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Dairyman to artisan

Farmer trades Holsteins for woodworking equipment

By Patricia Buschette

Stanley Smith of DeGraff explains how the process of layering woods can create the impression of distance in one of his intarsia creations. After selling his cows, Stanley tried his hand at woodworking. Contributed photo

For Stanley Smith, 80, of DeGraff, the path from dairyman to artisan was a long and interesting one. In 2000, Stanley and his wife Sharon, who served as the dairy farm’s AI (Artificial Insemination) technician, were raising a herd of 44 Holstein cows.

“In April of 2000 I needed to haul manure and since the land was low and slow to dry out, I walked out to the fields to see where I could work. Suddenly I became weak; I went down and finally had to crawl, but I made it home,” he said.

After a time, he could work, but he was weak. The doctors did a stress check. “My blood pressure was high; I was worked up,” he said. “I thought I had to have heart surgery.” While his blood pressure went down, he later had heart surgery. However, the doctors told him he better sell the cows.

A multi-use Shopsmith is used by both Stanley and Sharon Smith as they create works of art from wood. Photo by Patricia Buschette

“One day while doing chores, I told Sharon, I said ‘I think I am ready to sell the cows.’ I went up to the house and called the newspaper to place the ad. The cows were sold in record time. Later I bought a boat and a new pickup,” he added.

Stanley and Sharon have two children who worried about their parents’ safety living on the farm site. Stanley understood the concern. “We could have a heavy snow,” he thought. “Am I going to die getting to the machine shed to get a tractor to clear snow?”

The two found the perfect house with adjoining property on the west side of Montevideo. “The first thing I did was to have a new shop built on the property,” he said. He planned for a more modest size, but the carpenter suggested something larger – and Stanley now has filled it with every piece of equipment imaginable.

This step to his role as a craftsman is somewhat puzzling. You see, Stanley had not worked with wood very much. Once he had a shop, he got on the Internet and saw a Shopsmith. The Shopsmith, a lathe-based tool, has multiple purposes. It performs lathe, table saw, sanding, and has drill press functions.

“I wanted one. I heard they were going to be demonstrating one at the State Fair and I thought I would like to watch that. Sharon was interested too, and because it was demonstrated at the fair, I got it for half price. I also got a band saw for buying at the fair . . . and a planer to go with it. It was all half price at the fair!”

A woodland setting provides the foreground for two pieces of intarsia, both featuring birds, in honor of Sharon’s love of birds. Photo by Patricia Burchette

He started building furniture, then grandfather clocks. He got new ideas through different woodworking books. And also subscribed to a handful of different magazines.

“When I first saw intarsia, it was online,” he said. “I saw it, I liked it, and I made it.”

Intarsia is an elaborate form of inlays of wood created in 15th-century Italy. The term is not generally a familiar one, and it is thought that the word is derived from the Latin word ‘interserere,’ which means to insert.

“I learned about intarsia 15 years ago. I bought a book and started reading it,” Stanley said. He also relies on technology for new ideas.

“A good thing is to go online and get ideas. I learned the most from YouTube, as well as woodworking catalogs. Wood magazines have good patterns, too,” he said.

In creating intarsia different woods are necessary to create the various colors. Stanley has become very knowledgeable of the various woods, their colors, qualities, and where to obtain them.

“I have found African Paduak on eBay. It is a strong hardwood known for its typically reddish-brown coloration. Many woods change their colors with age,” he said, and as an example he points out a rose that is displayed in their home.

The Smith workshop is huge and has every piece of woodworking equipment needed to create artistry. Note the tubing that carries dust from each piece of equipment to a collection bin in the storage area, eliminating sawdust in the shop. Photo by Patricia Buschette

Another wood he describes is the Purpleheart that is native to Brazil, South and Central America. It too, changes with age and exposure to sun. The graining of wood is important in creating a design. The purple heart wood is straight grained. However, there are examples of it being wavy. Air and Light give purple heart wood its color.

The clock imbedded into an intarsia clock received a purple Champion ribbon at the Chippewa County Fair. Photo by Patricia Buschette

Stanley pulled out a pail of samples he has of the various types of wood he uses, and pointed out Wenge. Like many of the woods he uses, some comes from the Republic of Congo. “It is nearly always black,” he said.

He also uses Canarywood from Panama with its varying color and grain.

While many of his woods come from online purchases on eBay, he pointed out butternut that he bought locally. “It came from somebody in Benson,” he said. Bugs had killed the tree. The seller used the main part of the tree. I bought the branches.”

He obtains wood from a variety of sources.

“I have done business with a fellow from Redwood Falls. A local man who brings in logs from northern Minnesota has a supply of wood, and an auction in Milan sold a good inventory of wood at a good price.”

He buys cherry, walnut and maple online, and his inventory of wood includes recycled wood where he can find it. All wood finds a purpose and the impressive looking sliding barn door that closes off storage from his workshop is a product of his creativity.

While he uses different woods to, as he says, “paint with wood,” he will also use dye if necessary to create the effect desired.

A clock created through the woodworking process known as fretwork. Photo by Patricia Buschette

It takes an undetermined amount of time to complete a finished piece of intarsia. For example, an intricate stage coach with four horses took six weeks to complete, while a meadowlark took four days.

Occasionally he will make additional intarsia pieces from one pattern. Over the years he has made 15 roses, one displayed in his shop, one in the house, and others given as gifts. He made three sewing machines with a clock inserted. Some were given as gifts, but the model exhibited at the Chippewa County fair, and now in his shop, bears a purple Champion ribbon.

Stanley is not the only one in the family with a creative nature. Sharon is an expert at wood work and creates Christmas tree ornaments doing fretwork.  Fretwork is an interlaced decorative design requiring patience and creativity. Sharon makes the ornaments and gives them away as gifts. “They just disappear,” Stanley said as he explained that she gives them as gifts to former co-workers from the hospital. She also is an accomplished quilt maker.

A tour of their home is amazing! Each room is filled with his handiwork that  is presented beautifully.

His creative woodworking is often displayed with a theme, creating an exhibit. Consider the “I am the Light of the Word.” He created this plaque from a pattern he bought from a dealer in Wisconsin. “I installed a light behind it and sent a photo of it to the dealer,” he said. “The dealer asked permission to put the photo in his newsletter, but unfortunately died before doing so.” However, the lighted plaque displayed next to two intarsia crosses bears tribute to Stanley’s creativity.

A train chugs its way over the cornice board of the Smith sunroom, one of many artistic creations in their home. Photo by Patricia Buschette

A train engine with two cars makes its way over a stone bridge on a shelf over a cornice in a sunroom, cabinets are filled with intricate pieces, and a woodland setting highlights two intarsia birds in deference to Sharon’s love of birds. Stanley pointed out a piece depicting a farm site with a mare and colt in the foreground. He pointed out the layering effect of intarsia, creating an illusion of distance.

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