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A passion for working wood

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Photos by Emy Lynn Roque Cisneros Bill Mikus' shop is filled with machinery for turning designs into beautiful things crafted from wood. Most of these are now for sale as he considers retiring his hobby.

Up a private drive in Crawford a home sits at the top of a hill, overlooking the mountains. From the outside one might not be able to tell, but step through the door and the story becomes clear: woodwork is a speciality of someone inside.

That someone is 89-year-old Bill Mikus.

"I would say I began woodworking at the age of seven, in 1935," he said. "My inspirations came from my dad, a farmer and by necessity a carpenter, and my older brother, an aspiring woodworker."

Mikus remembers his first project being a lawn ornament. He and his older brother took wood crates from the grocery store and disassembled them. Next they created their project using an old coping saw. Even the nails were salvaged from the crates.

"Only thing we had to buy was paint and that was a nickel a can," he said.

Later in his teenage years Mikus made boats -- row, motor, and even speed. His family took up water skiing and onto the lake they went.

The boats varied in size, some 12 feet, others 16. One even reached 18 feet.

"First time you put one in the water and it actually floats, you feel a unique satisfaction," he said. "However, after hours of trips up and down the lake the feeling fades."

Passion to Paycheck

For Mikus, woodworking remained only a hobby until after World War II when the housing boom hit. His cousin asked him if he could make cabinets for his contracting business.

Mikus bought his first woodworking machinery, co-signed by his father, and got to work.

Then in 1950 a draft in the army hit pause on the business. He served one year in Korea before returning to the U.S. and attending college for civil engineering.

He continued making cabinets by day, schooling by night. Upon graduating he decided to pursue another interest -- architecture.

Mikus married his high-school sweetheart Trudy, had four children and settled into suburban life.

While working in architecture he sold his machinery and did smaller projects. Later on when his two sons showed interest in the generational hobby, he began acquiring machinery again.

He even built two of their homes in Illinois. Then he started making furniture: chairs, dressers, tables and more.

He remarked, "The cabinet business just got too competitive."

His wife Trudy, didn't mind the change. Today, an assortment of his past work decorates their own home. "I really enjoy being able to use his art for our everyday life," she said while sitting on one of his dining room chairs.

In addition to taking custom orders, Mikus displayed his work in galleries and shops on commission.

In 2003 Mikus and Trudy moved to Colorado to be closer to their four children. Again he considered selling his equipment.

When he was unable to sell his cast-iron machinery in time they turned their current garage into a shop.

Their home benefited, as they've done many home-improvement projects over the years, such as the additional hanging cabinets using hard maple from their daughter's farm in Indiana.

Mikus also discovered the Creamery Arts Center in Hotchkiss.

He started displaying there a few years ago when he took a sofa table, not wanting another one at home. The county fair prize winning piece sold within a matter of weeks.

Mikus noted however that he's sold more small $30-40 gift items there than furniture. He currently has a few pieces on display, such as a rocking chair and table.

From Tree to Table

To make a custom furniture piece, or any woodworking items, hours of work are required. First Mikus determines the need and requirements. "I discuss at length what they're planning to do with it," he said.

He works with the customer to decide what wood they desire, like a darker or lighter finish. However, Mikus has to make sure the wood they're wanting is suitable.

For example, a chair has to be made from a hardwood like maple or walnut.

Then, Mikus makes a basic sketch and draws out the dimensions. He also gets the wood as dry as possible.

In Illinois this process was difficult because of the humidity. "I would blast the AC in my shop during the summer to dry my wood," he said.

If the material absorbs moisture in the air, it expands and tightens the joints, which is beneficial. If it contracts, the piece can fall apart. When Mikus moved to Colorado he had to rework several of his furniture pieces because of the drop in humidity.

"I love working with natural material and its unpredictable nature," he said. "Woodworking really teaches you to make allowances for change."

This principle of allowance Mikus believes is the hardest lesson to learn in woodworking.

"When you take a chair that's been somewhere and take it to another elevation or location you're not always sure what might happen," said Trudy.

Once the wood is dry Mikus can begin his cutting and assembling. He said, "I love when the board is first cut open and I can see the grain inside."

If he's making several of the same pieces he creates an assembly line to cut down on production time.

While Mikus never timed his projects, he estimated that a rocking chair could take around 100 hours. However, a set of chairs might only take 60-80 hours per chair.

If he's in a time crunch Trudy will help with what she calls "grunt work," like sanding.

A Memorable Project

For example, one time a man called from New York requesting eight rocking style dining chairs. He previously bought a rocking chair Mikus made at an interior design store in Cody, Wyoming.

Despite Mikus telling him no, the man asked for a ballpark figure of the cost. "I couldn't take on any large projects because we were thinking of moving and selling the house," he explained.

A week later a check for half the amount showed up in the mail. Another week later and a large amount of wood was delivered.

"We didn't even know he was sending the wood," said Trudy. "But once it was there we felt like we had to complete the project."

Thankfully they didn't sell the house right away. With Trudy's help and assembly line style crafting they completed everything within a few months.

Afterwards they piled the chairs into their van and made a detour to New York for delivery while visiting their daughter in Maryland.

Memories like this are one of the many reasons Mikus is thankful his hobby was also a career. "I love discovering what people envision and then bringing that to life," he said.

Conversely, Mikus noted that it's painful when a project is completed and they're not happy with the result -- though that's only been a few times in the last 60 plus years.

The key to client communication he said is to listen carefully, and ask plenty of questions.

Beginning of an End

For newcomers or admirers of woodworking, there's good news: you don't need a three-car garage workshop like Mikus to get started.

"You can do plenty of woodworking without a lot of machinery," he said. "But, a tablesaw is my recommended investment."

Today learning the craft is simplified with the accessibility of Google and YouTube. Mikus relied on his family but also "learned as [he] went along."

"Thankfully he still has all his fingers," joked Trudy.

As Mikus nears his 90th birthday he still spends most of his afternoons down in his shop. "I find the process relaxing and enjoy the feeling of accomplishment even on a smaller project," he said.

Over the years he even compiled an album of various projects titled "The Making of a Chair." He's proud of the diversity in his work: boats, cabinets, canoes, furniture, and every knick-knack between.

Currently Mikus is crafting wine bottle balancers for gifts and some shaker chairs. Though the chairs are not his typical contemporary style, Trudy asked for more seating to accommodate guests.

After finishing these and a few other projects he's considering retiring the lifelong hobby. "It's getting too dangerous for me," he said, referring to his hand tremors and wavering balance.

Most of his machinery is now for sale once more, this time likely for good. Those interested can call 921-5220.

Mikus still has plenty of wisdom to share and is happy to discuss jigs, wood types and machines with anyone curious and willing to listen. "I'll miss the smell of wood dust the most," he said.

After seven decades of woodworking, Mikus has learned a few tricks to making the task easier. Here he sits on a hand-made stool while he works with a lathe.
Before beginning a project Mikus sketches the dimensions and details.
Bill and Trudy met in high school. They recently celebrated 60 years of marriage.
A rocking chair like the one on display at the Creamery Arts Center can take about 100 hours to make.
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