Woodworking

James Santhon carefully makes a goblet during a demonstration for visitors to the OC Fair's crafts exhibition hall. (Don Leach, Daily Pilot / July 26, 2013)

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Ask Orange County Fair exhibitor Richard Hodgin what he's making and he responds with a whistle.

Then he grabs another, bigger whistle. That one has a small piece fit into its tube, which, when pulled, drops the whistle's pitch, like the sound of a cartoon anvil falling from the sky onto an unsuspecting coyote below.

Finally, the Cypress resident picks up a Native American flute. Instead of a shrill screech, a short, pretty melody issues forth.

"And that's how you get music out of a stick," he says, a mischievous grin spreading across his face before he returns to his work, carefully shaping a hunk of maple spinning on a lathe.

That kind of awe-inspiring magic, necessary to transform rough pieces of wood into art, has been on full display at the fair's woodworking gallery, where visitors can also catch an unusual glimpse into the processes involved in making everyday objects.

On a recent afternoon, a steady stream of fair-goers meandered past intricately carved clocks, carefully turned vases and handcrafted furniture, lovingly polished to a glowing sheen.

During a quick tour around the hall, program coordinator Dan Stephens and Orange County Woodworkers Assn. President James Santhon paused to admire the year's Best in Show winner: a round table with a detailed rose design inlaid using a process called marquetry.

"When you look at everything, it's perfect," Stephens marveled, his hand hovering over — but not touching — cream-colored roses, the petals of which were shaded by being burned in hot sand.

"And look at this overlapping," added Santhon, pointing out where deep green leaves appeared to cross over the decorative border.

The artist who made it, Yorba Linda resident Ken Cowell, 66, is a longtime cabinet maker by trade. He said he got into marquetry in 2004. The table took him about four months and 450 hours to craft.

Stephens said this year's showing has been one of the most impressive the fair has seen since the woodworking program was started with the help of the OCWA in 1999. Competitions were added a year later, in 2000.

"The work that's been coming in is just extraordinary," he said "We've been building the program for 14 years."

Nevertheless, the 212 competition entries, which come from around California, stand as some of the last bastions of a hands-on work ethic losing ground in the digital age.

While Orange Coast College and Cerritos College, along with several other trade schools, private teachers and community colleges in the area, still offer beginning woodworking courses, Stephens said, "In your high schools and things, they're starting to disappear."

In the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, Director of Secondary Curriculum and Instruction Steve McLaughlin said most classes involving woodwork have been phased out in favor of other career-centric courses.

Over the past five to 10 years, he said, "What's happened is there's been an adjustment based on community need and community input."

Although Estancia High School has continued to offer woodworking instruction as part of its Construction Technology career pathway, other schools have implemented culinary or digital media programs.

For many craftspeople, woodworking and carving help keep the mind sharp in retirement.

Ray Calloway, 81, of Huntington Beach, manned a California Carvers Guild booth making tiny basswood figurines to give away. For him, he said, wood carving is "a hobby," though the Huntington Beach Woodcarvers, who meet on Thursday nights at the Rodgers Senior Center, recently helped a group of Boy Scouts hone arrowhead neckerchief slides.

Also sitting at the booth, showing off a collection of carved miniature Santas and cowboys, was Ann Anton, 82.