Bob Miller: Gives intarsia gifts to school 2010.05.05

Written by David Green. Posted in Feature Stories

bob.miller.jpgBy DAVID GREEN

Bob Miller’s relationship with the scroll saw started on rocky ground. The two just didn’t get along all that well.

It started a couple of years ago with a visit to Woodcrafts, a store in Toledo. Bob bought a couple of books, one about puzzle making and the other about intarsia—the art of inlaying pieces of contrasting wood to form three-dimensional patterns.

He also laid out $500 for a good scroll saw, an essential tool for making the fine cuts required.

“I made a puzzle and it looked like junk,” Bob said.

He returned the saw to the store for a refund, but that wasn’t the end of it.

His wife, Brenda, looked through the intarsia book and commented on how good the creations looked. Bob agreed, so he drove back to Toledo and bought the saw once again.

Intarsia artists use a variety of wood species to give the work more texture and definition.

Bob visited Tervols Wood Products near North Adams and bought a variety of boards. Sassafras, willow, catalpa, cherry, walnut, gray elm, spalted maple, blue pine, red cedar, western cedar, pink dogwood...so many  choices.

“It’s almost like being in a candy store when you go down to these places,” he said—an expensive candy store.

That was two years and many intarsia pieces ago.intrasia.jpg

“I’ve done an awful lot,” he said. “There’s a lot of trial and error to it. The more you do it, the better you get.”

Learning to use the scroll saw is an art in itself, Bob said. The saw uses a very thin blade.

“It’s all about having the right amount of tension and the way you feed the wood in,” he said.

If it’s not done right, the pieces aren’t going to fit when it comes time to assemble the design. The pieces are glued together on a backing board.

Bob buys the patterns for his intarsia work, figuring he would just be wasting his time trying to come up with something better. The two bulldogs given to Morenci Area High School were made from patterns created by the well-known designer Kathy Wise of Yale, Mich.

Once he has the design, then the fun begins—choosing among the various species of wood to represent the components of the piece.

For example, the studs of the bulldog’s collar are made of gray elm. European holly is the purest white and he used it for the glint in the eye.

“Some of the wood is just unbelievable,” Bob said—and unbelievably expensive.

He used ebony for the dark of the eyes and the dark section under the mouth. It costs more than $100 a foot—a fact his wife probably didn’t know until she read it here.

“I almost save the sawdust,” Bob said, and he makes very careful cuts.

He gives a lot of pieces away, but he also sells a few. He figures his profits come close to matching what he spends on wood.

Bob has lived in the Britton area for years, but he was pleased to create a pair of bulldogs for his Morenci relatives. Morenci sophomore Lucas Hollstein is Bob’s grandson. Lucas’s father, Curt, and his grandfather, George, both went to school in Morenci.

The Hollsteins are the ones who donated the bulldog images to the school.

Bob feels fortunate he was a student back when shop class was still part of the school day.

“There were only two classes I got A’s in,” he said, “phys ed and shop.”

Shop class led to a continuing interest in working with wood. He spent years carving detailed duck decoys before intarsia took over to fill his spare time.

“There are so many people without hobbies, they have nothing to do,” Bob said. “This is my avenue of keeping busy.”

• Examples of intarsia work, including some of Bob Miller’s, can be found at thehandsomewoodman.com. Look for the “Customer’s Artwork” link on the left.

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