see his handmade furniture and the troves of reclaimed wood that comprise each piece he makes. Filling his shop and the storage area behind, massive trees have been milled and re-stacked into logs to cure–typically for years–and await a speculative future as fine furniture.

After observing various examples of superior craftsmanship supported by a creative eye for what I would term ‘wabi-sabi’ design, it is the anecdotal evidence of david’s ethic that excites me the most: An old Mormon family was forced to cut down an ancient, dying tree from their backyard, a stately black walnut that had served generations as host to swings, hanging tires, tree houses, and as a canopy to countless picnics and weddings. The tree, the family expressed, was itself a family member and should be revered. They worked with David to carefully dismantle and mill the boards, and from it create a dining room table that would serve future generations.

“It took nearly a year to create the table, leaves, and twelve chairs but I’m really pleased with the results.”

And what about the design? Did the family embrace the naturalistic, minimalistic style that seems to personify your work?

“No. What they wanted was a classic expression, but not Old World classic. They didn’t want future generations to be alienated by that old antique-y feel. They wanted something timeless but classy, modern yet traditional, so that’s what I strived to come up with. Fortunately, they were satisfied. I am too. The set is down near Salt Lake City, but I could show it to you.”

And so I’m sold. Being that the majority of David’s unsold work is currently in a gallery in SLC, a field trip to the city is in the cards. And so we agreed that in a couple of days, after the necessary phone calls to the owner of the dining room set, we’ll do our shoot–during which I’ll be shown a cross section of tool usage and practices that bring about David’s unique, characteristic, hand-worked results.

* * * *

On the morning of the shoot I am greeted at the door by a trimmed-down version of our hero. I inquire as to the whereabouts of the spectacular beard, but a reticent David proclaims it had been getting out of hand, and today was a good excuse to take care of it. A look from Shauna suggests a popular consensus.

We begin our day with some tool sharpening and a bit of family history. (Of course I am treated to homemade waffles and a fine cup of French press coffee while all of this is conducted.) Much of the work David does is in the hand, or to be more precise, is worked with a non-powered, bladed instrument. David introduces me to the adz, which I know as a handy Scrabble word but had never before encountered. It swings as a pick axe does, but the business end is a sharp spoon or gauge, efficiently removing bits of wood like a melon baller. This dynamic of motion informs other tools as well, in varying sizes and shapes of blade, from curved to flat. The variety of choices gives David remarkable control over the results of the work, but necessitates the blade being very sharp. In fact, keeping the blade sharp is its own skill, the process of which is quite meditative. From whetstone to sandpaper, there is no compromise when it comes to honing an edge. Observing David in this process, it’s clear that this regard for and interaction with his instruments is itself near the heart of his passion–to the degree that David has on occasion made his own specialized tools, each with a unique purpose and expression.

Though born into a Mormon family, David conscientiously chose a different path. As a young man he left the Church, began working in construction, and with his first wife journeyed to the jungles of Hawaii, whiling away the cold Utah winters living a subsistance lifestyle. There in the bush he found an old rusty World War II-era machete, and with it, built shelters and harvested coconuts. The first serious project he undertook employed that salvaged machete: a djembe, or African-style drum, carved from the trunk of a coconut tree. For five years David made the seasonal round trip between homes, though it was in Hawaii that his first son was born.

Years later, with the skills he had refined with more sophisticated tools, David crafted a second djembe from a reclaimed piece of Ogden cherry. As a tribute to the growing Kaleb, he illustrated a favorite icon of his son’s memory of the islands: the hammerhead shark, surrounded by the narrative history of Hawaii. David discovered that cherry is not a forgiving wood for such delicate work, as it dries quickly and is prone to splitting. As the neck of the instrument began to separate, he carved a ‘butterfly’ to stitch the split together. The butterfly he designed in the shape of the hammerhead–an example of form following function. As his work with reclaimed woods evolved, this practice of ‘butterflying’ natural splits continued, becoming a theme in his work.

