Writer and Photographer
“If I only had an hour to chop down a tree, I would spend the first 45 minutes sharpening my axe.” – Abraham Lincoln
You need your imagination to read this post!
I discovered why I like touring old buildings like the Bud Ogle’s log cabin in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park on the Tennessee side and the Mountain Farm Museum on the North Carolina side: everything was handmade. Back then, they had no other choice. However, today, I have a woodworking shop filled with machines that would have made their works so much easier. Yet, here I am at my age, wanting to build more things by hand rather than machines because of the enjoyment in the process.
As I stepped up the creaky stairs of the cabin, I let my imagination wander and I could hear Bud Ogle’s axe striking the wood as I ran my hand along the axe marks on the log cabin. With rhythmic movement of a 4/4 count, I could see his sinewy body swing the axe in an arc as he reached high above his head, then pulling the axe into the wood with the last movement of his legs drawing the head into the log.
Not far away, his wife was storing food in the root cellar they dug in the side of the hill where a small, fresh spring of water coursed along the bottom, keeping it cool. I could smell the smoke from the open-air brick stove heating up the sizzling bacon in the cast iron skillet.
I could see the children up in the barn, dropping feed into the hand-hewn trough made from a single log – the feed bunk for the cows they were getting ready to milk. The barn was often the first structure built because protecting their animals was a matter of life and death to people who lived in that era. The gates to the barn are handmade from wood, not from metal.
I looked on as the older boys dragged another log up from the valley to be hewn for the main cabin. They would build one cabin with a stone fireplace they built, then, five years later as the family expanded, they would build a cabin on the other side of the fireplace so the two could share one heat source. The saddlebag cabin was practical.
As the sons reached an age where they could marry, the family would build a “weaner” cabin where the newlyweds would stay until they built their own place.
The Noah “Bud” Ogle cabin was built in the late 1800’s and the logs are all hand-hewn with half-dovetail corners. While it was once a working farm, it was enveloped into the National Park when it was established in 1934 and became an historical site for tourists like me to inspect.
A few miles up the valley is another similar place, the home of the famous Walker Sisters. Their home and land, too, were folded into the National Park but they struck a deal that they could live in their home until the last one died which was 1965. For 30 years, the five sisters were a part of the tourist attraction to the National Park. I can’t imagine tourists coming by my home each day, poking around, asking questions. But the Walker Sisters figured out a way to make a living off those tourists by selling them handmade items.
Over the mountain and down on the other side into North Carolina, there is another farm you can tour along the Oconaluftee River. Like the Ogle homestead, the farmstead abounds with structures and equipment all made by hand or used to make things by hand.
As I walked around these historic structures, I conclude that I was born in the wrong century. I now have a burning desire to build a log cabin, all with lumber I have hewn by hand. I just don’t think my tennis elbow can take swinging axes and adzes that much.
There’s a surge, especially among a younger generation, of relearning the lost crafts of woodworking with hand tools rather than power equipment. Personally, I find myself drawn into these lost arts for a variety of reasons:
- It is a quiet art. No loud power tools running, just the quiet songs of hand planes shaving off one fine strip of wood at a time, the gentle thump of wooden mallet striking a chisel, the rasp of a saw cutting a board.
- It’s like choosing to hike to Pike’s Peak rather than driving a car; it’s all about the journey.
- It involves a greater skill set, one that only comes with practice.
- It is unique and can’t be mass produced.
- It is a nod to the artisans who’ve gone before me.
I still might build a log cabin with hand hewn logs. It just might take me longer and that’s okay.
I love National Parks, State Parks, and City Parks because, without them, most of us would not have easy and inexpensive access some of the greatest natural wonders in America. After spending a few days in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina – the most visited National Park in America – it appears I am not alone in my love for them.
The main reason I love them is because they give me a chance to go outside. I not only enjoy going outside, it turns out, I need to go outside. Everyone benefits by getting close to nature and, for those who don’t, they are subject to Nature Deficit Disorder – the idea that people, children especially, need to spend time in the outdoors. Richard Louv, author of the book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, interviewed a child who told him that he liked playing indoors more than outdoors, “’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”
Thanks to John Muir and President Theodore Roosevelt, we have an incredible National Park System that provides access for the public to some of the most pristine and protected places on earth. While many of us in America take that for granted, the history of European feudalism, aristocracy, and land ownership, only the wealthy had access to the most beautiful places.
