Woodshop Doc

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This article is from Issue 9 of Woodcraft Magazine.

By D Wood

He has devoted a lifetime to healing the wounded and ailing, but Dr. Dave Klocke’s real passion is crafting pieces of fine wood furniture destined to enrich homes and the lives within them. 

Annabelle Ramford sat on a soggy piece of carpet, in a patch of goldenrod on the southernmost shore of Lake Superior, a huge butterball moon rising to the east. A bottle of New York pinot noir was wedged securely between her thighs. She was warm, comfortable, at peace, and a little drunk, bathed in the odors of dead fish and diesel exhaust, ragweed, and the rancid sweat of her unwashed cotton shirt.

That opening paragraph of John Sandford’s “Hidden Prey” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2004) introduces an exotic and erotic character. As a reader, one could get involved in the life of Annabelle Ramford and be transported into a world of crime and mystery, totally oblivious as to how the character came to exist. But one woodworker has certain knowledge of, at least, where she was created. He made the table at which John Camp (a.k.a. John Sandford) crafts his popular novels.

“I was commissioned to build a large Mission-style library table for a client I didn’t know, except by e-mail,” explains Dr. Dave Klocke. “When I delivered the table, I discovered he was a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist turned bestselling novelist. It was satisfying to find out how the table would be used. He presented me with a signed copy of his latest book. Since then I have seen him featured in magazine articles, and he is pictured sitting at “my” table. Imagining him sitting at this table and writing his next bestseller gratifies me and illustrates my belief in the intimate role furniture plays in our lives.”

The secret thrill of knowing his work is being used effectively is now incorporated in Klocke’s Artist Statement: “It is an honor to create objects that become integral parts of the style and fabric of a home and the lives therein.” This implies that the activity of Klocke’s making is to enrich the environments and lifestyles of others. Yet his woodworking avocation has become such an essential aspect of his own well-being that it has surpassed the importance of his far-from-insignificant day job. Despite success as an emergency-room physician, woodworking is Klocke’s passion.

PHOTO CAPTION HERE to a slab of bigleaf maple burl in preparation for mounting it on his lathe.

Unintended destinations

The stories of how people got to where they are today are always intriguing. Sometimes they show a predilection for a particular activity in childhood, but life sends them in a direction that distances them from what they really cared about or were good at. Often, too, life brings them back to these passions, allowing them to revisit and indulge the joy of their early satisfactions. Klocke’s biography epitomizes this evolution. 

“Lincoln Logs were my favorite early toys and they could keep me occupied for hours,” says Klocke in recounting his formative years. As a youngster in California, in addition to building countless Lincoln-Log buildings, he remembers wild rides on a wooden go-kart that his father and brothers built. In the third grade he found plans in Popular Mechanics to build a flat-bottomed boat and convinced his brothers to help him scavenge discarded construction plywood from a vacant lot to make it. The boys were in the midst of hauling the heavy materials home when the owner intercepted them and insisted that they carry the plywood back to where they’d found it. Not only was Klocke unpopular with his siblings, but it would be many years before he envisaged another boat.

When the family moved to Fargo, N.D., Klocke didn’t abandon his yen for building or his admiration for off-casts. He skulked in alleys, seeking potential joists, floorboards, walls, windows and roofing for a tree house. The arboreal architecture connected four large elm trees. “Every floorboard was hand-cut with my saw – my other tool was a hammer – and carefully fitted between the joists.” 

In the seventh grade he was exposed to formal woodworking, and his eyes were opened to its potentialities. “I learned basic drafting techniques and the proper use of hand tools and built my first projects, one of which was a lamp of mahogany and maple with a coin tray hollowed out of the base.” 

He studied metalworking the following year, but in 1971 returned to the woodshop in the ninth grade to build a walnut-and-maple chessboard – which he has to this day – and a stereo cabinet. While he didn’t know it at the time, this would be his last formal woodworking education until 2004.

Because there were no shop classes offered when he entered high school, and with no mentors to advise him that woodworking could be a career, it didn’t arise as an option. His ability in the sciences, however, prompted teachers to press him to attend college and, later, medical school. He set woodworking aside except to build several tables to furnish his apartment; he describes them as looking as good as 2x4s could look, given the limited equipment he owned. After a residency in internal medicine, Klocke chose to practice emergency medicine because he could control his hours and, as he puts it, “You get to fix things.” He has dedicated himself to fixing damaged and ailing human bodies for over 20 years. The people of Rochester, Minn., are the recipients of his care.

Klocke’s attitude towards his vocation is pragmatic.

“My medical career affords me the income to acquire tools. I have gradually purchased hand and machine tools and replaced some of them with better models. I devour hundreds of woodworking books and magazines and have a nice collection. While I built many items from plans in my earlier years, I now try to design my own.”

A return to the shop

The books and magazines were the source for technical advancement as Klocke indulged what was, at that stage, only a hobby practiced in the garages and basements where he and his family lived. The acquisition of knowledge was sometimes at the expense of injury (Doctor, heal thyself!) and wasted financial outlay, but he persisted in honing his skills. 

Klocke credits the Internet with the next stage of his woodworking.

“About eight years ago I built a Web site in order to show my work to family and friends,” he says. “I thought that, if they asked, I might consider building an occasional item. They did ask, and I earned enough money to buy a few more tools but still wasn’t sure if I was good enough to take my woodworking further. To my surprise, quite a number of people found my Web site and asked if I could build this or that piece of furniture. Despite reluctance due to my lack of formal training, I went ahead.”

Klocke’s Web site, rustyplanewoodworks.com, in addition to showing a range of completed commissions, one-of-a-kind pieces for sale and work in progress, has a modest collection of accolades that are testaments to his design and execution. After going public with his hobby, Klocke’s receipt of positive feedback had an impact.

