HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (1/24/13) – Mankind’s existence is defined by a striking breadth of both intuitive and logic-based characteristics, and while our ostensibly indefinable sense of humanity seems to stand above all else, the manipulation of wood, stone, bone, and earth have always been a keystone of our race’s external progress. From the use of caves as shelter, to the creation of crude, but ingenious tools fashioned from timber and organic remains, to the development of the Great Pyramids and the construction of historic frontier cabins on America’s Great Plains, our reliance on the natural world reigned supreme for centuries and craftsmen were often found in relative abundance. Today, a fast-paced, interconnected world boasting quick, faceless communication and automated mass production lines has left little room for the work of a skilled artisan—and many products suffer in quality as a result. But there are those that persist; those that have succeeded in blending modernity with an undeniable human touch. Though the tools of these “handmade trades” have evolved over the years, the mark of man remains—a trait which has become highly valued in many circles. A slight flaw here, an imperfection there, and a work of art or a utilitarian product—or both—arises on the worktable.
Among these new-age holders of the old-world faith is Cody McDowell—a 24-year-old Madisonville native, current Madisonville Community College (MCC) student, and a member of the so-called “technology bound” Generation Y. Yet, in simultaneous opposition of and correlation with his generation’s decidedly “digital” passions, Cody has successfully merged portions of today’s industrial, tech-laden world with the centuries-old tradition of woodworking. His twist: repurposing discarded wood through both modern and traditional means.
And while Cody has produced an array of both useful and aesthetically-pleasing pieces since he began working with used wood, he openly admits that he is a far cry from a master of the craft. But that’s perfectly fine; his goals are more along the lines of keeping a tradition alive and having the capability to express his creativity freely, while also learning more about the craft and having a good time. Although Cody, along with some help from his friends Mason Whitmer and Aaron Casebier, recently began selling original pieces under the name “HoldFast Wood Company,” he says that making money is simply an added benefit.
“I would really like it if I could turn this into a successful business. I think that would be really great to do what I enjoy doing all day and get paid for it,” says Cody. “At the same time, it’s really just a hobby that I thoroughly like and have fun doing. So, if it became a full-fledged business that would be great; if not, I’ll still be out here building stuff and having fun with it.”
At such a relatively young age, Cody’s affinity for woodworking can be surprising to some, but once you understand his range of influences and the reasons he had for first stepping into the world of carpentry, it’s really no surprise that he chose to pursue the trade.
As a longtime music lover and musician—primarily a guitarist—one of Cody’s first ventures into the woodshop was stimulated by a desire to modify one of his instruments. On a base level, he simply wanted to make an electronics cavity in his guitar’s wooden body larger to accommodate a heftier magnetic pickup (a component of electric guitars that transfers string vibrations into an electrical signal). Yet, instead of turning to a seasoned luthier, he decided to take a step into the unknown and learned to use a router. Soon after, following some trial and error, Cody successfully completed one his first projects.
But what was his real impetus for taking that first step? What gave him the confidence to try his hand at woodworking? As Cody explains, his grandfather, Jesse McDowell, 68, also of Madisonville, provided him with his main source of inspiration, as well as a workshop where he could learn more about that trade while fashioning his repurposed creations.
“My grandpa’s had a woodshop my whole life, basically. If he wanted something, he would build it. He wanted a house, so he hand-built the house they live in. He wanted a place to work on wood when he wasn’t at his day job, so he built all the garages around here [on his property],” says Cody. “I just think the idea of being able to do that is so cool. If you want something, you can just make it yourself; you can just make it happen. He definitely inspired me to start working with wood and building things myself. It gives me the freedom to create whatever I want. I’ve come to learn that it’s really therapeutic for me to work with my hands, too.”
So, with his grandfather’s longstanding passion for woodworking, as well as his first success, propelling him forward, Cody began searching for new ideas both in-person and online.
In his search, he was introduced to a recycling-based carpentry company founded in Atlanta, GA that had an intriguing and thought-provoking story. What’s more, their refreshingly raw, and oftentimes minimalistic, handmade pieces instantly struck a chord with the fledgling artisan.
“My girlfriend found this company called Lamon Luther on Pinterest.com. She said I could make most of the things she saw on their page. Sometime after that, I was searching around the internet for ideas, searched ‘pallet furniture’ on Vimeo.com, and this company’s video was one of the first results that popped up," says Cody. "As far as I understand it, the company was founded by a guy that quite his job and met these people who were living in a homeless camp behind his house. He employed some of them that were out-of-work carpenters and ended up starting a business based completely on building different things. I just think that’s awesome. It kind of keeps the ‘American Dream’ alive, you know? He makes a lot of stuff from old pallets, but he also takes wood from houses that have burned down in his area and builds tables for the people who lost their home.”
Interpreting this idea in his own unique way, Cody began to track down any discarded wood that he could find. He searched forums and online classified websites, and simply kept an eye out for anything he might be able use. At the same time, he began learning more about variations in cutting equipment and additional carpentry techniques. From there, it wasn’t long before the pieces of his envisioned wooden puzzles began falling into place.
Of one exceptionally large find, Cody says, “The old pieces of barn wood I have are from Gallatin, TN. I got on Craigslist.com just to look around and I randomly typed in barn wood to see what would come up. Well, I found this guy who had a listing that basically said, ‘Free barn wood to anyone who comes. I’m going to burn it all on Saturday,” and it was Friday when I was reading this—and I was actually heading down to Nashville anyway—so I just stopped there and got an entire truckload to bring back.”
