New life for old trees
Woodworker Eddie Fletcher jokes that he has a difficult time burning firewood; he sees potential in every piece of wood he picks up. His love for wood and working with the material recently materialized in his "church of wood" that occupies the century-old chapel that was once New Salem Methodist Church, just outside of his hometown of Williamsburg.
Fletcher was hired to paint the outside of the church when he was a young man. Later in life, he purchased the adjacent Flynn's Creek one-room schoolhouse at auction. When the small congregation at New Salem decided to merge with the church in Williamsburg a few years ago, they gave Fletcher first option to buy their building.
Since purchasing the building, Fletcher has turned it into a showroom of the slabs, burls and barn wood he has salvaged from around the region and the functional art that he creates from them. Slabs of various Appalachian hardwoods-many as tall as eight feet and as wide as three feet-lean against the walls between the church's arched windows. Where the pews once sat stand coffee tables, mantles, dining room tables and beds. The altar, flanked by the church's old pump organ and piano, boasts a collection of burls.
"Burl trees and trees with character become landmark trees in towns and along roads," he said. "It's always sad when they blow over."
"That one came from Monterey, Virginia," he said, pointing to a slab of willow. "It was totally a landmark tree. It grew in Mr. Swecker's front yard."
A storm tore off the top half of the tree, and Fletcher said the power company came by and started to work on the other half. Mr. Swecker found Eddie, who was set up in town that day at the Maple Festival craft show.
At such craft shows, Fletcher said people are quick to share stories of memorable trees.
"I hear a lot of big fish stories about how the trees are all burls," Fletcher said, "and when he started talking, I realized that was a tree I had seen before. I knew that tree. He gave it to me, and I got a lot of slabs out of it."
Looking at a coffee table with a highly figured top of Chinese elm, Fletcher tells the story of a tree that grew near downtown Lewisburg.
Fletcher had driven past the tree throughout his life. One day, he was driving past just after the tree had been cut by the electric company. The woman who owned the property where the tree grew-and whose father planted it-gave Fletcher the wood. Fletcher said he was excited to have the opportunity to give the wood a new life.
"There was a traveling salesman-the story goes-who came through Lewisburg in 1926, and his truck broke down," Fletcher said. "While he was there he had these trees on the back of his truck, and he sold all the trees in town. So there's a bunch of Chinese elm in Lewisburg, all the same age."
The example that Fletcher salvaged was perhaps the most burly and figured of the bunch.
Fletcher notes many farms in the Greenbrier Valley more than a century old that provide a solid source of timber for his style of woodworking.
"There are magnificent walnuts and oaks out in the fields that are just about at the peak for their life... they're just starting to come down," he said. "They are so old and so neat; they have such character when you saw into them."
Fletcher also scavenges wood from log landings and networks with tree trimmers in the area. Over the years, his reputation is such that when a tree blows down, he's one of the first people to get a telephone call about it.
"I couldn't keep up," he said. "If I wanted to work 15 hours a day, I couldn't keep up with the trees."
The way Fletcher sees it, his work prolongs the life of the tree before it is returned to the earth.
"It's kind of like living locally and living on current sunlight," he said. "It's not like we're using petroleum products to manufacture a Formica countertop; we can do a wooden one."
While Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties are his primary sources for timber, he has also traveled to Virginia's Highland and Rockingham counties to salvage trees.
With large trees, Fletcher often cuts the slabs on-site, using a massive two-man chainsaw with a six-foot bar and more than 12 feet of chain-known as an Alaskan mill, or a rented bandsaw mill. It can take three or four days of work to cut the tree into slabs and transport it home, Fletcher said. Once back home, he stacks the slabs to dry in his wood yard. The slabs can then take three or four years to dry to the point that they will remain stable when brought indoors and worked into finished pieces.
Fletcher has his favorites species-catalpa and walnut come to mind-but he said he's fortunate to live in a region with such variety in tree species.
"We live in the world's most biodiverse deciduous forest," he notes. "We're in the heart of it right here. We have a lot of different trees and they all have different qualities. Maple is really hard and great for kitchen counter tops. Catalpa is really beautiful and great for benches, window sills and room dividers."
You won't find dimensional lumber of standard thickness and width in Fletcher's collection of wood.
"My dad had an old saying: you just got to wear what you got on," he said, "so I find these trees and make out of them what I can."
Growing up in the backwoods around Williamsburg, Fletcher said he carried a pocket knife on him since he was five years old and would fashion his own bows, arrows and fishing poles from the wood he found at hand.
"I just grew up immersed in the forest," he said. "I think where I really got intimate with wood was making bows and arrows. The bows I made were pieces of wood that had to be bent under great stress. So I started learning the properties of wood."
As a young man, Fletcher worked in construction throughout the mid-Atlantic region. He later bought land just outside Williamsburg. As soon as it was paid off, Fletcher said, he went into woodworking full-time.
Anyone who has been to a festival in Pocahontas or Greenbrier county probably knows Fletcher as "the spoon man." He spends many hours during the wintertime in the cozy comfort of his workshop, carving spoons, spatulas, bowls and other kitchen tools from the variety of hardwoods he has salvaged.
"It's easy to take those with me and set up a 10-by-10 booth with them," he said. "It's a little harder to take a 1,500-pound bed to a craft show-although I'd like to."
While some pieces have a polyurethane finish, Fletcher said he like to use natural finishing products as much as possible. Some are finished with citric oil and beeswax. Kitchenware is finished with food-grade walnut oil.
Fletcher focuses on selling his pieces locally. He doesn't have a website-or at least he jokes that he has multiple "websites," all built by spiders. Instead, he markets his creations locally by word-of-mouth and through the region's craft shows.
"I feel really good about that, because I get to meet the people who buy it," he said. "And I get to hear stories about how it's used. It's more of a personal level."
The church-which is just a mile from his home-serves as his primary showroom, and he recently put some of his slabs on display at Hillsboro's Pretty Penny Cafe.