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Woodworker shares love of old ways

July 18, 1999|By BRUCE HAMILTON

When Edward Walter Ryan III was a boy, he wanted to make wood fly.

He was jealous of his brother's skill at building balsa airplanes. He followed the directions, but his models didn't soar.

"I would be real exact and it wouldn't do a thing," he said.

Ryan now works with a different plane - and router, lathe and chisels. Those early attempts at making models inspired the 52-year-old Waynesboro, Pa., resident made carving a lifelong craft.

His hobby has history. Ryan has tools that belonged to his great-great-grandfather, George Lever. Lever immigrated from Scotland with the skills to build anything from barn to bridge.

The fine edge of his chisel is still sharp in his great-great grandson's hand. Ryan points out that wood has been used since civilization began. Before the Industrial Revolution, most machines were wooden.

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Standing in the shade outside Hager House Sunday afternoon, Ryan demonstrated some of his own woodworking ability. He showed the modern version of an 18th century spring-pull lathe he finished building in April.

Ryan read about the contraption in a book by Roy Underhill, host of the PBS show, "The Woodwright's Shop." It was based on the 1765 design of a French carver. Last year, Ryan began gathering the $500 worth of maple it took to build the lathe.

The machine's spring is an ash limb whose natural curve provides tension. As Ryan steps on a pedal, it pulls the rope wrapped around a new dowel. As the dowel spins, he applies blades to shape the curves of the cylinder.

In his buckskin pants, green tunic and pointed wood shoes, Ryan looked like a craftsman from another century. As one woman brought a chisel against the spinning dowel, Ryan gave calm advice. "Slowly feed it," he said. "Don't dig."

Ryan works in the security department of the Potomac Center, a facility for people with various disabilities. In his free time, he enjoys portraying life before 1840 at historical fairs or gatherings. "My wife and I do what they call living history as much as we can," he said.

His spring-pull lathe is decorated with intricate designs Ryan called "chip carving." He displayed some of his other work, including spoons, a bowl, flutes and whistles. He showed a pendant carved from cow bone and the carved wooden head of a sprite.

It's much harder to use a mechanical lathe, but Ryan said he prefers it. "I'll use a machine as quick as anybody, but if I've got the skills, I'll use a hand tool," he said.

Ryan doesn't carve to sell pieces, but he enjoys showing children how to learn the craft. He hopes it inspires them to do more. Once they see they can carve, smiles usually break across their faces, he said.

"That's worth all the sweat," he said.

The Hager House offers similar demonstrations on select dates throughout summer. Crafts such as soap making, flax spinning and "penny rug" weaving are among the featured activities. For more information, call 301-739-8393.

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