Wheelwright preserves a dying craft
There's a lot that younger folks can learn from generations past — Karl Gayer would be a prime teacher. Anyone can agree that he's led a fascinating life, that eventually landed him here, in Pocahontas County. He's schmoozed with European kings and political leaders, rubbed elbows with some of America's industrial elite, and built handcrafted pieces for museums all over the country.
Gayer's parents met in Switzerland and eventually bought a farm in Yugoslavia. In 1933, Gayer's sister was born, followed by Karl in 1935. Things quickly fell apart for the family in the tumultuous, violent, pre-war setting of Yugoslavia. His family was forced to flee the country in 1938.
“I was only three when my family left Yugoslavia,” recalled Gayer. “They had to leave everything — the farm, the animals, just got the heck out of there. Yugoslavia always seemed to have a hatred problem, and sadly it still exists, even today.”
Gayer said that for some reason or another, there has always been animosity between the various cultures — Muslims, Serbians, Croatians, Slovenians and the various gypsy tribes.
“Somewhere in 1938 a situation developed where some of the farmers started getting killed,” said Gayer. “Men... women... children — they were cut into pieces and dumped deep in these caves. Unfortunately this world has some hateful people. It doesn't make any sense.”
The Gayer family found sanctuary in Austria, where Karl grew up.
“It was kind of funny, in a way. I remember my mom telling me years later, I thought all the kids in Austria were deaf. As a three year old, I was talking to them in Slavic, they were all speaking German or an Austrian dialect. I would just try talking to them louder and louder,” laughed Gayer.
Gayer's lifelong passion as a woodworker started at the age of 14.
“The European educational system is a little bit different,” explained Gayer. “Your high school graduation is at age fourteen. Then as a fourteen year old, more than likely you were going to apprentice in some profession as an electrician, plumber, woodworker, whatever. From even as a youngster, I was always interested in wooden wheels. Wheels were my own personal preference and main interest.”
Gayer said he lived in “kind-of-the-middle of Austria,” in Steiermark. Once a week, as part of his woodworking apprenticeship, he'd travel by train to a bigger city, Graz, close to the hometown of former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“Every six months you went to a test. You were given an assignment in accordance with what stage of the apprenticeship you were in. The retired business owners in each trade, usually five or six of them, would judge you on your progress. If they saw that you didn't come up to their expectations, they would advise you to look into another trade,” joked Gayer. “It was a costly operation for the government of Austria to have these programs.”
According to Gayer, the apprenticeship program was a minimum of three years, just to teach the basics.
“It was very helpful,” he remarked. “I don't care if you want to be a plumber, or an electrician or a cabinetmaker, whatever — it gives you a heads up, a foundation. After you finished your work, you put your tools away, you cleaned your shop, you cleaned your equipment. You made sure that you pulled regular maintenance, a well-sharpened hand tool is considered half the work. I couldn't have succeeded in my business if I didn't have that background.”
Gayer said after finishing an apprenticeship, the next step was to become a journeyman, to gain more knowledge before starting a business.
“Going back in history, journeymen traditionally traveled to different locations,” said Gayer. “Especially if they found out that a wagon shop or carriage builder somewhere was especially good. As a journeyman you would try and find a place like that and spend a few months working there or a whole year or whatever. When you learned what you were after, you'd look for another shop somewhere else.”
Gayer lucked out, the shop where he underwent his apprenticeship was owned by two brothers — good people, who treated him well.
“The owner was an exceptional craftsman of course, but his brother, I always called him Mr. Herman — I have yet to meet a woodworker that would compare with him. He had an exceptional talent for making perfectly fitting joinery. When he put two pieces of wood together, you had to look three or four times to see the fitting. He always made it clear to me, there's no such thing as perfection. Don't ever get the idea that you know it all, there's no such thing!”
Some of the more basic principles Gayer learned during the course of his apprenticeship helped develop his work ethic that has served him throughout his life.
