Riley Grotts says he "can't
remember when I wasn't" a woodworker. As a child of a military
parent, the only place that truly seemed like home during his
childhood was in Oklahoma, where his master carpenter grandfather had
a garage workshop with "a huge pile of sawdust and all the
From that shop, Riley said, "I
nailed more little boats together and floated them down the creek
than even most boat builders ever put together in a lifetime."
He describes his sewing skills,
however, as "minimal," which is how he ended up portraying
a woodcarving character for several years at renaissance fairs.
Around 2001, after helping with site work on the then-new Kansas City
(Missouri) Renaissance Festival, Riley decided he wanted to play a
character. The need was for street characters, and the easiest
costume to make was a "sack dress" -- which became a
cassock for "Brother William."
As part of his character portrayal, he
began carrying a carving knife hung from his belt and would "pick
up a stick off the ground and carve a flower and hand it to people."
Eventually, he made some adaptations -- the knife at the belt was "too close to little hands," and kids would be handing him
a stick they'd found -- after pulling off the poison ivy leaves.
Riley as Brother William eventually made a knife holder in the end of
his staff, with a little hole for a drill bit, and carried his own
supply of sticks in a quiver.
"Every once in a while, a little
kid would say, very quietly, 'I wish I could do that.'" With the
parents' permission, Riley would take the child aside. "Rule
Number One is 'always think about where the knife is going to go if
you slip,'" he said. "I gave them pointers. Then we'd do
one with them holding onto my hands, one with me holding onto their
hands, and they'd do one.
"One of my proudest moments was
with a little girl who was badly burned in her early years. I had
talked to her mom and asked if a carving knife would be OK." On
the family's next visit, Riley had made a carving knife slightly
modified to fit the girl's hand, with a pouch from a leatherworker.
"She sat down and promptly made a flower. The mom was pleased as
punch, because she needed to exercise. This was something that she
wanted to do that accomplished something she had to do. It was a
win-win all the way around."
Riley no longer does renaissance
festivals : "I started out in the 70s as an auto and diesel
mechanic and broke enough fingers that they're stiff and sore all the
time, and then spent 30 weekends a year from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. carving
flowers; it pretty much tore up my hands," he said. "I'm
paying for it now, but I wouldn't have it any other way."
And, that doesn't mean he's not doing
woodworking. His current project, for example, involves trying to
figure out how to rebuild a sewing machine cabinet with drawers
shaped like partial ovals. "It's an interesting thought process
that's been going on for about two or three months."
In general, Riley says, "I plan
things in my head for a long time before they ever get going."
And then, once it's built, it's unlikely he'd build that project
again. "I'll do it until I get it right, but I won't do a second
once I get it right," he said. "I rarely do pairs. If I do,
I'll do drawings and I'll make a piece and a silhouette, and I'll
give the person both pieces and the piece of cardboard with the
He did make several cedar sake cups for
his wife to present to teachers in Japan as part of an exchange
program -- but at the time, he was also turning 2"-diameter
plates for a friend who likes to collect dollhouse-sized items.
Riley has been turning for quite some
time: his very first homemade tool was a lathe he created in the
1960s with the motor and turntable from a record player he purchased
at an auction. He presented that lathe to his parents as a Christmas
gift; the following year, on Father's Day, his dad went out and
bought a commercially manufactured wood lathe. "We assembled it,
bought a motor, set it up on a bench in the garage, and then he said,
'OK, I'm done playing with it,' and walked off and left it to me,"
He has also done quite a bit of carving
-- in addition to the flowers done as Brother William, he went
through a series of homemade carving knives for a while. He would get
a finished product, and then, "I would try it, and it wouldn't be quite right. I'd take it to the woodcarvers' group and somebody
would say, 'That's pretty nice,' and I'd say, 'OK, it's yours.' I
gave away a lot that didn't quite fit me, but if they fit somebody
else, by golly, I'm better off letting them have it."
Riley's projects have been made out of
a variety of wood. "I love sycamore because of the way it
smells; it has fond memories for me," he said. "In Oklahoma
below the dam where I learned to swim, it smelled like that all the
time." Other than that, however, he'll pick "anything that
has wild grain and that looks fun. If it looks good, I'm going to
stick it in a corner, and it'll get used for something."