By ROBIN ROBINSON The Key West Garden Club
I have a lifelong love affair with wood. My father got his undergraduate degree in Industrial Arts. Numerous tooled and carved pieces resided in my home. Now that I serve on the Tree Commission, I spend more time permitting trees to be felled than I do planting them so when I got a call from Thomas Avery asking about the great felling that is scheduled to occur at the 1615-27 Simonton Street project, I was pleased.
Thomas Avery is a gem of a man tucked away in Workshop #4 at the former Dog Track on Stock Island. He wanted to know what was going to happen to the wood from the trees that are being cut down because he would like to re-use it in the artwork that he creates. Reduce, re-use re-cycle, re-create is this woodworker's motto. That the huge, old trees on that property have a chance at another life is thrilling.
Saws and lumber surround him when I visit his studio. One of the saws is sitting on an old pedal sewing machine rack he rescued from the street after Hurricane Georges. Huge slabs of mahogany sit beside his saw waiting until the wood has dried enough to work easily.
Stacks of wood, five-inches thick and seven-feet long, rare pieces from large downed trees are stored for at least five years. The large slabs of cured wood get polished and coated and turned into elegant, durable dinner tables, coffee tables or shelves. "I would lose a lot of pieces if I tried to work it green. Smaller, thinner pieces of wood can be used after a year," he said.
I am not an arborist," he said, "but I like to work with arborists because the way a tree is felled determines how I re-use the lumber."
Avery showed me half-finished bowls in a variety of woods. A tropical almond is yellow when it is 50 years old, but by the time it is 200 years old it has turned to rich umber or sienna. Buttonwood is brown. Wild tamarind is chestnut with yellow edges, he.
He also works with royal poinciana and mango. "I've worked wood with a lathe for 30 years, but I have hand-carved for only six years." In six years he has carved 277 bowls. He numbers each one on the bottom, noting where the tree grew if he has that information. The documenting information about the tree and bowl he keeps in a book of his work.
Avery's card reads "Shipwright/Home/Auto/Oddities. We got to the oddities at the end. He showed me pieces of future bowls that had not gone well in the sawing and had artistic holes in the bottoms. He stuck his hand through a hole that he called a blowout, and said that he would make the round, flat boards into orchid hangers.
"Wilma got me really cranked up. I found a 150-year-old mahogany cut into 2-foot pieces. It broke my heart that it was cut up, but that wood inspired me to create bowls."
Avery also does sculpture and has a series of nude carvings using the grain of the wood to help create the design of the sculpture. Miss Cherry Wild and Ms. Cherry's Sister both come from a section of wild-cherry fork that is heavily veined and turned upside-down. He also does delicate scrimshaw carvings on swordfish bills.
Avery works with cinnamon and Lignum Vitae, both heavy, dense woods that are difficult to handle. "I treat them just like I treat Corian," a hard substance Avery works with as a licensed dealer creating countertops.
Tom Avery's work is available from The Art Center, The Guild Hall Gallery, the Seame Shoppe and in Big Pine at Debra Butler's Design Studios.
The Key West Garden Club welcomes volunteers to work on the historical fort, pull weeds, propagate plants and play in the sandy soil at the West Martello Tower from 9 a.m. to noon on Mondays.
Key West Master Gardener Robin Robinson was a columnist for the Chicago Daily News and syndicated with Princeton Features. Her books "Plants of Paradise" and Award-Winning "Roots Rocks and Rain: Native Trees of the Florida Keys," can be found at the Garden Club and on Amazon.com. This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club. For more information visit www.keywestgardenclub.com.