“The owner of the shop would say, 'young man, let me show you how I do it.' It was a simple hammer handle. They showed me how they would go about making it using just hand tools. Then they said 'now you try it.' I had a habit of wanting to do it quickly. They'd say 'no, don't worry about how fast you work, it's far more important to become accurate.' Accuracy is the most important part of it. Learn how to become accurate, and you will automatically become more efficient later,” Gayer said.
Gayer said he remembers working 12 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week.
“My dad being a plumber, it wasn't uncommon for him to say 'I need you to help me tomorrow on Sunday.' You guys grew up different!” he exclaimed with a hint of his European accent. “I don't consider working a lot of hours as being damaging to your health though. Hopefully, you learn something from it. It was not slave labor. You were expected to work hard, but you also were encouraged to take a break if you were tired.”
For Gayer, the apprenticeship gave him an opportunity to learn how to avoid unnecessary mistakes.
“The program weeded out the bad work habits and kept the good ones,” he said. “So you're getting knowledge handed over on a silver platter, more or less. Of course, you have to have personal interest in whatever profession you wanted to get into. Without you wanting to learn, you're wasting everybody's time.”
“I remember when I ended up being accepted as an apprentice at the shop. The journeyman that was working there, he had a big smile on his face. He said 'Karl, you're our new apprentice now.' I said 'yeah, Hans.' He said, 'I got something for you, Karl.' He handed me a broom and said, 'it's all yours now.' He was smiling from ear to ear. I'll never forget that. Low man on the totem pole. I was allowed to clean the machines, but I wasn't allowed to use them until my third year of apprenticeship.”
Gayer said Austrian apprentices were expected to use hand tools before they were allowed to work with machinery.
“There's a big difference between using hand tools occasionally, or learning how to use them, and becoming proficient with them,” he said. “Personally, I feel it was a good thing because that made it possible for me to get into a one-man-business-operation that catered to museums, collectors and so on.”
According to Gayer apprentices weren't simply working wood but also had to have a working knowledge of mathematics and even physics.
“There is a lot of math involved. I went to the library and learned every formula I could,” he said. “Especially when you get into carriage bodies. You have compound curvature in every direction. You have to be able to make your own drawings, and you have to be able to figure out dimensional sizes of the hardwood needed to be able to carry the intended load capacity of the vehicle. This is why we had a full day each week in a classroom in the big city.”
Gayer said unfortunately, he missed out on the opportunity to travel as a journeyman because he came to the United States shortly after finishing his apprenticeship.
“I came to the United States and I ended up in Aurora, Illinois,” he said. “They had a job already lined up for me at the All-Steel Manufacturing Company. They produced office furniture. I ended up drilling holes for weeks at a time. That didn't last too long with me, I'm not cut out for that. You do what you have to do, but as soon as I had an opportunity I left.”
In the late 1950s Gayer enlisted in the United States Army, as a legal immigrant, before he even took his citizenship test.
“I ended up at Ft. Riley, Kansas,” Gayer said. “I was a machine gunner in the infantry. We went overseas, and of all places, we got stationed in Germany, right next door to Austria.”
“We were at the base, I call it Munchen, a lot of people say Munich — we were stationed there in one of the old German barracks,” remembers Gayer. “Right when we were coming back to the United States, this guy located me at the base and said 'are you so-and-so?' I said 'yeah, that's me.' He said 'can I get you to come to my office?' My immediate thought was 'what the heck did I do? Did I go over the wall without a pass? What can I be in trouble for?' It was nothing like that. He happened to be a recruiter for the Secret Service.”
Gayer said the recruiter tried everything he could to talk him into making a career out of the Secret Service.
“The offer was extremely tempting,” Gayer said. “Military rank, I was what they call a private first-class, which is nothing, I was a nothing, one step above a buck-private. Here he comes and he said 'I don't think we even have to put you through our regular training process.' Obviously he knew my background pretty well. He had his information together.”
