I still remember back in April of 1985 as a young man from British Columbia traveling to Alberta for a new career and a new life. I had never been east of the Rocky Mountains and as the last glimpse of the rolling foothills disappeared in my rear view mirror I was shocked by the naked landscape opening up before me; these sweeping prairies which at the time seemed devoid of life. Having grown up in the lush greenery of the west coast I didn’t realize at the time that these austere surroundings where I would work for twenty years would reveal their own natural wonders; a wildness mixed with a spacious beauty beckoned by the Alberta wild roses, echoed by the howling coyotes, and pointed out by the prickly cacti. It was also within the western reaches of these vast plains that we would come upon the rural acreage of Jim and Eileen Jones of Jones’ Woodworks who would give us a measure of the prairie oasis they call home, and share the exquisite woodworking that is their passion and livelihood.
Jim and Eileen have a long history of working with wood, having spent the last 35 years taking on roles as students, teachers and practitioners of this fine craft. For Jim, he started out with a friend building and selling furniture after leaving the public school system, realizing that his dream of being a lifelong physical education teacher wasn’t in the cards. He furthered his skills by becoming a journeyman cabinet-maker where he then took his knowledge back to teaching students once again, this time learning how to build something with their hands. At the same time, Eileen took up refinishing antiques as a sideline, also broadening her knowledge by reading extensively on the finer points of repair and finishing. She would experiment with many different finishes and decide on the most appropriate choice to accent a piece. As Jim notes, “I am the creator and Eileen is the ultimate repairer,” and asserts that a mediocre piece of furniture can look great if finished properly, but a nice piece can be diminished by poor finishing. It is this collaboration of their individual skills that lends itself well to achieving the most pristine form, function and visual appeal of each piece they create.
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Over the years Jim and Eileen have seen a shift in the buying trends for wood craftsmanship. Jim says that in the booming early years there were more affluent clients willing to purchase high-end hand-crafted furniture than the more prudent clients they have today in this uncertain economic climate. By happenstance, their woodworking repertoire took a turn when Jim starting turning wood on a lathe to create another form of art and income. It was actually Eileen that was given an old lathe from a good friend, and once Jim had fixed it up to working condition she gave it a try, only to quickly realize that it was not her cup of tea. Jim on the other hand started playing around with it, took lessons from other teachers and eventually became a professional wood-turner, turning out his own beautifully functional and artistic pieces. Eileen would then finish the piece, first figuring out the most suitable oil, varathane, polyurethane or wax, depending on the function of the piece. For Eileen the most important part of finishing is that it still shows the wood, and enhances the look rather than changes it. She says that it has to be super smooth and feel nice to the touch in addition to retaining its natural look. She will also paint on some of the pieces, creating impressions of figures influenced by the natural world outside their door.
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Jim and Eileen have learned a lot over the years. In addition to the changing buyers market they have also become aware of important factors such as where their wood is sourced as well as the finishing substances they use. With large companies willing to clear-cut forests to make profits and in the process causing environmental destruction and habitat loss to many animals and indigenous peoples, they have learned of the sustainable sources for their wood. Eileen has also learned to avoid using toxic finishes such as lacquer which requires special spraying booths for application, preferring instead to use more environmentally friendly substances which do not leave particles in the air.
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For Jim and Eileen their woodworking is more than just a business to earn income, it is an enjoyable lifestyle with many rewards. These include the many satisfied customers, the generous community of wood-turners, hosting retreat workshops, the peacefulness of their environment and to the time they can call their own. Each day manifests itself by how they want to live their life and who they spend time with; mostly each other.
To see more of Jim and Eileen’s work and to learn more about their process please click here.
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