Above: John Rudert, one of the featured woodworkers, works on a toy train. A sample of the finished product is in the foreground. Photo by Joe Earle.
John Rudert tackled his first woodworking project decades ago, when he was a kid growing up in Pennsylvania. He and his dad, who happened to own a hardware store and had a shop full of tools, worked together to make a lamp. They gave it to his mom as a Mother’s Day present.
“It’s somewhere in a packing box,” Rudert said. “We still have it.”
Setting up shop
When Rudert moved to Georgia with his I.T. job back in the mid-1990s, he settled in the area that would become Peachtree Corners in part because he wanted a place that provided enough room to set up a home wood shop. “I always had this idea of woodworking, that I would end up with the tools dad had,” he said.
Rudert’s two-story shop now stands next to his home. But the works in wood the 71-year-old now turns out can be a bit more, well, elaboratethat that walnut lamp made for his mom. He makes all sorts of things out of wood, from toy trains to bowls to tables decorated with elaborate designs assembled from thin slices of wood. What’s the appeal? “It’s the accomplishment,” he said.
Rudert looks like a man who works with wood. He’s tall, wears wire-framed glasses, sports a long and bushy beard and was dressed one recent morning in jeans, a plaid shirt and a gray cardigan. Retired from I.T. now, he teaches a couple of woodworking classes at the John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina and serves as president of the Peach State Woodturners, one of more than a dozen clubs organized in Georgia for craftspeople who work with wood.
Clubs for every skill
Woodworking clubs often organize around particular skills. There are clubs for furniture makers, clubs for those who turn wood on a lathe to make bowls or other decorative objects, and even one for makers of decorative fountain pens. Why so many clubs? “People are different,” Rudert said.
The Peach State club claims 30 to 40 members and meets monthly at a member’s home in Oxford, Ga. Other clubs meet in homes or at a half-dozen local woodworking businesses scattered from Midtown Atlanta to various communities across the city’s northern suburbs. One group, the Georgia Association of Woodturners, a 135-member club that organized in 1987, meets at Georgia Tech.
Clubs often offer group classes during their regular meetings. Some make how-to videos during their classes and post them on YouTube to share with other woodworkers. “We have a demonstrator come and then we have ‘Show and Tell’ when different members show what they’ve done,” said Mike Raftis, who’s 74 and webmaster for the South Metro Woodturners club, which claims 35 to 40 members.
And several clubs regularly work together by scheduling their meetings on consecutive days so an out-of-town expert can teach classes to several different groups during the same week.
Who are the woodworkers?
The clubs seem to attract members from a variety of backgrounds. Gary Fader, the 72-year-old president of the 150-member Woodworkers Guild of Georgia, said that group includes retired lawyers, accountants, even a doctor or two. He’s a retired nuclear engineer himself. Now he likes spending hours making all-wooden clocks that operate with wooden gears.
“A lot of guys in the guild spend their lives pushing paper, so generally you reach a point where you want to produce something you can hold in your hands,” Fader said. “It’s just the satisfaction of making something. … A lot of the guys pushed paper and now they like getting their hands dirty.”
Woodworkers say the hobby also gives them a way to forget what’s going on around them while they focus on the projects in front of them. Dan Simken, president of the Gwinnett Woodworkers Association, finds he can relax while working on the delicate wooden pieces he cuts with a scroll saw. “I can kind of lose myself in it,” the 66-year-old retired photographer said.
What keeps them going back? It’s simple, Raftis said. “Woodworking is kind of addictive,” he said.
Gwinnett Woodworkers meet up
Early one recent Saturday, about 28 members of the Gwinnett Woodworkers Association gathered at the Woodcraft store in Alpharetta to watch three of their club members demonstrate how they had made a three-foot-tall Connect Four game large enough to set in a backyard for their kids or grandkids to play.
The game required a standing playing board assembled from a pair of matched sheets of plywood, each drilled with 35 holes in a 7-by-5-hole grid, and 5-inch discs to drop between the boards and fill the holes. During play, the colored discs lined up like the X’s and O’s in tic-tac-toe. Players alternated turns dropping the discs. A win required placing four discs in a row.
As Buzz Adams, Rob Austin and Larrie Wampler demonstrated how to make the pieces and assemble the board, club members in the audience members fired questions ad kept up a running, good-natured commentary on their work.
After the meeting, Adams said he got interested in woodworking after retiring from a 30-something-year career in demolition. Now, instead of tearing things down, he builds things. “We’re not carpenters, we’re woodworkers,” the 68-year-old said. “A carpenter knows all about structure. Ours is more about art, or we think it is.”
A comfortable hobby for older adults
Because woodworking offers a lot of variety in the kinds of projects people can make, it can comfortably fit the needs of older hobbyists, said Kim Muthersbough, the 66-year-old president of the Georgia Association of Woodturners. “It involves you mentally and it involves you physically,” he said. “Both mind and body.”
Muthersbough, who grew up in Texas, got his introduction to working with wood when he was a Cub Scout and Boy Scout. “I’ve always been a crafty person,” he said. He was reintroduced to woodworking about 15 years ago, he said, when a co-worker suggested he might enjoy it. “I was really intimidated by woodworking because what I wanted to do was large projects and I was afraid I would start something and never get it finished.”
But once he realized he could take on and complete projects in a small amount of time, he was hooked. Now he makes all kinds of things in his shop, from peppermills to bowls to pens, he said, and doesn’t specialize on any particular kind of item. “I haven’t found that one thing I want to make a billion of,” he said.
From Hobby to Second Career
For Muthersbough, woodworking also has turned into a second career. He retired after working in corporate jobs as a supply-chain specialist, but then was hired a few years ago by Kennesaw State University to supervise the shop where architecture students make models.
Now, in addition to his job, he spends eight to 10 hours a month on projects in his home shop. “The point is making something,” Muthersbough said. “The thing that I find engaging is I’ve always been very interested in process and woodworking is a very process-oriented type of activity. Process-type things are the things I enjoyed in school and it’s what I did as a professional. I’ve always had a very analytical and a very process-oriented type personality. A lot of woodworkers you’ll encounter are retired engineers.”
Over in Alpharetta, during a chat at the Woodcraft shop where several clubs hold their monthly meetings, Rudert, the retired I.T. professional, bought out samples of his varied types of woodwork. Pieces ranged from a brightly colored Christmas ornament to bowls assembled from several kinds of wood and turned to be smooth to the touch to elaborate marquetry pieces he’d made to create colorful designs by piecing together small slices of wood.
One marquetry piece started with a photo of a bird that was published in National Geographic magazine, he said. He made his own image of the bird by assembling pieces of wood of various shapes, sizes and colors. “It’s a bit of challenge,” he said. “It’s just being able to stick with it. But the results are incredible.”
And it looked to be a long way from a wooden lamp.