Gayer reminded the recruiter that he had never been to college.
“He said 'yeah I know all that.' I said 'what makes you think I would qualify for the Secret Service without a college degree?' He said 'let me tell you something, Karl, in the process of checking you out, we found out how you survived dodging bombs and bullets as an eight year old. Number one, there's that. Then your background in all the sports you were involved in, and you obviously seem to be able to learn languages quickly.' He said, 'you've got the kind of qualifications we're looking for.'
“He offered to jump me from private first class to a first lieutenant,” explained Gayer. “That's a big jump, and it would've been one heck of a way to start a career. Don't think I wasn't tempted! Then I thought about it and thought about it and said, 'Wait a minute Karl, you managed to survive the bombs and everything else, how long do you think you'll live as a Secret Service guy?'”
After declining the position with the Secret Service and returning stateside, Gayer moved to Oregon.
“There was a lot of farming up there, and horses, and horse drawn vehicles. My opportunity to go back into the wheel business was right there. In a roundabout way, I ended up in Williamsburg, Virginia. Come to find out, Colonial Williamsburg was desperately looking for a wheel maker that could use hand tools. That was in 1975, I was the first wheel maker they hired. I started the wheelwright shop.”
It was in Williamsburg that Gayer had the opportunity to meet some very interesting people. In 1976 he met people from all over the world at the Bicentennial Celebration at Colonial Williamsburg.
“Working at Colonial Williamsburg, dealing with visitors from other countries, I found quite interesting. Karl Gustav from Sweden, the King of Sweden, he came to visit and we got to talking about skiing of all things. You could tell, that guy obviously was into sports, just looking at him. Evidently he loved skiing and swimming — sports I liked. He could not believe when I told him about the kind of equipment I skied downhill with when I was younger. He said 'Karl, you're suicidal!'”
And Gayer met the Chancellor of Germany.
“Helmut Schmidt and his wife came by the wheelwright shop and I had a very good conversation with them,” recalled Gayer. “His wife knew a lot about wheels, technical stuff, all the parts of the wheels. My curiosity got the best of me. I finally got curious enough to ask 'Mrs. Schmidt, where in the world did you find out all this?' She started laughing. She told me that as a little girl, her grandfather had a wheelwright shop in Germany. She spent a lot of hours sitting there and watching her grandfather.”
In another instance, Gayer didn't even realize he was talking with some influential American industrialists.
“I was talking to one lady, 1978 if I remember correctly — I was talking to the lady and we were walking toward her carriage, and I checked it out. It seemed to be in real good shape. Then here comes this bus and she says 'Oh here comes Auggie.' I said 'who?' She said 'August Busch [great grandson of Adolphus Busch, founder of Anheuser-Busch]. She says 'I'm going to introduce you to him.' His driver helped him out of the bus — he was up in age back then — and she said 'hey Auggie! I got the wheel maker here, he's from Austria!' His first comment was 'do you still speak German?'” laughed Gayer.
The lady I had been talking with said 'I'll see you guys later.' I start talking to old man Auggie Bush, he spoke perfect German, and he says 'where did you meet Mrs. DuPont?' I had no idea. Mrs. DuPont, from the chemical company!”
DuPont Chemical is the inventor and manufacturer of many everyday polymer products – nylon, neoprene, Kevlar, and Teflon, to name a few.
“You would never have suspected it talking to her. Just as nice a person as you could meet. Same with Auggie Bush. They were no different than other people.”
Gayer enjoyed working at historic Colonial Williamsburg, but it wasn't long before he moved on to strike out on his own.
“I liked working there, but how can you resist not starting your own operation? I couldn't resist the temptation five years later to start my own business. I took a second job just to get my business started. I worked at a brewery in Williamsburg. They paid good, but they took it out of your hide! I'd come home tired at midnight, get a few hours of sleep, then go out to the garage and start making wheels. Long hours, but if you want something badly enough, you'll take the punishment,” he said.
