Bent Mountain. From its name, you’d never imagine this hamlet in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains boasts quite a zoo. But by following a winding road that meanders through hollows and down hillsides you’ll eventually arrive at an aged, sagging apple barn at the edge of an orchard. In it, you’ll discover bears, snakes, giraffes, and prehistoric beasts as well as a “seaquarium” of angelfish, bass, dolphins, whales and other denizens of the deep. Visitors can’t look forward to the entertainment of feeding time though. These creatures – great and small – are made of wood.
Peter Chapman, now 63, creates the menagerie at Bent Mountain. That’s his living – making and selling animals, fish and reptiles of wood. Yet his, unlike the lifelike work of master carvers and bigger-than-life products of chainsaw sculptors, are actually three-dimensional puzzles crafted in walnut, cherry as well as exotic stock. “What I make is really a kind of kinetic sculpture,” Peter says softly, his native Virginia reflected in his words. “I probably sell as many of them for adult toys as I do for kids’s toys.” Saying that, the craftsman reaches across the workbench and picks up a black snake. Much as would a professional handler, he places one hand behind the head, then lifts the writhing body with the other. The 3-foot long snake clacks and clatters as its ebony parts move against each other. “Here, take it apart,” he would encourage you. The snake is again placed on the workbench, and carefully studied.
How would one begin to disassemble the thing? Aha! The eye! Your fingers push the dowel out of the wooden head. Suddenly, the first piece is freed. The next slides out at an angle. And the next. And the next. It’s fun (even if you’re deathly afraid of snakes). About midway in the disassembly, a tiny piece flips out from within the larger one. Surprise! A tiny mouse hides inside. Your hands continue on to the tail. “Now, put it together – the pieces can only go one way,” says Peter with a smile. In a minute or so the task is complete. Reinserting the eye locks the pieces together. “Snakes are my best sellers,” notes the woodworker. “And anytime I can put something inside a puzzle, it sells even better. Like that little mouse in the snake there. That’s like a hook. Most people don’t realize that they’re puzzles when they first see my creatures. And having something inside gives them a whole new dimension – and gives you a reason to take it apart.”
Three or four long miles (there are no short miles in the Blue Ridge) from the apple barn turned workshop lies what Peter calls “The house that puzzles built.” It’s Peter and wife Jenny’s newly completed home. The glass, cedar, stone and cement structure that he designed perches on a ridge with a view of nothing but mixed native hardwoods and moss-covered rock outcroppings. It’s a dream turned reality. And it didn’t come easy. “Looking back, I’ve always been a woodworker,” says Peter. As his eyes move across the massive stone fireplace before him, he recalls his days as an Architecture major at Virginia Technical Institute. “I enjoyed the design side of architecture, but not the business side with all the rules and regulations. So after three years, I joined the Air Force.” Peter spent his hitch as a state-side photographic interpreter, and eventually learned photography.
After his discharge, he put his newly acquired skill to use doing promotional work for a rock and roll band in Pennsylvania. “When the band fizzled out, I got a job working in George Nakashima’s shop in Buck’s County,” he remembers. “What an experience that was! Of course, I knew what oak and cherry were, but in Nakashima’s shop there were woods from all over the world.” In the famed woodworker’s shop, Peter began on the lowest rung of the ladder, as a sander. Still, he appreciated what he saw, and learned by observation. “I just kind of absorbed what was going on. I remember seeing other craftsmen cutting dovetails and working with huge slabs of wood with natural edges – 3-foot wide and 12-foot long. Nakashima had supervised the sawing of each log, as it it were a diamond in the rough. And because I was a finisher, I got to see the wood up close. That was the inspiration that started my career, although I didn’t know it then,” Peter continues. “After three years, I left because there was no way for me to grow in his shop. It was time to get out on my own.”
The self-employment road led Peter to a spell in carpentry, then on to Ohio as a designer/builder. “A small group of us in our mid-twenties functioned as both architects and carpenters,” Peter says. “We had a woodshop where we could produce all our own millwork. Back then, we had lots of building ideas, and were able to do them because we had the woodworking know-how.” After a few years, Peter took another woodworking-related job, as a patternmaker for a foundry. After a while, though, his home state of Virginia beckoned.
On Roanoke, Peter landed employment, building reproductions of antique round oak tables. For three years, he and a helper turned out 400 tables annually, and broadened his understanding of production. “I learned to do things in order,” Peter remarks. “Then the market bottomed out for the tables. I was on my own again. Yet, having done that gave me the guts to look for a shop so I could start on my own.”
