FIELDING - Ellen Cook, Headliner media specialist, January 20, 2022
Question: How much wood could a Welling work if a Welling could work wood?
In Fielding, that little ditty adds up to quite a bit! Three generations of Welling men have worked in wood and created beautiful pieces of art while enjoying a unique and often undervalued hobby.
It began back in the early 1900s with Truman LeRoy Welling, who learned the art of Marquetry (arranging quarter-inch thick wood chips into a design) during a college course while studying to be an engineer. It became a creative pastime for him, one he passed on to his son, Gale Welling.
Gale and Truman often used their creative juices on projects and designs. Most of those early pieces were decorative checkerboards, made with very few crafting tools and a limited amount of wood varieties, taken from fallen trees or donated by friends.
A third partner came in the form of Roy Welling, Gale’s son, who, while just a youngster, was brought in to help sand wood pieces and add a final coat of varnish to each woodworking masterpiece.
Over the years those patterned planks have found their way into homes across the county, given as gifts to friends and family, 60 or more at the hands of Truman and well over 100 created by Gale.
Although he spent a lot of time in the woodshop with his father, and, in his words, “I enjoyed seeing the beauty at the end,” Roy never had the time nor the desire to carry on the tedious artform. But when he retired as an educator in 2005, he decided “to see if I couldn’t do it myself.”
He was so glad he did.
Roy was able to work side-by-side with his father, learning from a master craftsman, for just two years before Gale passed away. It was enough time to glean important tips and advice from the elder Welling and for Roy to become an artisan in his own right.
Today Roy can be found most days in his well-equipped workshop, planning, patterning, planing, piecing and polishing one or another wooden project.
“I don’t think there is anything more beautiful than natural wood,” he said. “There are so many varieties and colors and textures and grains, it is just absolutely fabulous. It is just fun as an artwork because you can’t put the same textures and colors or shades together. You have got to vary it with other textures and grains and figures, planes, the lights, the darks. You have to get all of that in there.”
Roy compares it to making a quilt, using wood instead of fabric. In fact, he often uses his wife’s quilt books for pattern ideas.
Unlike those early creations made by his grandfather, however, Roy has over 120 different varieties of woods at his disposal, ranging in color from almost white to black ebony. Then each piece of wood can vary in texture, as well, depending on where it comes from in the tree itself. The possibilities become endless.
“I think God had more fun creating wood than He did anything,” Roy laughed, and says he has just as much fun putting that wood together into one of his finished tabletops or wall hangings. But he claims to be no respecter of wood and doesn’t prefer one type over another.
“There isn’t a best,” he said. “I can use all kinds. I’ve got pine and cedar all the way up to the hardest woods that there are, ebony and mountain mahogany and those kinds. Some of them are hard to work with because they are so soft, and you have a hard time sanding them or so hard that they fray and chip, but they all have their value and their worth and their beauty. Even the worst of wood can be used for something.”
To put that wood, whatever its quality, into his art is a labor of love and begins with the planning.
“You have to decide what you are making,” Roy said. “Then you have to cut a piece of plywood to the right length and the width. That is your base.”
On that base he then draws out the pattern he has already laid out on a sheet of graph paper. Next it is the difficult task of picking out the right contrast in woods. “You get it (the wood pieces) all out and see what looks good with what, what is right between figured and lined and solid, colored and bright and dark, just what goes well with each other.” It is much like an artist choosing the color scheme for a painting.
When he is satisfied with the choices, he begins cutting small pieces out of the bigger wood blocks he has. If they are to be the same from one side of the work to the other, the wood is cut through the center so that they are mirrored images. The angles must be correct so that all ends and edges meet exactly. That means sanding is required to get a cohesive result.
“You have to sand them to perfection so there are no gaps in them,” Roy said.
Then each piece is secured with wood glue. That can mean hundreds of tiny wood pieces in a host of wood varieties fitted together like a tight-fitting puzzle.
“You have to be careful with that,” he cautioned. “It’s like painting a room. You can’t paint yourself into a corner. You have to make sure you can slide those pieces in and out. Some work better center out and some side to side.”
A border is added, along with a skirt around the edges to give it a completed finish.
When dried, Roy takes the creation to Everwood, Inc., in Honeyville where it is sent through a sander to make sure the top is even. “We used to do all the sanding by hand,” he said. “But this makes it just so much smoother.” He does a little fine sanding just to make sure there are no machine marks anywhere.
His artwork is then coated with tung oil to preserve the natural wood. In his apprentice days, however, that was not the case. “Back then we use varnish to start with, but it just turned yellow. Then they went to poly, which was a lot better. But now I use tung oil because it keeps the wood from oxidizing quite so bad. I like the fact that tongue oil helps it maintain its natural look. I don’t use epoxy. Poly still works if you are in a kitchen or bath area." he added
“There is about 20 minutes of time put into each individual piece of wood,” Roy estimated, and the entire project takes about six weeks of labor. He then gives each an added personal touch. On the back he documents the number of the work, the design and what kind of wood went into the construction. And in all the projects he has made, no two have ever been alike.
So, what does this worker of wood get out of that time spent? It is not money, because he does not sell his creations. He said he is making them to give to his posterity as something to remember him by after he has gone, much like so many of the pieces he has decorating his home, pieces made by his grandfather and father.
“I’ve had a lot of requests for my work,” he said, “but I turn them down because they are not in the family. I tell them I have to take care of my grandchildren first. So, I have an adoption list.”
He is also passing the craft on to that same posterity. A son has put time into making his own wood pieces and a grandson is also spending creative time in his grandfather’s shop, learning the ins and outs of working with wood.
Making use of that family tree, in whatever form, it seems, will continue in the Welling clan. Truman and Gale would be proud.