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Diamonds in the rough

Willow inspires visitor to carve out new niche

Posted: Thursday, August 30, 2007

 

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  Alaska summertime visitor Ken Lehman, of Greenville, Mich., strips bark from recently harvested diamond willow branches so the wood can begin drying. During the winter, after Lehman returns to his home at Turn Again Farm, he will use the diamond willow in making walking sticks, chairs, benches and tables. Photo by McKibben Jackinsky

Made with Alaska diamond willow by Lehman, this chair won a third-place ribbon at the Kenai Peninsula State Fair earlier this month. Lehman's chairs are not for sale, but are used in fund-raisers and given as gifts. This one has found a home in a peninsula residence.

Photo by McKibben Jackinsky

It isn't the hunting that keeps Michigan resident Ken Lehman and his wife, Gail, coming back to Alaska summer after summer. Nor is it the fishing. Or the scenery. It's diamonds. Diamond willow, that is.

Hunting bear, moose and caribou was the first thing that drew Lehman north in 1976. For the last six years, he and Gail have been making an annual pilgrimage by motor home from their Turn Again Farm in Greenville, Mich., to the end of the road in Homer. They've made side trips as far north as Deadhorse. They've made a trail of friends. And they discovered diamond willow.

The couple harvests it during the summer and, when not fishing or touring the state, Lehman can be seen sitting at a Heritage RV Park fire ring on the Homer Spit, peeling bark from the branches. That way, by the time the Lehmans return to Michigan, the willow is partially dried and ready for Lehman's workshop.

"My first recollection is that we were traveling south of Glennallen on the Richardson Highway as Gail was reading the Milepost. She noted it said there was good diamond willow cutting along Willow Creek," Lehman said. "I slammed on the brakes on our RV since that was the spot we were passing. I always carry in the motor home a small saw and an axe, and I grabbed both and disappeared into the brush."

 

Alaska summertime visitor Ken Lehman, of Greenville, Mich., strips bark from recently harvested diamond willow branches so the wood can begin drying. During the winter, after Lehman returns to his home at Turn Again Farm, he will use the diamond willow in making walking sticks, chairs, benches and tables.

Photo by McKibben Jackinsky

Immediately, Lehman discovered that diamond willow is a prize for some like diamonds are for others.

"It soon became apparent that more than a few willow cutters had preceded me," he said. Persistence paid off, however, and he eventually found some, hauled it out of the swamp and was soon discovering what it was like to work with the wood.0

"I had made walking sticks from hard maple for several years, and so found it exciting to work with new material that had some very interesting distinctions with the diamond designs, each, of course, being different."

The search for willow has opened up doors to a backcountry Alaska seldom seen by visitors just passing through.

Wandering among the woods, the Lehmans have come upon unset snares and traps left for the winter season.

They've crossed fresh trails of bear and moose, prompting one acquaintance to point out the wisdom of keeping protection close at hand. They found good quality willow as far away as the Dalton Highway's Atigun Pass and as near as an undisclosed location along the Sterling Highway.

Although no two pieces of Lehman's handmade furniture are identical, his basic chair design calls for 1 1/2-inch diameter willow for legs and three-quarter to 1-inch diameter for the spindles between the legs.

Back legs measure 40 inches; front legs are 24 shorter if the chair has arms. Spindles for the back of the chair and under the seat measure three-quarter to 1 inch in diameter and range in length from 18 to 24 inches.

"We completely clean the willow before it goes home, and then allow it to continue drying until January, when we start some rough sketches on how the chairs might develop," Lehman said.

"These chairs, even though they look rustic and rickety, are very strong and not subject to splitting or shrinking or being 'shaky.'"

Perfecting the designs has been a learning process.

"My first attempt at a chair was rather primitive since I tried to use a diamond on each and every piece, and the seat was also made out of willow sticks," he said.

However, he's picked up tips along the way. Some from a Canadian giving a chair-building class to tourists in Talkeetna. Some from books on twig furniture. Even a friend who operates an auto body shop and automotive paint business offered suggestions for finish work on the chairs.

"We are frequently asked how much we charge for the chairs," Lehman said.

The answer: "We have a lot of requests for 'freebies' and because our total production is so low, we never sell any chairs."

Instead, they are given as gifts. They are donated for fund-raising auctions. And one was even entered and took a third-place ribbon in the Kenai Peninsula State Fair in Ninilchik this month.

Michigan white pine is used for the seats and backs. A solid back has made it possible for Lehman to incorporate several decorative designs. One is of an open-mouthed silver salmon about to bite a hook, undoubtedly reminiscent of Lehman's daydreams during hours spent at the Nick Dudiak Fishing Lagoon in Homer.

The line of original diamond willow creations also has expanded from walking sticks and chairs to tables and benches.

"Maybe sometime when you are wandering around the various RV parks in Homer, you will come upon a pile of whittling remnants in the fire rings and then you will know that quite possibly the chair-builder has been there, readying some willow for next year's chair production," Lehman said.

"Whether it is fishing at the Nick Dudiak Lagoon, searching for willow, continuing to appreciate the spectacular Alaska scenery or sharing time with the many new friends here, Alaska has become our second home."

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.



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