“I started to believe in myself more with each completed project, especially when some of my clients contacted me to make a second or third piece.” Overcoming his fears of inadequacy brought rewards Klocke could not have imagined.

PHOTO CAPTION HERE He turns wood sculptures, and she handles publicity, marketing

Developing a style

In the beginning, Arts and Crafts, Mission and Shaker were the primary style influences on Klocke’s work, and his Web site declares that he specializes in reproductions. Cabinets, chests and tables have simple classical styling with details reminiscent of Gustav Stickley, the Roycrofters and California Mission. Faithful imitations such as “Steamer Trunk” are fascinating in their meticulousness. “Dining Table” looks very familiar, yet the repeated floral inlay in the top gives this piece a unique Mackintosh touch. 

Most of the work is traditional, with a few exceptions. One is a modern kidney-shaped desk for an engineer; its minimal elements speak of no-nonsense utility. Another exception is his curly maple “Music Stand.” Though definitely Arts and Crafts in its detailing, the fluidity of the musical staff motif is contemporary and alludes to the work of one of Klocke’s heroes. Although this early work doesn’t demonstrate a serious deficit with respect to design, a desire to jumpstart his creativity and an opportunity to meet a woodworking icon took Klocke to Anderson Ranch in Snowmass, Colo., in August of 2004.

“Sam Maloof was my woodworking idol,” he says. “I had read every word about him in the books I owned – two or three times – and browsed through photos of his work every time I needed inspiration. When I saw the chance to take a five-day class with Larry White, his longtime shop assistant, and a two-day class with Sam Maloof, back to back, I signed up.”

It was during the critique at the conclusion of White’s class that I met Dave Klocke and heard his synopsis of the evolution of a project of his he calls, simply, “River Box.” White had asked students to come to Colorado with research for a box to house a treasure or memento; the focus for the box was to be on aesthetics, not technique. Klocke told his classmates that he had traveled to Anderson Ranch with a nice piece of quilted maple and the intention of making a box for an Orvis fly rod. Though he would normally have begun such a project with a precisely drafted plan, he had no idea what form the box would take and resolved to let the piece evolve through the process of making it. The outcome was unlike anything he had done before.

PHOTO CAPTION HERE He turns wood sculptures, and she handles publicity, marketing and networking.

Changing the process

The form of “River Box” is sculptural and looks like an object, seen through water, lying on a riverbed. The top of the box simulates that bed, inlaid with rocks gathered from a stream near the ranch. Klocke’s adeptness at accomplishing this feat impressed White. During the late-night sessions to complete the box in four days, Klocke realized that a metal hinge, one of the staples in his Minnesota shop, would be inappropriate, so he crafted a wooden one. And while the fly rod was inspirational to the design, its insertion into the box became almost incidental. Klocke was amazed by the outcome that resulted from following his instincts. He declared that this approach would change forever how he proceeded. He also acknowledged his classmates’ input in his transformation.

Personal involvement in the theme of “River Box” undoubtedly had an influence on its outcome as well. 

“I love boats and using boats as much as I love furniture” he says. “Since college I have spent many summer days paddling canoes through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of northern Minnesota.” 

Klocke admired the handmade wooden canoes he saw on his expeditions but eventually built a kayak because of its beautiful lines, deck and cockpit. During 2002, his small shop was crowded with both the 17’ cedar-strip vessel in addition to furniture-in-progress, yet the standards for each weren’t compromised. After viewing photos, the suppliers of the kayak plans suggested that he submit them to Wooden Boat Magazine; the kayak was published in the late summer/fall issue of 2003. 

For Klocke, the kayak is only a beginning. “So far the kayak is the only boat I’ve built, but I have dreams of a double kayak, a traditional mahogany runabout, an Adirondack guide boat, a sailboat, and even a canoe, if I ever have a shop big enough to build boats without slowing down my furniture!” 

Sailing on

Klocke’s curtailment of his medical career will increasingly allow him to concentrate on fulfilling these dreams and the hopes for his future consolidated at Anderson Ranch. 

“The experience was an epiphany of sorts, and I learned a lot more than just woodworking techniques,” he says of the experience. “I learned how much fun it is to work with other woodworking enthusiasts, acquire new techniques from experts and share with artists in metal, printmaking, painting.” 

As a maker unused to the cross-pollination that can benefit artists, Klocke now wonders if he should go back to school full-time. It would be a big step, but he’s thinking about it.

Recent additions to the Rusty Plane Web site (the name was inspired by an antique wooden-bodied smoothing plane that Klocke purchased from the Internet when he inaugurated his site) include two Maloof-style chairs. Klocke says, “I am happy with the results even if they aren’t nearly as good as Sam’s.” 

Perhaps it’s important that they’re not as good as Sam’s – they’re different, and they’re Dave’s. He has relied on someone else’s design, yet the chairs, along with the music stand, imply new territory and fertile ground. He is now emulating a contemporary studio furniture craftsman, and it will be only a matter of time before his own signature designs predominate. With his exceptional skills, Klocke can master the challenge of design – the most difficult facet of the creative process – and open a new chapter in his woodworking career.

I recently contacted John Camp’s son to be sure that Dave Klocke’s table was still playing a vital role in his father’s novels. The reply indicated that the books are written on a computer kept elsewhere, but the critical line-editing takes place on the table. Camp has said he is like a carpenter with respect to constructing a novel: it’s critical to be good at the craft before indulging in the art. The metaphor may have been inspired by the desk or its maker, but the wisdom of the words applies to both craftsmen. 

Writer and woodworker definitely are on the same page. 

D Wood

D Wood has an MFA in furniture design from the Rhode Island School of Design. She is a freelance writer for a variety of international craft and art publications. When not writing, she teaches design at Tucson Design College and explores the Arizona desert. 

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