Don Jensen: Landscape Architect Finds Art In Wood

Don Jensen’s woodworking has come a long way from its beginnings. Now, the Morgan Hill, California resident is focused on creating custom pieces of furniture and supporting his local arts community. The way it all began…was lathe turning candlesticks for a Boy Scout Merit badge.

Don was 13 or 14, a military brat who had access to the base’s shop through his father. Dad bought an old oak pallet “drove the shop steward crazy when he put it through the planer,” Don said and stuck it on the lathe, without so much as cutting the corners off on a saw, and told Don to go to town. He did, and successfully figured out how to make candlesticks, which led to orders from grandparents, other relatives, etc., so that he was in production before he knew it.

Since then, Don has kept up woodworking, becoming mostly self-taught through reading, television and having friends of whom “I ask lots of questions,” he said. Approaching his 50th birthday soon, he no longer makes production pieces, except for one flat trellis that grew out of his landscape architecture business. Instead, he prefers to make each piece one-of-a-kind, tailoring it to the needs and personality of the individual or family he’s making it for.

When his landscape customers call Don about a tree that has gone down on their property, for example, he asks, “Is it special to you?” When they say yes, that’s why they want it to go someplace they know it won’ be wasted, Don tells them, “I can do better than that. I can make you something from it.”

He looks at the clients’ home, examining the design styles and materials they already have and use, and then creates a piece that “becomes an heirloom for them, but doesn’t look out of place with things they already have. I’m a big continuity person.” Don has also applied this concept on an individual level to three bedroom sets he has crafted: “I take an individual and get into their head and design the whole set around them.”

At the moment, he’s doing a lot of this type of contract work, and doesn’t have as much time for some of the more unusual pieces he also enjoys — the ones where he just starts with his own idea and executes it. For example, Don has made a wooden quilt that will be displayed at an area quilt show among the fabric variety. He actually made two, he points out, one a negative of the other, from the laminates he cut on the bandsaw and epoxied together.

“I’m the kind of person who comes up with a brainstorm or a concept of a piece and then figures out how to get it done,” Don says. “I’ll draw it up with my drawing skills and then figure out how to make it. Sometimes there are some false starts, but I’m always learning new things.”

He doesn’t restrict himself to one area of woodworking, either. He’s built furniture, turned bowls and, when he goes camping, takes along some wood to carve. (One of his recent carvings was a 5′ tiki out of a 20″ diameter Douglas fir.)

The design training he received in environmental design when studying landscape architecture has applications that are quite universal, Don says, and enable to create some of his wood creations. The landscape architect business itself, which is his “day” job, is also quite seasonal — he focuses on single-family residential homes — so he has more time in the winter to devote to his woodworking.

He mills much of his own wood and uses local materials, including a poppy jasper stone indigenous to the area, in his pieces. Sometimes, that means taking a week to do something such as mill into slabs the 260-year-old California valley oak a friend called and told him had been downed last New Year’s. Getting a chance at the heart of this wood, with its dark chocolate color, was a once in a lifetime thing, Don said. He prefers working with local woods over the oak available for commercial in his area, for example, because it doesn’t have the colors or the feel of local sources.

He also notes that he definitely considers himself to be more on the “arty” end of the spectrum of woodworking. “If people come to me and want a cabinet, I’ll send ’em to a cabinetmaker,” he says. “I’m way too expensive. If they want something artsy a cabinet person would not be able to do, I’ll take ’em on.”

Having, over the years, amassed a shop through money gathered from woodworking contract work (he’s upgraded to his fifth lathe), Don plans to continue plying his art in wood. “As long as I enjoy it, and it doesn’t become work, I’ll keep at it,” he says.

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