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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow A woodworker's wisdom


A woodworker's wisdom

Colonel Sanders stands above the rest on a shelf full of carved characters that Witham can't bear to part with. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
Colonel Sanders stands above the rest on a shelf full of carved characters that Witham can't bear to part with. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).


Of the Baker City Herald

A soft whirr floats from Harvey Witham's shop as he stands at a lathe, carefully sanding a wooden pot.

Pale shavings fall to the concrete floor, joining a light sprinkling of fine wood dust.

The spinning pot is made from cyprus wood, he says after shutting off the machine, and the finished piece will be an urn.

"My wife's I made out of myrtle wood. Really pretty," he says.

Hertha Witham passed away March 5, 2003.

He traces the wavy wood grain patterns on the cyprus pot, then picks up a palmful of fine sawdust that settled beneath the lathe.

"It's awful dry and it's chippy. It comes out like sawdust," he says.

He points to several cylinders of wood in stages of construction – some made from 24 wedges, some from 14 — all glued together and banded with a steel strap while drying.

Witham identifies the type of wood he used for each project — Tennessee cedar, oak, cyprus, and cherry, to name few.

He doesn't use much pine.

"It does crazy things. It warps and twists — things you don't want it to do," Witham says.

After a pot is smoothed to his satisfaction, Witham stains and varnishes the wood. Two finished urns in an adjoining room gleam in the morning sun.

Witham picks up one of the finished lids and runs a dusty hand over the surface.

He looks closer at a scattering of bumps in the finish.

"I need to sand it again," he says.

A layer of sawdust coats nearly every surface in the shop, from the floor to the saw to the tools.

"It's a dirty shop, but I can't keep it clean," Witham, 87, says as he surveys his shop.

Layers of tools hang from the walls, gathered during a lifetime of working with wood.

"That's all I've ever done," he says.

He started in high school when he worked for family.

"There wasn't much work and my two uncles did concrete work and house moving," he says.

In 1947 Witham and his brother, Fred, started a business — Witham Brothers General Contractors.

He names just a few of their accomplishments — pouring concrete for the first half of Baker High School and the BHS swimming pool, and building the Ellingson plywood plant in 1964.

"That was the biggest job we ever had," Witham says.

The Withams also had a hand in building the west half of Bulldog Memorial Stadium.

"The bleachers, the dressing rooms, concession stands, everything," he says.

The Witham brothers worked together for 18 years. Then, in 1965 Fred died in a horse accident.

Following the accident, Harvey continued in the general contraction business by himself for 16 years.

In 1981, he retired from woodworking and took a job as an insurance adjuster. Eight years later he retired again.

Now loads of lumber supply his hobby — spending hours in the shop behind his house.

"There's my silent men over there," Witham says, pointing to a shelf filled with five-inch wooden figures.

After coming across political drawings by Robert Grossman in the New York Life magazine in the 1970s, Witham began imitating the characters in wood.

He estimates that he's carved about 250 characters.

"I'd just work on them at night — watching TV and whittling. I did it all with knives," he says.

Many resemble political figures — Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.

"That was supposed to be Kissinger when he was secretary of state for Nixon," Witham says.

Hanging on the wall near the carvings is an original Grossman drawing, traded for one of Witham's little men.

He points out another figure that's slightly larger than the rest. He's fashioned the head into a likeness of Col. Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken atop the body of a white chicken.

Many have asked him to share his carving secrets.

"One guy said, ‘I can make a face, but I can't get any life in it.' I said, ‘It just comes,' " he says.

Witham's work doesn't end at the shop door. His home is full of cabinets, picture frames, and coffee tables with drop leaves — all fashioned with his own two hands.

His "silent men" carvings also decorate the interior, some standing like sentries on shelves while others adorn the walls.

His late wife's favorite sits atop the television — one of many Henry Kissinger carvings. But this one is all natural, no painted-on face or clothes.

All the other displayed men are decorated in a variety of colors, from head to toe.

"The painting takes almost as long as making them," he says.

Witham flicks on a light switch, sending light through the yellows and reds of a stained glass lampshade.

He's made about 50 of these.

Witham's stained glass talent is also available for public viewing — at Calvary Baptist Church.

"My daughter did the designs and I did the glass," he says.

The lampshades, along with his wooden creations of all shapes and sizes, have been spread around to family, friends and clients.

"I've got stuff all over the damn world," he smiles. "(My children's) houses are full. My friends houses are all full. If you work at it, it accumulates."


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