By Jill Cowan
8:30 PM PDT, August 2, 2013
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.
How long has she been into carving?
"I think about 20 years," she said. "How long have I been retired?"
Still, said Lake Forest resident Tom Deutsch, it's important for kids to develop "tangible skills, working with your hands, not with a keyboard."
He says his last time "wood working in a shop was several years ago in high school," but he makes furniture at home, and he lets his kids help out.
Deutsch explains the different steps in Hodgin's turning process, while Lauren, 9, and William, 6, stand rapt.
Lauren murmurs that curls of dust forming as Hodgin holds a wire against the spiraling wood look like confetti or silly string.
"I was thinking about making my dog a dog house," she says of her next project.
William, she says, had made a toy boat.
Deutsch lets them watch for a few more minutes before gently herding them away.
"No, I want to stay," William says, his eyes fixed on the lathe.
Lathe: A machine that rotates a piece of wood or another object on a horizontal axis. A woodworker or other craftsperson can work on the rotating piece with a stationary shaping or sanding tool.
Marquetry: A decorative technique in which wood or another material is inlaid into another surface and veneered in place.
Intarsia: A decorative technique in which pieces of wood are fit together like a puzzle. There is usually more definition between pieces of an intarsia pattern, as opposed to marquetry, which forms a smooth surface.