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The hobbyist can do it his own way, woodworker tells Del Val high school students


Randal Henderson, a woodworker from Doylestown, would rather listen to the wood than to paying customers. He was November’s visiting artist at Delaware Valley High School. He spoke to two woodworking classes on Nov. 21.

Although he’d taken a wood shop course in high school, his real start in woodworking came about 15 years ago when “an ice storm took down a cherry tree at our house. I knew cherry was a nice wood, and I couldn’t let this go to waste.” So he “took it to the sawmill and started making stuff.”

His interest really lit up a few years ago when he visited the Nakashima furniture studio near New Hope. The designs “really spoke to me,” he said. Like George Nakashima (1905-1990), who is famous for his appreciation of the natural irregularities of wood, Henderson loves uneven colors and likes to let the tree have its way sometimes.

Speaking to the students, many of whom had recently visited the Nakashima studio, Henderson quoted George Nakashima as saying, “’Every piece of wood wants to be something.’ That’s a little voodooy for my taste, but it makes a lot of sense. I often go to the basement where I keep a lot of dried wood … Usually if I stare at it long enough, it’ll tell me” what it wants to be.

In contrast, a paying customer would want to point to a piece of his furniture and say, “I want something just like that.” But with the wood as his partner, Henderson’s creation might turn out to be “wider or shallower or the curve will be a little different.” So he’d rather build things for his family and friends.

“Once you can work in wood, you can make practical stuff,” he said, remembering his farm-raised father who taught him, “If you want something, make it.” He has made a bed for his son, a chicken coop, bookshelves and many tables, the grandest of which was a dining table about 7-by-6-feet and weighing 350 to 400 pounds. An irregularity of the lumber created a bump-out that allowed the seating of three more diners.

“I’m lucky I can do this as a hobby. I don’t really have to squeeze every penny out of it that I can,” he said. His disillusioned cabinetmaker uncle quit the business when he got tired of asking himself, “How fast can I make it so it’s just good enough so they’ll pay me?” Spending an extra hour sanding the underside of a table to silky smoothness wouldn’t make business sense, but Henderson does as he pleases.

Even so, thrift is part of his natural grain. “I can’t stand for anything bigger than sawdust or a thumb-sized piece of wood to leave my shop. I keep thinking there’s gotta be something I can do with it.” So he makes a lot of clocks. He also showed the students a handsome end table whose top was made up of eight different species of scrap wood.

In closing, he told the students of the value of having a hobby like woodworking to supplement any satisfactions they derive from their day jobs. He has a small manufacturing company and invests in real estate. “I like what I do, but it’s not everything,” so, besides woodworking, he engages in bicycle racing, marathon running and fishing.

He told them that even if you discontinue woodworking after you leave high school, you might want to come back to it someday. “There’s always wood, and you can always find tools somewhere.”

The visiting artist series, now in its third year, was instituted by art teachers Sarah Ruppert and Jason Farnsworth, who recruit artists from the community to talk to Del Val students about their creative energies, techniques, business practices, motivations, influences and inspirations. Next up will be photographer Erica Hutchins, a Del Val alumna, on Dec. 19.