Peter managed to locate at least the prospect of a shop in an abandoned barn tucked into the hills near Bent Mountain. After adding insulation and updating the wiring, it served him well, as it still does today. “Soon, I was making custom furniture for people down in the Roanoke Valley.” Peter says. “I learned how to do whatever was necessary to get a job done. I did some oriental pieces, Danish styles, some contemporary. Looking back, what I learned from the experience was that no matter what, the form really does follow the function.”
In today’s craft market, Peter’s puzzles have made quite a mark. There’s not anything like them. However, if it weren’t for his brief stint as a patternmaker, his puzzles might never have been. Peter recalls: “After a while, I started doing craft fairs with my furniture, and added turned bowls to my line – I kept thinking of things that would sell better. I tried cutting boards, then band-sawn boxes, early American quilt racks and blanket chests. I needed something that was affordable, functional, yet one-of-a-kind. It was slow. I was making a living, but little was going in the bank. Then down the line somewhere it came to me: puzzles. And the thought really went back to when I was a patternmaker. We worked with 12-inch square blocks of 8/4 mahogany, and cut most of it on the bandsaw. For fun, I used to make these squiggly puzzle blocks. I puzzled them up end to end, then turned them on their side and puzzled them again. It was really interesting.”
From his furniture making, Peter has accumulated lots of scrap wood, and like all woodworkers, he hated to throw it away - especially when much of it was exotic wood. As he remembers it, Peter decided to incorporate the puzzling process with his scrap wood. “Then I thought of turning the wood 90 degrees after each cut, and it made the process all the more interesting. So my first puzzled creature came from a 1x1x24 piece of wood I had. After I started cutting it up on the bandsaw, it sort of looked like a snake,” he continues. “With the next one, I shaped the head and found out that I could really make it look like a snake. Then it became a matter of applying the technique to different animals, fish and reptiles. I soon found out that at craft fairs the puzzled creatures outsold my other stuff. I’ve been at it ever since.”
“Puzzling is such a fascinating process. It really looks harder than it is,” say Peter. “It takes me about 30 minutes to puzzle out on the bandsaw my biggest piece, the 5-foot anaconda. But at craft fairs, no one believes that it takes so little time. I end up telling them it takes an hour.”
How does Peter do it? In his shop, the process goes quickly when he gets his hands on the wood. “The piece has to be shaped and sanded first, because it would be very difficult to shape after the pieces were cut,” he notes. Stepping up to the bandsaw, the craftsman places a 24-inch long cocobolo snake on the table. He points the wooden reptile’s head toward the saw’s 1/8-inch blade (with 14 teeth per inch) and turns on the machine. Deftly, his hands direct the wood into the blade. “With the snake on its stomach, I make the first squiggle cut,” says Peter. “Then, I turn it on its side to make the cut that frees the first piece. I work from head to tail all the way down, that’s my technique for all of my designs. And I don’t first draw a pattern on the wood. I cut by eye, always making the next cut relate to the one before. No two cuts can ever be the same.” After Peter has puzzled a piece, he drills through its head (or leading piece of the puzzle) to allow the insertion of a small dowel, which usually serves as the eyes. This locks the puzzle’s pieces together. Then, all it takes is a light touch of 120-grit sandpaper to knock off any wood fibers raised by the bandsaw blade. Next, the creature gets two coats of clear tung oil on it’s surface. He leaves the exposed wood inside the cuts unfinished because any later movement won’t interfere with the creature’s loose joints. “There’s nothing critical here to protect,” says Peter.
More critical than the puzzle’s finishing, though, is Peter’s choice of wood. The stock must be well-seasoned or kiln-dried hardwood. Other than that, he has two criteria: the wood must be strong, of course. And it has to look right. “Part of the fun in making these puzzles is finding wood that matches and adds to their look. Open grained wood, such as oak, looks terrible. On the large rattlesnake, for instance, the zebra wood’s close grain and figure give it a natural appearance, even it it’s fanciful,” says Peter. “Whenever I find a neat wood that works, I add it to the line.”
The wood also has to fit the production process. “It has to do with the species’ cellular structure, not the density,” he explains. “Because it’s not so much the cutting, but the sanding. The wood can’t have a tendency to burn. Right now, the stock inventory includes walnut, cherry, paduak, zebrawood, cocobolo and leopardwood.”
Peter would like to bring his creatures, or at least their concept, to a larger scale. “How about huge puzzles as abstract sculptures for display? I might even open up a log and puzzle up half of it,” he says inquiringly. “Whatever I do, I know how design works with me – something else grows from working out an aspect of what I’m presently doing. What a puzzling future it’s going to be!”