However, the beauty of democracy is that anyone can enjoy nature at its most glorious display.
What the National Parks don’t provide access too, the State Park System does. In Kansas, where I live, 98% of the land is privately owned and is often posted with “No Trespassing” signs. The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks provides public access to some of the most beautiful areas in Kansas. Although a state agency, they are not funded with taxpayer dollars. Instead, they operate entirely on revenue generated from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, camping permits and other usage fees. In addition, thanks to the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1934 which sits aside the 11% excise tax on firearms and ammunition to be used for conservation programs, training programs and infrastructure such as state-of-the-art gun ranges. In fact, the resurgence and conservation of wildlife like whitetail deer, turkey and other game animals is funded almost entirely by hunters.
But you don’t have to go to a national or state park to enjoy the physical and mental health befits of nature. There has been a surge in the last few years, driven by both health and economic benefits, for public access to trails. In Kansas, the Kansas Trails Council has received considerable support by numerous community foundations to build trails in cities, most of which can be found on this map. While traveling, I frequently use the app, All Tails, to find a trail near me. This is a great way to break up long road trips!
Here are good reasons why I enjoy The Great Outdoors:
1. Being in nature cleanses my soul like pure mountain water cascading through my veins.
2. Hiking in the mountains and breathing pure mountain air clarifies my purpose and sharpens my “why.”
3. God whispers to me more in nature than anywhere else.
4. Nature inspires significantly more awe-struck moments when my heart bows in wonder at the world God’s hands has made.
5. There are trout waiting in crystal streams to torment me while I fly fish.
Here are a few images I captured. The one with the mountains on fire is looking out our cabin as the setting sun threw her glow over the valley.
“The mountains are calling, and I must go.” John Muir
Being a woodworker, I rate hotels based on comparing the quality of their towels to various sandpaper grits.
Sandpaper grits are scored on their varying degrees of their rough surfaces. If you wanted to remove large portions of wood, or skin, you would use a 60-grit sandpaper that leaves scratches as deep as the Grand Canyon. If you wanted a smooth surface to piece of furniture or, your fingernails after you clipped them, you’d use a 1500 grit (the texture of fingernail files).
For example, the Comfort Inn Suites in St. Charles, Missouri, our first stop on the trip, I gave a rating of 120 grit. Not coarse enough to start surface bleeding but still coarse enough to leave welts if rubbed vigorously.
After the past twenty-plus years of traveling by plane, trains, automobiles, and the occasional ox-drawn cart (not kidding), I’ve come up with a few helpful travel tips.
Lodging: I’ve stayed tents in Africa where we were awakened by troop of baboons murdering a dog. Large groups of baboons have also been called a congress. I prefer the latter; it makes more sense.
I’ve also stayed in five-star hotels (someone else paid that bill, not me), and I’ve come up with a couple of questions that I ask before I book the hotel:
1. Is this just for a quick overnight stay? The 120 grit towels are fine.
2. Am I going to be there a while and it’s my home away from home for a few days? Then I jump up to about 600-grit.
How do I determine grit? The price of the hotel and the reviews. I almost always use a third party (Orbitz, Expedia, Etc.) because they have the most honest reviews.
Clothing: No more than four changes of clothes. If I’m gone for longer than four days, I still only take four complete changes of clothes. First, if you are gone for, let’s say, two weeks and have fourteen changes of clothes, you’re going to be mixing your stinky old clothes with your fresh clothes after the third day. I have learned through hundreds of thousands of miles of travel that you can get your clothes cleaned anywhere, even the hotel sink and the shower rod as a drying line.
Gas stations: I can tell how clean the bathrooms before I ever go inside by two things: 1. How clean and pot-hole free the driveway and parking lot are: 2. If the windshield washing tub is filled with clean, soapy water and a decent scrubber. If it’s filthy, or empty, you can bet the bathroom smells like a troop of baboons have been in there.
People, like me, who work with wood have a love affair with tools and live with the motto that we are just one tool away from perfection. Lately, I have cultivated a deeper affection with hand tools, those stately tools that, as they age, seem only to increase in function and beauty – like some people I know.
I was recently bequeathed some hand tools from the family of Doyle Fox of El Dorado. I’ve known him – and his children – for years, but never knew he was a craftsman of fine woodworking until his daughter said he was moving and had some walnut for sale.
