Writer: DANNY MOGLE // Photographer: HAYLEE BAZIL // Jan./Feb. 2o15
Edward Cooper of Bullard is anxious to show off his prized possession, a Stanley wood plane he estimates to be about a century old. To demonstrate how good it is, the carpenter ever so slowly glides it lengthwise across the surface of a board. As he does so, a razor thin strip of wood pops up and curls into a tight ringlet.
“Now watch this,” he says.
Bending closer to the board, he grips the handle, which looks like an oversized door knob, and unleashes a rapid-fire set of movements. For a moment, everything is a blur. Wood shavings go flying. When he finally looks up, he is grinning.
Cooper, as his friends call him, doesn’t have much use for modern woodworking tools. In fact, he goes out of his way to acquire what many consider to be nothing more than relics from a bygone era.
These yesteryear tools are what he insists on using to transform blocks of wood into beautiful furniture.
As a kid growing up in West Texas, Cooper and his buddies made toy rockets for fun. They quickly discovered that a rocket is pretty useless unless it has a pair of fins to provide the needed stabilization to send it soaring into the sky.
We started playing around making these wood fins to attach to the rockets,” recalls Cooper. “We would play around with the shape the fins needed to be.” Cooper discovered that wood properly used serves a practical function.
As a teenager, Cooper built a half-pipe ramp out of wood that he and his buddies rode their skateboards on. He discovered that wood properly used brings enjoyment.
One of his first jobs was installing doors in homes. “These were really nice doors … super solid, high-end wooden doors.” Cooper discovered that quality wood, treated with love and care becomes a thing of beauty.
He also had discovered that more than anything he wanted to spend his life making things out of wood. He knew he needed to learn from some of the best in the business so he called Mike Siemsen, a master carpenter whose credits include restoring 18th century American furniture and serving as an officer in the Society of American Period Furniture Makers.
“I told him, ‘I want to do what you do,’” says Cooper, who enrolled in Siemsen’s intensive hands-on school in rural Minnesota.
“I am a lifelong woodworker; I learned by trial-and-error, reading, on-the-job training and taking classes,” says Siemsen on his website. “I believe that the best way to develop your skills as a woodworker is to immerse yourself in the craft with skilled people to guide you along the way.”
After an apprenticeship with Siemsen, Cooper spent a year in upper Michigan working with Brent Thorgren, a maker of log cabins famous for their exceptional craftsmanship.
“When I met Brent, we became fast friends,” says Cooper. “He’s such a fascinating guy. He really showed me more than anyone what you could do with wood.”
Siemsen and Thorgren preferred the old ways and tools over modern conveniences.
“I kept trying to figure out why these old-time woodworkers were using these tools and why they were always talking so much about the old hand planes. They knew that there was something special in them. … There are things you can do with these tools that you can’t do with mechanical tools. They give you such a sense of control and empowerment. They allow you to do these beautiful curves.”
He points out the rounded curves of a recently completed dining room table in his workshop. “Here feel it. Feel these smooth edges.”
The table is made of white pine, one of Cooper’s favorite woods. He often uses pine harvested in East Texas and sold at a mill in Mount Enterprise.
“Pine gets no respect,” says Cooper. “They say it’s too soft and difficult to finish but pine is gorgeous. Every piece has a unique grain pattern and a growth ring. You can see from it what the tree went through. These lines right here are farther apart. That was a good growth year. There was plenty of rain. It’s like you can see a history of the forest.”
IN THE ZONE
A carpenter for 20 years, Cooper makes tables, chests and decorative side tables and refinishes and repairs wooden furniture. He teaches one-one-one classes to pass on to a new generation what he has learned from his mentors and decades of practice.
He is at peace when he is alone working in his woodshop, a converted garage in his home looking out over a grove of trees near the Kiepersol Estates vineyards. He loves it when he’s in the zone – the intense period when he spends hours every day on a project that has kicked his passion and creative spirit into overdrive.
Sometimes he plays music but usually he works in silence.
“It’s how I work my energies out. I find it therapeutic. It’s how I connect to the past.”
He picks up a chisel with a long discolored metal blade and weathered wooden handle that clearly looks like it has seen better days.
“I got this (from a website) online,” he says cradling it in the palm of his hand. “It was made from before the turn of the (19th) century. It’s still good. You just have to keep the edge sharp. There’s a lot of life still left in it. It’s like it’s crying out, ‘Pick me up. Use me!’”
Cooper understands what it is saying. He is more than happy to oblige.