Modern woodworkers unite in old-style guild
By Trish Gannon
During the Middle Ages in Europe, organizations of merchants and skilled craftsmen guilds set prices and established rules and customs for fair trade. Now a small group of skilled woodworkers from Sandpoint have revived that ancient spirit here in a somewhat non-traditional return to the roots of woodworking with the establishment of the Sandpoint Woodworkers Guild.
"Reidar (Wahl) wanted to have some kind of a showroom and I said, 'forget the showroom, let's create a guild and invite everyone else to join,' " said Caleb Carlson, owner of Harmonic Carpentry. "And that's how it started."
Sandpoint is rapidly becoming known as an arts community where painters, sculptors, musicians and others create pieces of regional, national and sometimes international renown. It's also home to a surprising array of fine woodworkers who have been almost invisible to their local community something the guild members hope to remedy.
"We wanted something where we could share information, materials, techniques," added Haven Carlson, Caleb's mother and the artistic force of Bench Dog Furniture. "We all work in our individual shops, and don't get together."
"Haven and Caleb got this going and people were coming out left and right to be a part of this," said Reidar Wahl, owner of Norwegian Wood and a custom furniture craftsman whose work he says is "kind of whimsical and funky." He describes his focus not only in terms of the country style he says is "closest to my heart," but in the range of finishes available for wood. He sees a great importance in the establishment of the guild.
Mark Edmundson, a furniture craftsman whose work sells primarily in Boise, agreed. "When you work alone, you wonder. I get stuck in my own approach. Wood is such a dynamic thing; you can't just slap something together. It moves; it grows and shrinks with the seasons. I like to hear how others approach things, hear their problem-solving. To see how others do something stretches me."
Woodworkers commonly face the challenge of marketing their work locally. Traditionally their jobs have come through word-of-mouth, or in selling pieces through other merchants in town. With the establishment of the guild, they are trying a different approach in the hope of making their work more affordable and more accessible to the local community. Just as important is the guild's commitment to making the work of its members visible.
For months the guild displayed their pieces in an empty office building on Cedar Street. Now the guild is without a home to display their work, and they're brainstorming ways to come up with one.
The Carlson pair envision a "gypsy gallery" that might move from location to location, and serve more as a museum than as a shop. "When someone comes in, we can direct them to the person who does the kind of work they're interested in," explained Haven.
"There's no redundancy in the way we work we're all different," said Edmundson. "Everybody does distinct stuff. It really gives you an eyeful."
Edmundson has, perhaps, the most formal training in fine woodworking. A custom furniture builder since '92, he served a two-year apprenticeship with James Krenov at the College of the Redwoods in California, one of only a handful of apprenticeship programs in the country.
"Half the reason we did this was to promote quality work by local artists," said Caleb, whose own work features a blend of wood and welded steel that is "poetic industrial," in his mother's description.
Haven's work uses only recycled wood products, so the finished product is affordable, she says. That's a characteristic important to all the guild members, and yet another reason why they don't want to get into selling situations that require a lot of overhead.
In addition to the floating gallery concept is the possibility of annual or semi-annual woodworking shows. Other ideas include a brochure that will illustrate the individual styles of local woodworkers, and classes in fine woodworking and basic carpentry skills.
They believe the greatest thing the guild can provide, however, is the ability to continue doing the work they love. "You're a winner in the end," explained Haven. "If you're doing something you love, how could you possibly lose?"
Currently the guild includes nearly a dozen members and can be reached at 208/265-8984.
Trish Gannon, who lives in Clark Fork with three children, one grandson and six cats, is production assistant for The River Journal.