The first thing I spotted in Doyle’s garage was the Cities Service green paint job on an old workbench. My father had worked for Cities Service for decades and my childhood toybox was painted that unique green color. It turns out, Doyle and worked with my dad years ago.
I also noticed a workbench which fine woodworkers use. There are a variety of skill levels of woodworkers, but the crème de la crème of the craft the use of hand planes, saws, chisels, and mallets to create exquisite pieces of woodworking art. Once I learned Doyle was fine woodworker, my esteem for him elevated far above the previously high level at which I held him in regard. To a fine woodworker, there is a song a hand plane sings as it glides over a piece of wood, curling a fine shaving of wood with each pass. It’s a sound like no other.
He was moving from his home that he and his wife, Bonnie, had shared for 64 years. She passed in 2017 and now, in 2023, it was time for him to downsize and find new homes for his tools. But not all of them. There are just some things you can’t let go of.
We chatted for a while, he showed me the lumber and, by the time I left, I also bought a couple of workbenches. Yes, even the one with Cities Service green paint chipping away on it; I had to have that one.
He moved to a smaller home but took some of his more prized tools with him. I don’t blame him, for a craftsman like Doyle, tools become a part of your personality, your identity, even your reason for existence. As I gaze lovingly on the tools in my own shop – more than four decades worth of collecting – they are more than pieces of equipment, they are a part of my life’s journey and identity.
Doyle recently passed and the family asked me to come over and browse his tools to see if there was anything I wanted. I smiled as I saw his tools in the spare bedroom where he kept them because he no longer had a shop. They were his favorite tools, the ones which held such sentimental and artistic value to him that he just could not bear to part with them while he was alive.
His children and grandchildren are the proud new owners of many of those tools and I’ve offered to teach any of them how to use them should they want to learn the craft of their grandfather.
I confess, I had a hard time taking any of his tools. Not so much because they held monetary value, but because I know how much a craftsman values their tools. I recently lost a 40-year-old log turner and grieved over it like I lost a pet. I even put out a reward for anyone who found it and, low and behold, someone found it! I got so excited I danced a little jig.
I tried to put myself in Doyle’s place and ask, “Who would I want to have my tools?” Certainly, my family, but for practicality’s sake, I would want someone like me who understands their value and will use them to perpetuate the craft, curling one fine shaving of wood at a time.
For anyone, be it man or woman, who find artistic expression in working with their hands to craft works of art from the materials that Mother Nature provides, there is a bond that is formed with each tool.
Even my power tools hold a sentimental value to me. I have a new wood turning lathe that it is a signature piece of my shop. However, it’s not just the beauty of the beast that I adore, it’s what we can do together that excites me. Currently, I’ve been asked to restore railings, balusters and Newell posts on The Victorian Rose, a gorgeous home built in 1885 in El Dorado, Kansas. Those Newell posts are 48” long, something my new lathe can handle. I confess, as I stood in front of my lathe the other day deciding how to go about turning these big posts, I giggled out loud with excitement at the challenge and the opportunity. That tool is a part of my identity already.
I have built a lot of things in my long-term love relationship with wood and have typically used power tools. However, I’m moving more into the handheld tools and am discovering new ways to love old tools.
I created a space along my tool wall specifically to display Doyle’s tools. A sign will soon hang there so all who enter my shop will take notice and ask the story behind the display. But I know Doyle would not want me to set them there as only a display to collect dust. Rather, he would want me to use them to carry on the tradition of the delicate dance of a craftsman and his tools.
I’ve started working on a piece of furniture with Doyle’s walnut lumber and his tools. I admire the tools on display each time I walk by, but something magical happens when I pick them up and begin using them. Suddenly, I can see his aged hands grasping the plane and humming along with the song it sings as it curls fresh shavings. I hear the rhythmic thump of the wooden mallet striking a chisel, as he peers intently at an invisible line while creating works of beauty for family and friends. I see him run his hands over a piece of his furniture, caressing it as a father would a child or a mate, his lover.
Doyle is now a part of my shop, a part of my story and now, a part of my craft. I will endeavor to bring him honor as I become a part of his woodworking legacy, humming in harmony with the song of the plane as I curl one more fine shaving of wood at a time.