Gayer said he didn't have much of a choice.
“I could never afford to hire somebody and spend three or four years to train someone to what I had to go through. I couldn't afford to advertise. My finished product had to do the advertising for me. That's a long, drawn out way to build a business,” joked Gayer. “My wife was working, too. Without her, I couldn't have made it.”
Gayer said, with more than a touch of pride, come February, they will have been married 52 years.
“It wasn't easy early on. My first year in business, my expenses were greater than my income. That's not exactly encouraging,” he laughed.
Over the years, Gayer continued his apprenticeship with Amish and Mennonite communities, fine tuning his trade, and he always had pleasant interactions. They even helped build his reputation as a skilled wheelwright.
“It took me a while to build my reputation up. I'd say it was a good six or eight years before I had a steady line of customers. They helped me build my business as a word-of-mouth business. I can only say that I never had a bad experience in all the years dealing with them. They're very honest, hard working people, and they believe in cleaning their mess up!”
Gayer said he is impressed with some of the more modern computer controlled woodworking machines you see nowadays, and despite his hand tool background, he'll sometimes use a combination of hand tools and machines. Lately, though, he'll employ only a lathe to turn the wood.
“They are amazing, but modern computerized equipment has limitations. There are certain historic wheels that I use little or no machinery on. If you want to make an authentic 17th or 18th century carriage wheel or cannon wheel, you better be able to use hand tools. There's certain types of wheels that you can only assemble to a certain point, then you have to use hand tools to finish it. Without using hand tools, historic work is practically impossible. You have to do a lot of research, too, especially if you cater to museums, which I did. There's not too many woodworkers left that can do the whole thing using hand tools.”
In 2006 Gayer found the workshop he always dreamed of in Edray.
“This area here is similar to where I grew up in Austria. In Austria, you have mountains that make most any other place look like little hills, but I immediately took a liking to this area. In Williamsburg, I worked out of a four-car garage for many years. That's punishment. At five o' clock in the morning, the humidity was way up, the temperature was way up. Before you even touched a tool, you had to go back in the house and take a shower. I always dreamed of having a shop building. I had to do some fast talking — my wife likes to save money, not to spend it.”
Gayer said his work ethic was built by the principles of the Austrian apprenticeship programs, and he thinks they could benefit young men and women in the United States.
“This is something that goes back hundreds of years,” explained Gayer. “It has proven to be a good way to go. A lot of times I feel that maybe we 'oughta consider that even in this country, this is just my own personal opinion. The idea of starting an apprenticeship at age twenty, is not good, for the simple reason, you're almost too old. What they based it on, age fourteen, was a good starting point, because you're still in the growing stages.”
Gayer said existing child labor laws hinder the concept.
“The age limitation is what causes the problem,” he said. “It's illegal to have a fourteen or fifteen year old working, child labor and all that. Personally I think we're hurting ourselves with that kind of mindset. I was never abused. Even in the shop, twelve hours a day every day, they didn't believe in beating the heck out of you. In fact, they'd say 'wait a minute young man, take a break.' They realized you're not doing anyone any good when you're tired. When your body tells you to take a break or cool it for awhile, you better listen to it! You're far more productive if you take a few breaks in between what your doing.”
Despite his inclination towards the idea of apprenticeships, Gayer never took one on himself.
“Even if you are a capable craftsman, you might not be a good teacher. I wouldn't be one, I'd be the first to admit that. I would have a hard time, I'd be too tempted to grab the tools and do it myself,” laughed Gayer.
Gayer lives in Williamsburg still, but he travels to Pocahontas County and stays for a few weeks at a time. He said the long drive is starting to get to him, but he still has woodworking projects he wants to finish.
“Now since I decided to fully retire, I intend to do some decorative wheels,” said Gayer. “I have a few projects I want to complete before I get too old to move!”