None of us are old enough to remember when handmade goods were the only goods. I’m talking life before Amazon, before Walmart, even before Sears. You have to go way back to hit an era when woodworkers and metal smiths were essential to daily living.
Back then, craftsmen used old-fashioned tools and muscle grease to create our home goods. There was no particleboard or Polypropylene. They cut pieces from real trees. They forged metal. And their products lasted a lifetime, often more than one.
Heirlooms like these are in short supply today. The stuff we pick up from big box stores won’t be around for our great, great grandchildren. Even our houses are semi-disposable—drywall and pressed wood that threatens to give if you lean too hard.
Look around your place. Do you see anything that’s built to last?
I’m not talking about objects you inherited from prior generations. Have you picked up anything new that could be considered an heirloom in one hundred years?
If not, then it’s time to visit Kevin Riddle. This Virginia woodworker and coppersmith is an intentional throwback. Rather than buy lumber from The Home Depot, Kevin takes down his own trees and shaves the wood using a drawknife. Rather than hold his pieces together with metal nails, he uses wood pegs that will not rust.
I visited Kevin’s workshop in Eagle Rock a few months back. It’s on land that’s been in his family for generations. He and his father constructed every building there. They used a mix of traditional and modern techniques, but over time, Kevin was drawn more to the old ways of building things.
He showed me around his shop, which was filled with tools I didn’t even recognize. “They invented this technology in the colonial period,” he said, pointing out objects like his shaving horse, which is a vice and a workbench combined, “Had it through the 1950s, and then it started to fade out.”
Kevin got serious about traditional woodworking twenty years ago. “Then,” he says, “There were still a few old timers around.” He’d go and chat them up about their gardens and their grandbabies, and in the process pick up old-fashioned woodcrafting techniques.
Over time, he advanced to the point where school groups were asking for demonstrations and movie producers were seeking him out for props. For instance, he made old-fashioned tools for Somersby, a Richard Gere and Jodie Foster drama that was shot north of him, in Lexington, during the early 1990s.
Today, Kevin has expanded his craft to include copper work. He said, again, there was no apprenticeship to learn it. He just picked up a little here and a little there.
Piecemeal as it may be, Kevin’s education has paid off. He now produces stunning kettles, some small enough for a bushel of veggies, others big enough to cook up a season’s worth of apple butter. He creates wooden pitchforks and benches. He even makes ox yokes, though he admits that folks usually use them for decorative purposes nowadays.
Drawing from his craft and also his frontier heritage, Kevin speaks on everything from wooden folk toys to making apple butter, from moonshine to coal mines. He can even help you identify those old tools you’ve found in your basement.
So if you’re eager to learn more about your roots or pick up a new family heirloom, get in touch with Kevin. He’s happy to help you out.
And if you already have some special pieces, please tell us about them. What have you made or bought that will be around in one hundred years?