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Woodworker speaks plane truth

Furniture maker Bob Spangler applies oil to his walnut “Doig” bench, bringing out the figure, or pattern, in the wood grain. Spangler and photographer Kay Walsh will host an open studio in Spangler’s workshop this weekend.   - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Furniture maker Bob Spangler applies oil to his walnut “Doig” bench, bringing out the figure, or pattern, in the wood grain. Spangler and photographer Kay Walsh will host an open studio in Spangler’s workshop this weekend.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

Bob Spangler relies on hand tools for his intricate creations.

A woodpecker recently took up residence in a tree near Bob Spangler’s house. It pecks nonstop.

Spangler wondered aloud to his wife, Birgit, why the bird hadn’t attracted a mate after all this time.

“He’s not attracting a mate,” Birgit said, “because he’s a workaholic.”

The layers of symbolism aren’t lost on Spangler, a woodworker and furniture maker who spends hours in the workshop adjacent to his Oddfellows Road home. But Spangler views his life’s work a different way.

“I love to do what I do. I guess that explains why I still do it,” he said.

This weekend, Spangler and neighbor and photographer Kay Walsh will welcome the general public to Spangler’s workshop to view his furniture and her black-and-white prints, which grace the studio’s walls.

They hope islanders will stop by not just to peruse the pieces, but also to engage in a dialogue with the artists – to find out how they do what they do, and how they got to where they are.

Spangler paid plenty of dues to reach the point where he can walk out his front door and in mere steps, immerse himself in a world of pure craftsmanship.

He began as a landscape architect in Iowa where during the oil crisis of the 1970s, his eight-person firm decided to avoid layoffs by rotating two-week unpaid vacations.

Spangler spent his allotted time “messing around with antiques” – making repairs, getting to know the wood – and when his time was up, volunteered for the next two weeks. And the two weeks after that. He’s been working with furniture ever since.

He opened a woodworking shop where he said he and his partner “did everything to make money,” from installing windows to building cabinets, with the occasional commission for a piece of fine furniture.

Then in 1982, Spangler spent two enthralling hours in the workshop of renowned furniture maker Sam Maloof, an experience that

so moved” Spangler that he went home, sold his half of the business and spent the next two years researching 18th century American furniture and teaching himself to carve in that ornate and challenging style.

It wasn’t easy.

“But it’s the inventive way,” he said. “If someone was teaching you, they’d take you right to the point. On your own, you’re making discoveries.”

Spangler reached a professional turning point when an Iowa City synagogue commissioned him to build an ark for its Torah. On its front, he carved a series of interlocking, ribbon-like figures in bas-relief. The final effect, which put into practice all his acquired technical expertise, evoked flowing water and blowing wind. Spangler says the multi-layered carving was so intricate that he had to work from color-coded drawings.

Bob and Birgit moved to Seattle in 1988, where he continued taking commissions and joined the Northwest Fine Woodworking cooperative in Pioneer Square.

His design sense progressed away from ornate carving into a style that today is light and clean, with silky smooth surfaces and Asian- and Shaker-inspired lines. He builds gently curved tables and consoles; steam-bent Windsor-inspired dining chairs that encourage comfortable lingering over long dinners; and chests whose doors fold out to create kimono sleeves.

Spangler employs hand tools to craft his pieces, which of late come from native island and peninsula wood as well as mahogany, bubinga, western walnut and western maple.

He respects the quality of American-made tools, but favors sleeker Japanese designs, which work on the principle of pulling, not pushing. This, he says, allows for a thinner blade and in turn a thinner cut.

Finishes include lacquer for heavy-wear pieces like tables as well as a non-toxic German vegetable oil that contains cactus and thistle oils among others. It’s purportedly safe enough to eat from yet as durable as polyurethane.

If you walked into Spangler’s studio with small children and took in the delicate lines and refined surfaces, a first admonishment might be “Don’t touch.” Spangler doesn’t think this should be so.

“People are so afraid they’re going to damage a table top,” Spangler said. “My point is, ‘Use that table.’ That makes a story for you and for future generations.”

Spangler moved to Bainbridge in 2004 for his “fantastic shop.” But he became aware of the strength of the island’s artistic core.

“The city really seemed to support the arts,” he said. “And I really like being part of a community of artists.”

Part of what he and Walsh envision for this weekend’s open studio is a loose format that offers a glimpse into the realm of the working artists who are so much a part of the island’s fabric.

And Spangler hopes the kids across the street will swing by.

“For the kids in the community to be able to see things being created is a pretty good thing for the community,” he said.

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Art shop

Woodworker Bob Spangler and photographer Kay Walsh will hold an open studio from noon to 5 p.m. May 19 and noon to 4 p.m. May 20 at Spangler’s studio, 8495 Oddfellows Road. Call 780-5457 or visit the artists online at www.rspangler.com and www.kaywalshphotography.com.

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