From a childhood in the South American jungle to an Amish farm in Pennsylvania Dutch country, Chris Lubkemann
has been playing with wood – and, this month, his latest book of playful creations, Tree Craft: 35 Rustic Wood Projects That Bring the Outdoors In
(Fox Chapel, ISBN 978-1-56523-455-0) is published, with a focus on projects made from found wood.
Chris himself first found wood fun to play with as a boy between the ages of six and eight years old in Brazil and Peru, where his parents were missionaries in the 1940s and 1950s. His dad would be making furniture, Chris said – it was a situation where "he had to make his own oven so he could make his own bricks to make his own house" – and small pieces of wood would fall to the ground. Chris would save these small pieces to build "fun little things" like boats.
Part of that was perhaps inspired by all of the boat building going on at Contamana, the town on the Ucayali River, where the family lived in Peru. "We swam in the river, where there were alligators," Chris said, calling his "an adventurous childhood." About this time, he also began carving small dental tools from wood – he doesn't remember what inspired this, but does remember that "My mom put a stop to that. She figured we'd get some rare tropical disease, poking around in our mouths."
Chris began attending boarding school in the United States at age 13 and didn't do much woodworking for the next few years, until the summer between his junior and senior years of college. While assisting the minister Dr. John Luke in programs around the mountain areas of North Carolina, Chris noticed that many of the mountaineers were making carved roosters out of Y-shaped branches. He picked up a $2.95 pocketknife, and the pastor taught him how to make these roosters. "You make the head out of this branch, the tail out of this branch, and I made my first rooster. It looked like it got in a terrible fight – and lost."
In the 40-plus years since then, Chris has made "thousands" more roosters from Y-shaped branches, including one he carved from a pocketknife in 1981 that is 1/8" tall, including comb and tail. He was trying to get into the Guinness Book of Records as the smallest rooster ever carved from a Y-shaped branch, but the woodcarving category didn't exist. He did receive a certificate of superlative for the "world's smallest woodcarving" – but Chris notes that, "I don't believe for a minute that it's the smallest carving; somebody has to have carved an apple or something that's smaller."
Back in the 1960s, rooster carvings and woodburnings provided items for sale that helped to fund his last year of college and, following that, the overseas travel of Chris and his wife, who themselves served as missionaries for many years. Before the first trip, Chris sold his carvings door to door to raise funds.
In his travels around the world, Chris says he's used about 80 species of wood for his carvings and other projects. (Most of those other projects consist of furniture for himself – he estimates he's built "about a zillion" bookcases, although his latest is a 29"-long, foot-wide truck made of scrap wood for his grandson.) Generally, Chris said, he prefers harder woods: birches, maple, oaks, citrus woods, holly, beech, guava in the Philippines. The tighter grain and smaller pith in the harder woods works better for his type of projects: when carving something like a head on a rooster in spongy pith, he said, "It's like carving Styrofoam®. It doesn't hold up." With the harder woods, "Some roosters I made 40 years ago are exactly the way I made them."
While roosters are "sort of the mascot of branch carving," as well as a popular image all over the world ("they're the only bird that naturally has its tail go up," Chris says), he has carved other things, too: pheasants, herons, songbirds, roadrunners and other species.
And, since 1972, he has been involved in teaching others how to do these carvings. That's when Chris wrote his first instruction sheet, which led to television appearances in Portugal and England, his books The Little Book of Whittling and The Book of Twigs and Branches, and teaching branch carving to people in the Philippines, Canada and Mexico. He also writes a column in Chip Chats, a national woodcarving magazine, and was featured carving a branch rooster on the DIY Network.
Despite all this, Chris says, that, among carvers, "I consider myself sort of the low man on the totem pole. Some guys spend hundreds of hours on this. If I have a project that took me over an hour, I consider it probably took me too long."
That's one reason that when Peg Couch, acquisitions editor at Fox Chapel, asked Chris to write an "eco-chic" book, he responded, "'Eco' I can handle. 'Chic" – I don't even have a clue."
Tree Craft's focus is not particularly on carving, but on creating its 35 projects for home or personal use from found wood. A checker set was created from a stump in Chris's front yard; a coat rack from a neighbor's Bradford pear tree that had to come down – Chris told him, "Don't throw it out. I'll make something out of it" – and some lamps from old Christmas trees, old oak firewood and hardware Chris took out of old lamps purchased from Goodwill.
Knothole picture frames are a project from the book Chris cites as particularly practical, and wooden knives, spreaders and letter openers as among the most popular. "I can't believe how much people like these little wooden knives."
Chris makes his projects using a drill, a makeshift table saw and a small belt sander. "I don't have a fully equipped shop; most everything I do is with hand tools," he said. That 12' x 20' shop is located in part of old barn, where Chris does his woodcarvings and "name logs": "I cut out a slice from a log and then woodburn people's names. If they're a lacrosse player, I add lacrosse sticks. If they're a musician, I add musical notes."
Chris is a resident artisan at the Lancaster County, Pennsylvania Amish Farm and House living history museum, where, besides his woodworking, he also works with animals like goats – he refers to them as his "kids, grandkids and great-grandkids" – and donkeys.
"I have a ton of fun in what I do," he said.