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With the Grain - Spring 2003

With the Grain
In class, in the shop, Charlie Sheaff '72 follows Nature's lead

"When we go home sometimes, right on the front step will be a chunk of wood," Charlie Sheaff '72 explains, with his hands out in wonder. "I have no idea who left it oftentimes. One night we came home and I could not get in the front door of my own house. Someone had dropped off a half-a-dozen cherry burls and I guess wanted to make sure that I saw them, because they piled them up right in front of the door."

Photo by Ann CardThe anonymous donor knew that Sheaff cannot turn down a cherry burl, in fact cherishes those tumorlike growths as the source of bowls and other turned pieces. "An ugly burl growing on the side of a tree that you see in the woods – to a woodworker that's like a piece of gold. It's just unbelievable the grain that takes place inside that piece of wood."

When Sheaff talks about wood, it's hard to imagine a piece he couldn't carve, lathe, or somehow manipulate into something beautiful, useful, or both. "What's a scrap?" he asks. "I don't know what a scrap is.

"I'm known as a packrat, particularly in woodshop. I cannot make myself throw some of this wood away. There'll be a piece with a big old knot in the middle of it, and it should probably go in the burn pile, but I'll just keep it around."

Photo by Ann CardSince 1982, when he moved from a position at Keene High School to the KSC faculty (he has since earned his doctorate from the University of Massachusetts), Charlie Sheaff has preached the religion of wood to a congregation of college students wanting to do something with their hands as well as their minds.

Make a spoon quoteOn the first day of Woodworking II in late January, in his home department of Technology, Design and Safety, he handed all the students a block of wood, two by two by nine inches, and told them: "Make a spoon." Now, a few weeks later, he says, "they're finishing them up, and they're incredible.

"With that project I could stand up and I could talk to them forever about grain direction and understanding the wood fiber and so forth, but when they're carving that spoon they're experiencing it. They go the wrong way with the grain; it chips out. The little bowl of the spoon – you never think about that, but trying to hollow it out is a bear if you don't pay attention to the way the grain's going, because you can carve only halfway down. You can't go up the other side because you'll tear it out.

Photo by Ann Card"People want to make these curly handles, but they have to realize if they have a little short grain it's apt to break; it's going to be very tender.

"They learn so much, an incredible amount, by a simple little project like carving a spoon."

Competent woodworking requires an intimate relationship with the many ways a tree can tell its life story. Or, as Charlie Sheaff puts it, "You have to keep in mind that Mother Nature is doing the artwork and what you're doing is exposing it."

So while technique, craftsmanship, and professionalism sit at the heart of Sheaff's classes, the conversation also focuses on aesthetics, biology, culture, and much of the other content of a liberal-arts education. A case could be made, he says, for creating an entire liberal-arts curriculum around a woodworking technology class.

Photo by Ann Card"Students sign up for a woodworking course, and they think they're going to use the table saw and cut some wood," he says. "But after the first few classes talking about the product we're working with, I hear a lot of comments like 'Oh, we studied this in biology.'"

In researching furniture styles, students engage themselves in history. And anthropology. When Sheaff's students craft perfect wooden balls, they explore the psychology of touch: Why is it so relaxing to roll one in your hands?

Chemistry: "A lot of research on glues comes from the seashore," he tells a class. "Why do barnacles stick to a rock? It's protein. That's why some of the best glues are made from animal hides. It's why we say a horse is ready for the glue factory."

7 new nails quoteCentral to any liberal-arts education is the development of problem-solving skills. "A liberally educated person," Sheaff contends, "has got to be able to think creatively, solve problems, and understand that perhaps there isn't one answer but may be several."

In the spoon project the problem can be how to lay down the spoon for drying when every bit of its surface is freshly wet with finish. In Exploring Technology, which he teaches with colleague Del Ogg, it may be how to package a potato chip for mailing unbroken to a second-grader across town. (Collaborators in such projects can include Sheaff's wife, Carol '73, who teaches at Mt. Caesar Elementary School in Swanzey, and daughter, Kimberly '99, who teaches at Symonds in Keene. Daughter Katelyn '06 is so far resisting a teaching career, studying health promotion and fitness.)

Photo by Ann CardOr, the problem, in only an hour and a half, may be: Please construct a 20-second timer using paper plates, straws, rubber bands, sand, a golf ball, and a mouse trap.

"Twenty seconds is a tremendously long time," Sheaff points out. "The first time out of the box we get a lot of 5- and 10-second timers."

Puzzles are also good for professors, he says. "I thrive on trying to solve problems." One such challenge arrived a few years back, when someone had apparently stolen the ceremonial mace traditionally carried by the most senior faculty member at KSC's Commencement.

"The Alumni Association came to me and said we need a mace," he recalls, "and that's all they said."

He began the project with research into the history of the mace, a medieval weapon for head-bashing, and considered how to bring in classical elements, such as a fluted column, to signify the liberal arts. He then constructed a prototype. "It was just out of pine, and I stained it dark to show how it would look in black walnut. On the top I needed a metal ball for the prototype and found the bulb that came out of a toilet tank. I put that on the prototype and sent it on over.

Like the design quote"I got a call a couple of days later, and they said, 'We met, but we have some concerns. We really like the design; it's lightweight, but we think that's a toilet-tank bulb on top.' And I said, 'Well, you think right.'" The real, final version carries a hollow brass ball from a flagpole company in Fitzwilliam. And the shaft is hollow to make it light, because, Sheaff says, "after all, it's going to be carried by the faculty member who's been here the longest."

Despite the wood professor's respect for tradition, he embraces new technologies and new substances in his own woodworking exploration. "One of the things I've gotten a little bit known for in New England, even nationally," he says, "is working with alternative wood products, processed wood products – plywood, particleboard, some of the construction timbers." Among the turned pieces that he exhibits and sells, one bowl that drew attention was made from LVL – laminated veneer lumber – a shredded wood product used in construction.

"They compress the stuff together and make huge beams out of it for, say, basements," Sheaff says. "A friend was building a new house in Sunapee, and I came across a piece of this stuff. I looked at it and thought, 'that would be crazy to turn.' I turned two bowls out of that first piece. One I gave to him as a housewarming gift. The second piece I put in a couple of national exhibits and it sort of took off; people really enjoyed it. My younger daughter said, 'It looks like it's made out of worms,' so my older daughter, at the time being in high school and studying French, called it 'bol de vers,' which means 'bowl of worms,' so that's what I named the piece."

Photo by Ann CardAlmost every night after dinner, Sheaff disappears into his workshop at home, making pieces for exhibit or sale or working on commissions for architects needing hand-turned wood pieces such as porch columns or intricate, spiral balusters to support handrails.

"Wood," says Charlie Sheaff, "has been my whole life." His father was a building contractor "and always had a good-sized shop to work in." And Sheaff himself works in the trade and has built about a half-dozen houses in the Keene area.

"I feel very strongly about what I do," he says. "I stay involved in both the construction area and the woodworking area because I want to stay current. I picked up a journal of light construction the other day and there were seven new types of nails they were advertising. I'm constantly at the lumberyard talking with these people to try to stay current with the technology."

Photo by Ann CardHe moves his hands familiarly over one and then another in a series of absolutely identical balusters, shaped in elaborate curves and planes. This is serious work, and rewarding in many ways. But it doesn't bring a smile until he turns the conversation back to his real work, especially with the beginners, and the baseball bat a student is turning out of maple.

"Some of the happiest times, for me," explains the wood professor, "is when I finally grade the projects at the end of the semester and you can see it in their faces; they are just as proud as can be with these creations."

Michael Matros is editor of  Keene State Today.
Photos by Ann Card.