Throughout the morning, David gives me an immersive tour of his space. We inspect some black walnut boards that have been curing for years, and we compare those with a recently milled cottonwood whose ends have been waxed to regulate the drying process and thus control splitting. We are joined by David’s two youngest boys, Jonas and Kaleb, to cut some cherry with which to make a rustic bowl. Then David demonstrates the process of laying in a butterfly, with the scribing, chiseling, hammering, and pole-sawing required to make a seemless joint. Finally, to emphasize the point of minimizing waste and maximizing product, David has me select a bit of scrap hardwood from which to make a modest gift. I choose a small block of cherry, and David asks me what kitchen implement I’d prefer. No sooner do I suggest a flat-edged stirring spoon does David have the shape roughed out on the band saw. Then it’s inside we go, to the coziness of the fire, to bring my spoon to life.

Sitting there by the stove, one man and a blade and a hunk of wood, the archetype of the whittler comes to mind. I haven’t seen this kind of work done since I was a boy visiting relatives in South Dakota, where my great uncles would while away the evening hours on the farm with a pocket knife and a tree branch, sharing stories of barn dances past, the Dust Bowl, and The War.

Joining us in the living room is Shauna and Kaleb, the former eschewing Legos and even video games for some carving time with Dad. It’s unfortunate that me and the camera usurp the discussion, as this opportunity of quality time has become a commodity for the typical modern family. As commonplace as this social time was for my kin, it seems exotic now–and I confess a certain excitement to know that the one-of-a-kind spoon being made, by hand, right now, with such soul, would belong to me. And every time I would use it, I would have this great memory of David and the Wolfgram clan to recall.

David explains that on cold days he’ll spend his hours here creating specialty pieces that can be sold at farmers markets, or online. “It’s much better than burning the scraps, which is typically what happens on the mass production scale.”

About this time, David’s expression takes a sour turn. He’s just jammed a small and very sharp gauge into his thumb. We’re in the middle of that odd moment of shock where nothing makes sense, where time kind of stops. There is blood. It drips on the floor, and it drips on my spoon. Suddenly David grabs the offending appendage, and the sheepish smile forming on his face betrays an interesting truth: David hasn’t had an accident in a long time. A very long time. So long, he can barely remember what it feels like, never mind how to act. Same goes for the family: Kaleb is on his feet, a little freaked out, while only Shauna can remember where the band-aids are.

I feel terrible. I attempt an apology for being the obtrusive photographer, sending everything to hell in a handbasket. As the bandage is applied, I think better of making the obvious joke about blood, work, and the one going into the other. Kaleb stands at Davids knee, knife tenuously in hand. He’s looking for some reassurance from Dad.

Dad looks him in the eye with a confident smile, and concludes the thought originally meant for me. “This hardwood is valuable, the old stuff is getting rare, and most people don’t even realize we’re losing it. If we respect what we have, it will take care of us.”

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3 Responses to David Wolfgram: Reclaimed Woodworker

  1. Lisa says:

    Beautiful! Beautiful photos, beautiful bowls, beautiful “butterflies,” and a beautiful family.

    (…and that is a great spoon.)

  2. Jeremy says:

    David sells spoons on etsy for $10, and cutting boards for $26.

    Please raise your prices! As a craftsman (with 2 young girls) who makes a living selling spoons and cutting boards it is difficult when people say to you at craft shows that they can get the same stuff on etsy for 1/2 or 1/3 of what it should fairly retail for..

    It is 2012! You do great work, get a fair return for your talent!

  3. Dave is a unique person like I’ve never met before. I’ll never forget the day I met him at the farmers market. I bought a drum that day. I still have and charish it. You’ll never meet a more ethical, down to earth, caring, spiritual and genuine person. If Jesus were here he’d hang out with Dave. Dave would help anyone at any time for nothing. It’s been over ten years since I’ve seen him but I think about Dave often. We’ve kind of gone separate ways and haven’t talked lately but I know I could call and he’d drop his heavy load instantly to give me a few minutes. It’s just the kind of person he is. In my life I’ve met people that I’ve thought were “advanced souls” far beyond the norm, having lived many lives and progressed to a higher state of being. David Wolfgram is one of those people without any doubt. If I can ever get back to Utah, I’ll surely stop into Daves place and sit a spell…

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