“It’s for my granddaughter.”
That’s a summary sentiment for the gifts of love and charity created by three men, bonded friends who render beautiful works of wood. They work together in a large lower level four-car garage at the Oak Meadow residence of Nelson Rivers and his wife, Joyse. The other woodworkers are Stewart Smith and Stephen Wilson. Each is a retired doctor of varied specialties, so they are “three docs in a garage.”
They met by accident five years ago at a McCutchanville Garden Party at Stewart and Cookie Smith’s house. Nelson, a former pharmacologist, took a bowl he had made as a hostess gift and handed it to Stewart (Stewbie to friends), who was captured by the bowl’s craftmanship. Nelson invited him to his garage workshop to show him how it was made, and as Stewart, retired from nephrology, recalls, to his surprise, “I really enjoyed it.”
About the same time, Steve, a former veterinarian who also lives in Oak Meadow, joined the group and found the woodworking activity and camaraderie therapeutic diversion from the recent loss of his wife. “We didn’t have much equipment,” Nelson offers, to which Stewart responds, “Nelson is being modest. It was actually a very nice shop, but it’s now ‘top drawer’ in every way. Nelson’s got the best equipment money can buy and he is a perfectionist, doing everything correctly.”
In his semi-retirement, Nelson discovered woodworking videos on YouTube. His natural dexterity and attention to detail, combined with his love of creating and designing, were the perfect prerequisites to sculpting wood into art. Stewart and Steve give all credit to Nelson as the source of their woodcarving passion.
And create, they do. Several days each week, these three docs meet in the garage to craft pieces of wood from disparate sources, such as sawmill refuse, the ravages of storms like Stewbie’s fallen cherry and walnut trees, or unusable end pieces from furniture craftsmen. They purchase material commercially and use other dis- cards of nature, like pinecones.
The trio adds dimension and contrast in some wood pieces with resin that projects contrast with light and color. The resin also creates surface and strength for furniture pieces like a tabletop. Practitioners of efficiency, these docs maximize every inch of garage space for tools large and small, including a 650-pound lathe and a large air vacuum system to suck up tiny particles of dust. Mask-wearing is as imperative as the breath it protects, a constant part of the doctors’ new “uniform.”
Naturally, family and friends are gifted the finished works of bowls, chalices, boxes, stools, and custom pieces. Local non-profits like Patchwork Central, YWCA, Evansville Philharmonic, and the Tri-State Food Bank are given beautiful pieces to sell for their benefit, as well.
“Giving is a big part of the purpose,” Steve summarizes. “It has to be. We’ve made so much stuff, we have to give it away because the neighbors won’t let us build a pole barn (for storage)!”
Pride in craftsmanship is evident, too. Stewart confirms, as one of five siblings, he has lots of family to gift and he’s “so much more satisfied by giving things I’ve made instead of bought,” he says. And each gift is a signature — he makes different types of bowls mixing the designs of wood, so each is unique.
Steve — who is making a table for the aforementioned granddaughter — captures the synergy of the three docs working side-by-side.
“It’s not just the product (that brings joy); it’s the process,” he says.
In keeping with the uniqueness of each piece, Steve gifted each woodworking partner with a branding iron of their signatures to burn their autograph onto the bottom of each product.
The biggest gift from these three woodworkers, though, is their friendship to each other, their bond of brotherhood. For five years, these men have been working shoulder-to-shoulder shaping wood into gifts, but it’s their gift of caring and support that’s invaluable and lasting.
“I sort of knew who Nelson was, and now we’ve become very good friends,” Stewart recalls. “We have bonded, helped each other through some difficult times, with very serious, deep discussions.”
So trusting is their friendship that each has a key to the garage to work individually as they like.
“Sometimes I’m sitting in my bedroom, and I’ll hear sounds in the garage below, and I know not to go downstairs in my underwear,” Joyse says.
Both Stewart and Steve have some tools in their own garages, but Steve avers that “the really good equipment” is at Nelson’s.
“We can’t dismiss the generosity of Nelson and Joyse” for making room in their home and hearts, Steve says. Joyse adds whimsically, “I’m a sounding board for design and, of course, I always have an opinion.”