The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

November 30, 2012

Woodworking wonder: Despite adversity, craftsman finds hobby rewarding

Tom Lavis

JOHNSTOWN — If a wooden plank was a musical instrument, Dale Thompson would be a virtuoso.

Thompson, 70, of Upper Yoder Township, has transformed his one-car garage into a woodworking shop from which comes masterpieces that can sell for up to $2,000.

It’s a hobby that produces professional results.

Seeing Thompson’s craftsmanship, most people would agree that he has an eye for detail.

What most people don’t know is that Thompson only has one eye.

He has had a love of woodworking since taking the standard high school wood shop classes at Westmont Hilltop.

“I started woodworking in earnest about 15 years ago,” Thompson said. “About 14 years ago, I learned that I had a tumor, and my eyeball had to be removed.”

He is cancer free, but medical experts suggested he give up woodworking for his own personal safety because of poor depth perception.

Sounds like sound advice when fingers are dangerously close to powerful saws, drills and sanders.

But Thompson was determined to continue and adapted to compensate for his dilemma.

“If I can inspire one person who faces a similar issue, then it is worth it,” he said. “You should never give up.”

Thompson believes his interest in woodworking can be traced back to his grandfather, who had an affinity for using black walnut.

“My father died before I graduated high school, and he was into woodworking on a smaller scale,” Thompson said.

“People who knew my grandfather say I’m following in his footsteps and got the woodworking gene from him.”

Thompson, a retired executive from American Mining Insurance in Upper Yoder, where he served as a senior vice president, has been a regular vendor at the Cambria County Community Arts Center. He is displaying samples of his work through December during the art center’s Holly Bazaar.

Thompson will be at the arts center from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. today to discuss how the parts of his rocker were designed and assembled and why cherry wood was used.

“People will be impressed how Dale inserted different types of woods into the design,” said Rose Mary Hagadus, arts center executive director. “The challenge of every artisan is to explore new designs and techniques that make the end product rewarding. Dale’s projects lead him into new directions that challenge his craftsmanship.”

Thompson concentrates on milling his own wood from rough-sawn lumber and uses intricate joinery skills to produce some remarkable pieces.

He is displaying his Sam Maloof designer-style rocking chair. It is a piece of furniture that can’t be found in stores.

Maloof, whose simple, elegant wooden furniture made him a central figure in the postwar American crafts movement, died in 2009 at age 93.

Thompson said creating the clean lines of his rocker requires a labor-intensive technique.

He estimates that he has

240 hours of work in the chair, which is only the second one he has made.

“Maloof set the standard in fine furniture making, and his name is synonymous with fine furniture,” Thompson said.

Thompson’s first rocker was made from black walnut, which sold for $2,000 to a buyer in Lancaster.

“Maloof was selling his rocker for $20,000 and since his passing, they are valued at between $30,000 and $40,000,” Thompson said.

Thompson follows a detailed set of plans when creating his pieces. He lifted a hefty, three-ring binder from his workbench to make his point.

“This is the the set of plans for the rocker,” he said. “It has 240 pages.”

Because of his vision problem, he has built a series of jigs and templates to make difficult cuts easier.

“I sometimes lay in bed half the night thinking about how I’m going to make a difficult joint,” he said. “I’m not overly religious, but I think I’m getting a little help. At the end of the day, I sometimes ask myself how did I do that?”  

The money he receives for his works is used to buy material and tools to continue his avocation.

“I sell one project to do more,” he said. “I don’t dip into the household budget to fund my hobby.”

But not all creations are sold.

Thompson has a practice of building rocking horses, which he donates to area churches.

Thompson may start with

flat boards, straight sides and 90 degree corners, but he shapes and bends the wood into flowing curves and artistic depressions.

Few woodworkers can afford to equip a workshop from scratch.

Thompson has built his shop in steps.

His first purchase was a good 10-inch table saw with cast iron top. He has added a band saw, a planer, drill press and other tools to round out the shop.

“Wood makes a lot of dust,” he said. “I used to use a portable shop vacuum, but changed to a central dust collection system because I’m a clean freak.”

It has paid off. The shop is remarkably clean and uncluttered. Hand tools and clamps are stored in a way that can be easily used.

“Ask any woodworker and they will tell you that you can never have enough clamps,” he said.

Once a project is complete, Thompson turns his attention to the finish.

“Sanding makes all the difference in any project,” he said. “I never paint wood, because when you’re working with cherry, oak or black walnut, the grains are too beautiful to cover.

Thompson and his wife of

50 years, Sue, are the parents of  four daughters and a son.

The woodworking gene has been passed on to his daughter, Vicki Morder, also of Upper Yoder Township.

“Vicki does a lot of my sanding; we are a team,” he said.

“None of my other children are interested in woodworking.”

Thompson and his daughter also produce contemporary-style jewelry boxes that are popular.

“It takes about 15 hours, not counting the drying time for the glue, to produce the small boxes,” Thompson said. “I guess some people would call me a perfectionist.”

Others would call him an inspiration.

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