High up on a cream-colored wall inside the chapel at Federated Church in Saratoga, the words from a Psalm are painted in script with a gentle shade of beige. They declare:
"I will lift mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help."
The words, which seem to float in midair, come off as the perfect sentiment for at least one group that meets here monthly. The South Bay Woodworkers gather each fourth Tuesday, attracting enthusiasts from Menlo Park to Morgan Hill.
While many members are of a certain age, sprinkled among them are younger folks. No matter: All of them -- plus woodworkers in similar groups throughout the Bay Area -- are mesmerized by the hand-wrought mysteries of transforming raw wood into lovely chests, tables, chairs, boxes and all manner of art objects.
As each meeting is about to come to order, members and guests carry in furniture items, tools, books, magazines and Photoshop presentations about woodworking. As at all kinds of area woodworker gatherings, "show and tell" is a popular feature for showcasing the hobby -- which could be described as a kind of calculated love, but also a tactile, creative lust.
Because so much of working with wood requires not only planned precision but improvisation, those familiar with the craft know a lot of creative time is spent staring into space -- or up to the heavens to conjure "help," as the psalm indicates.
Woodworkers are constantly struggling to imagine, or instantly calculate, or problem-solve just how to achieve the joints, planes, angles and curves involved in fashioning raw wood into objects of practicality and loveliness.
During the group's most recent meeting, June 24, several members stood up to show off a variety of projects under way or finished.
A new member that night was Mike Papa, a prolific box-maker from Sunnyvale, who passed around a collection of tiny, elegant, custom-made handles for his jewelry-style boxes.
"The beauty of the wood," Papa noted, is the essential reason for his love of woodworking. "I find so many kinds and textures of wood so very fascinating," he said.
For example, one of Papa's boxes had a surface that was massively eaten through with twisty holes caused by fungus and insects in the wild. Though the critters were long gone, the box -- in a perfect size for holding several decks of playing cards and crafted from spalted tamarind, a native of Southeast Asia -- was a natural mottled white color that quietly boggled the eyes of onlookers.
"I love that the wood was once a tree and is now getting a second life," said Papa, who has his own shop at home and also belongs to the Sawdust Shop, a membership facility in Santa Clara where both new and veteran woodworkers find creativity nurtured daily. "That concept is precious to me."
Like most woodworkers, Papa doesn't necessarily know what he will build next. He often starts the unpredictable process by procuring an interesting hunk of wood. He might think on it for months.
"I may not know what I want to make," said Papa, 67, who still has a "New Yawk" accent despite 30 years in California. "But for me, going to the wood store can be like going to the candy store. I'll have a sweet tooth, and I just can't resist the urge to get something."
Then one day, he'll find himself fashioning something special. Recently, he has been romancing a hunk of lignum vitae, a super hard, medicinal wood with a name that means "tree of life" in Latin. Just recently, he launched a lathe on the glorious stuff, native to the Caribbean and the north coast of South America, hoping to transform it into a small vase.
Another group member, Tom Kenyon, 74, also confessed to having a nearly lifelong romance with wood. "I love the look and the feel of wood," he said, showing the swooping vessels he'd turned on a lathe. "I love the ability to use this very beautiful medium to create things."
Part of the reason woodworkers love this pursuit is that not only is it messy and confounding, but it demands plenty of heartfelt creative energy. The project might involve assembling a complicated chest of drawers, or lathing matching chair legs, or notching together a smooth, singular table top from smaller pieces of wood. Or it could be carving a headboard, or whipping up elegant, multidimensional boxes or slicing out artistic marquetry. It might even be one of the myriad finishing operations -- sanding, shellacking, buffing and sizing to a tight fit -- a few of the endless variety of tasks.
Why the love?
Woodworking is the alchemy that transforms a grand material into countless shapes, forms and items of delight. Thanks to a number of classes and clubs around the Bay, it can also be a source of camaraderie.
Before the June 24 meeting, one member of the club wrote: "Each meeting consists of a presentation of a unique topic, followed by a short break for snacks and conversation and then a showing of ongoing or recently finished projects. Our focus is to be creative, exchange ideas and techniques and solve one another's problems."
In addition to gathering at Federated, this club makes a number of impromptu field trips to the home shops of members. And sometimes, the 25-year-old group of about 30 active members visits a professional shop to see how well high-tech machines perform some facet of a craft that dates back to the cave people.
The one woman at the June meeting, Linda Horner, proudly passed around her oval Shaker boxes. A small, delicate case with a lift-off top was tucked inside a similar, slightly larger one -- and then another and another and another. Each one featured a top bearing Horner's detailed beveled marquetry depicting complex flowers such as fuchsias, hibiscus, asters, daisies and even mixed bouquets.
"My husband taught me how to do marquetry," said Horner, proudly pointing across the room to prolific woodworking author Ken Horner, president of the American Marquetry Society.
Just as proudly, Ken described his wife as a talented wood-crafter in her own right, with a special passion for "carving full-sized carousel figures." Together, they teach classes out of their Morgan Hill shop, a pastime "that is great fun for both of us," said Linda Horner.
Another member, Richard Winslow, explained to the group how he took slabs of tight-grained redwood and fashioned a curvaceous, outdoor bench with "only four right angles."
Winslow, of Sunnyvale, was most proud that the wood he'd used contained a number of gashes, gouges, splits, cracks and holes. He deployed his skills to coax those wounds into looking beautiful, since he firmly believes that even "the ugliest parts of the wood have character."
Charles Aring, a Saratogan who lives just down the street from Federated, showed off a jewelry box on curved legs, crafted of a combination of selected California black walnut and Honduran rosewood that looked as delicious as a cake. With its concave doors and beautiful back side, this piece -- an homage to the late Sam Maloof, America's Chico-born patron saint of woodworking -- lit the room with quiet gladness.
At the end of each meeting, someone is invited to give a "lecture," of sorts. The June presenter was Scott Wynn, an expert on saws, who brought along a blade as wispy as a feather and another one the size of a surf board. He put on a big-screen presentation that sounded more like a math/physics symposium.
This third-generation woodworker discussed fleam and rake and gullet and curl and chip and teeth and file and anvil and crosscut and ripping and chamfering, covering just about every imaginable facet of the science of the saw-cutting of wood -- from styling the tiniest joint, to felling a giant redwood.
While it was fascinating, it seemed lots of eyes were "lifting skyward," hoping for divine intervention and a bit more understanding of yet another of the endless mysteries of woodworking.
Contact David E. Early at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Want to learn woodworking?
COLLEGES OFFERING COURSES
DeAnza College, Cupertino
Diablo Valley College, Pleasant Hill
Foothill College, Los Altos Hills
Laney College, Oakland.
Mission College, Santa Clara
San Jose City College
SHOP MEMBERSHIP CLUBS
Sawdust Shop, 320 Martin Ave., Santa Clara, 408-992-1004, bayareawoodworkers.org
-- David E. Early, Staff
Bay Area Woodturners Association, Pleasant Hill, www.bayareawoodturners.org
Bay Area Woodworking Association, Foster City, bayareawoodworkers.org
Diablo Woodworkers, Pleasant Hill, diablowoodworkers.com
Northern California Marquetry Club, Morgan Hill, norcalmarquetarians.wordpress.com
South Bay Woodworkers, Saratoga, www.sbww.org
South Valley Wood Workers, Morgan Hill, southvalleywoodworkers.org
-- David E. Early, Staff
Scan this code with a smartphone or go to www.mercurynews.com/home-garden to see more work by members of South Bay Woodworkers, and listings of woodworking clubs and classes.