Today, Cody and his friends are able to work together to locate affordable, leftover lumber—such as pallets—from area businesses, which, in turn, allows them to create a variety of distinctive, functional, and simplistic-style pieces.
“Mason Whitmer and Aaron Casebier help out with what I’m doing sometimes,” says Cody. “Mason helps a lot with just finding pallets. We just drive around in the van and look for stuff we could use. I have a stack of pallets out back that he and I got together. Aaron helps a lot with the technical aspects, like techniques for angled cuts and things like that. While my grandpa inspired me to do this, I wanted to learn about it on my own, so I haven’t really asked for his help much. And he likes that, because he doesn’t have to get out if he doesn’t want to. It works out for both of us. I learn as I go and he gets to relax and hangout.”
“I’m trying to keep things as simple as possible. I work at Big Lots right now, and I assemble a lot of furniture and chairs there. The thing is, there are way too many complications with how they put their furniture products together. It could be done much simpler, which would result in something stronger. For me, the more simple something is, the stronger it’s usually going to be,” says Cody.
Yet, beyond the strength he finds in minimal construction, Cody says there’s another important element to his work and others like it.
“I like that everything I make actually looks like a human made it,” explains Cody. “It’s flawed; it’s not perfect in the least bit. But I really like that aspect of it.”
And it’s this “customized,” one-of-a-kind style, as well as the intrinsically retro or primitive appeal that comes with this type of woodworking, that Cody believes is rising in popularity amongst a comparatively younger demographic. When asked why he considers this trend to be relatively widespread, he pointed out national economic issues and a sudden interest in an older, simpler way of living.
“I’m not exactly sure why this style has recently grown in popularity, but I do think that a general lack of money in people’s pockets probably has something to do with it,” says Cody. “I’ve also noticed that people, especially in our generation, are kind of drawn to older things. I look at my parents’ generation, and I think about the fact that my dad doesn’t want anything to do with woodworking or metal work. He grew up around it, but doesn’t like it at all. I think it’s the coolest thing ever. I’m over here [in my grandfather’s workshop] every day that I can be. I’ve heard and seen that our generation is trying to learn more about our grandparents’ and their parents, which is pretty cool to me. It’s like we’re trying to go back to a simpler time.”
Regarding the tools he most commonly uses to fashion his original pieces, Cody explains that, “I use a sawzall more than anything. I use that to pull wooden pallets apart, because if you don’t have one, it’s literally impossible to take them apart without breaking the wood. The nails are usually twisted and fluted, so they tend to bend backwards. For that reason, the sawzall is my primary tool. We also have a table saw, and I use a dado blade insert with it. Basically, it’s a blade that sits on a curvature and it moves back and forth really fast. It helps with shaping things properly.”
Though Cody has incorporated a diversity of wood species in his pieces—ranging from mahogany to maple—he says that one type of lumber is both one of his favorites and his most despised.
“My least favorite wood is pine, because it breaks everything I try to cut it with,” says Cody. “At the same time, pine is also one of my favorites. It’s a really beautiful wood, and you can stain it any color you want. It turns out really awesome.”
Since he began the HoldFast Wood Company late last year, Cody has completed a variety of useful and artistic pieces, some of which he’s sold through his mother’s shop in Sturgis, KY: Old Crow Antiques & Primitives. Among the creations he’s made so far are striking chevron-style tables, rustic farm tables constructed from aged barn wood, iPod and iPhone docks, benches, chalkboards, an assortment of candle holders, and industrial-style components for lighting—which often times utilize seasoned metal pieces supplied by his grandfather’s metal shop.
Interestingly enough, Cody has been generous enough to begin construction on a new, traditional “V”-topped, chevron-style table, which will adorn the future Sugg Street Post location in downtown Madisonville.
When asked why he chose to offer such a meaningful gift to the Sugg Street Post, Cody replied that, “In my opinion, Madisonville doesn’t have a ton of things going for it. There are a lot of talented people here, but they don’t have anywhere to go or anything to do. A lot of them go to Evansville or somewhere else out of town. So, I think it’s cool that the Sugg Street Post is promoting positive local stuff like music and entertainment. I like the whole idea of buying local and staying local, too. That’s how a community keeps moving forward.”
In hopes of inspiring others to carry on the enduring tradition of carpentry, Cody offers up some final words of wisdom to the reader and the younger generation in general.
“Carpentry, or woodworking, is really fun. It’s also different. When I walk into the workshop, I feel like I’m stepping back in time because of the smell and the tools. I mean, you can go to college and get a degree, but you might not ever do anything with it; the stuff you learn here in the shop can be carried with you for the rest of your life. You could build your own house or anything like that. It’s a good thing to get into in my opinion. It’s important to keep this part of America alive, too, because a lot of it is lost today. There are a lot of people my age that don’t even understand how to use a saw.”
An artistic “reinventor” standing in natural defiance of the one-sided label his generation has been given, Cody carries the old flame into the new world as the ancient forefathers of carpentry—no doubt in their wooden chariots and ornately decorated mead halls—smile upon his work from the endless annals of time. Though a master of the craft he’s admittedly not, the human mark he bestows upon the world through his creations, as well as his reasons for doing so, are timeless and pure: inspiration, freedom, knowledge, and simple enjoyment.
In keeping with this sentiment, we leave the reader with a notable quote from Louis Nizer displayed on the HoldFast Wood Company’s official Facebook page:
“A man who works with his hands is a laborer; a man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman; but a man who works with his hands and his brain and his heart is an artist.”
Sugg Street Post
Written by Luke Short
Photos by Jeff Harp
Table photo by Cody McDowell