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Longtime Janesville craftsman makes it look easy

By Marcia Nelesen
The Janesville Gazette

longtime Janesville, Wis. carpenter Don Hess does custom woodwork for Marling Lumber. Hess, 84, fills a local need for skills that few posses anymore. (AP Photo/The Janesville Gazette, Bill Olmsted)

Longtime Janesville carpenter Don Hess does custom woodwork for Marling Lumber in October. Hess, 84, fills a local need for skills that few posses. (AP Photos/The Janesville Gazette, Bill Olmsted)

JANESVILLE, Wis. (AP) — Master woodworker Don Hess doesn’t start a project by choosing a knife or turning on a lathe.

He simply closes his eyes.

“You sit there, with your eyes closed for a while, and you can see it,” the 84-year-old craftsman said.

“If you can’t see it, you can’t make it. That’s how I do most of my work. People think I’m dreaming.

“I’m designing.”

Once Hess figures things out in his head, his practiced hands do the rest. Shapes jump from chunks of wood as if they were always there, just waiting to be.

Hess makes it look easy, The Janesville Gazette reported.

He is employed by Marling Lumber and does custom millwork. Many in the building industry, those who do remodeling, renovating or high-end custom work, wonder where they will turn when Hess finally decides to hang up his saw.

Ron Sutterlin of Sutterlin Restorations works only with Hess and has hired him to replicate the Tallman House’s cupola, conservatory and fence, a few of many projects.

“He’s makes me look good,” Sutterlin said.

Jim Hudson is a Marling salesman in the pricey custom home market between Lake Geneva and Chicago.

“I hope to retire before he does,” Hudson said. “Most people can do 80 percent of what he does. That other 20 percent. I don’t know where we’ll find people to do some of that.”

“He’s a rare bird,” one customer said on a recent morning in Hess’ shop after ordering more than 40 windows.

Whether the builder was referring to Hess’ skill or his colorful character is anyone’s guess.

An order for 26 feet of molding for a home in Courthouse Hill had come in that morning.

“I just like to make stuff,” Hess said simply.

He likes the grain and heft of real wood. He likes precision.

“As long as I’m working with wood, it doesn’t make any difference what I’m doing,” Hess said.

Exchange  Master WoodcarverWhen Hess was 18, the Navy convinced him to see the world. The Navy made a carpenter out of him. He was already trained as a machinist.

After five years, including one during the Korean War, Hess returned to his hometown of Tomah to build cabinets. He married Jean, and the couple now has three children and one grandchild.

The couple moved to Janesville in 1955 when he went to work for Sanford Builders, but Hess eventually grew bored with cookie-cutter homes.

He hung his own shingle, Don Hess Builder, and did restoration and remodeling work for 45 years.

There’s no telling how many older homes Hess has been in, repairing columns, matching spindles or replacing staircases that were removed to create duplexes.

Hess closed his business at age 65 to have knee surgery. When he healed, Hess volunteered to work on the S/V Denis Sullivan, an educational tall ship, in Milwaukee, planing, fitting crossbeams and doing other finish work.

Before long, he was working again, this time at Marling.

“If you don’t have something to do every day, you just waste away,” he said.

Hess’ shop is in the millwork warehouse on River Street in Janesville. The clean smell of fresh-cut wood is in the air, and a lathe, drill press, shapers, planers and chop saws fill the space. Pieces of wood lean against the back wall.

A fine layer of wood dust covers all.

Hess’ blue jeans are worn and torn by hard work, not the intentional distressing that’s popular today. His blue work shirt is soft from many washings.

Hess especially loves replicating complicated decorative pieces. To make a spindle, for example, he recently chose an 8-inch chunk of oak and secured it in a lathe. He set the lathe to spinning. The harder the wood, the faster it must spin.

the delicate shape of a Victorian spindle begins to appear on the lathe of Don Hess, in Janesville, Wis.. Hess, 84, made a career out of doing general building and remodeling and has always been able to supply specialized woodwork to compliment his jobs.

Don Hess shapes a Victorian spindle in Janesville recently. Hess has made a career out of general building and remodeling and has always been able to supply specialized woodwork to compliment his jobs.

Hess’ large fingers are sure in his task. The tip of one is missing, almost a prerequisite injury for those who work for years with machines.

Hess skinned the wood with a practiced blade. A wake of shavings coated his knuckles. The first of many spheres appeared from what was once a rectangle.

“He’s got a way of thinking,” Sutterlin said.

“When you present a problem to him . he has it figured out immediately because he’s done it a million times.”

Suttlerin thought Hess would be stumped when wind demolished a Tallman House finial. One intricate piece — it resembled a bow tie made of wood — was missing.

Hess said, “Oh hell, I’ll have that tomorrow,” Sutterlin recalled.

“I was like, ‘No way.’ The next day, there was one, just perfect.”

If Hess doesn’t have the blade to do the job, he simply grinds one to the shape he needs.

Sutterlin admires Hess not only for his skill but for his endearing personality.

“I enjoy hearing his stories of his younger days, like when he was in his teens and became a cook on the railroad out west,” he said.

“Don, he’s just your favorite uncle, you know?” Sutterlin said. “Your favorite talented uncle.”

Hess has a bit of a reputation for being grumpy, Hudson and Sutterlin acknowledged.

“He gets busy and is a perfectionist,” Hudson said. “But a cake doughnut will go a long way.”

Hudson talked of how Hess fills Hudson’s orders using only dimensions and a picture.

“Somehow, Don makes them work. I’m not sure how,” Hudson said. “He looks at it, and he just knows.”

He always surpasses expectations, Hudson said.

“He’s been such a pleasure to work with. He’s such a fine man.”

If it’s up to Hess, he’ll be in his shop for a long time, unless the fish are biting or it’s deer season.

“I’m not working for the money,” Hess said. “I’m working because I love what I do.”

He pointed to a carpet covered by wood dust.

“Until I drop dead on that rug over there.”

Information from: The Janesville Gazette, http://www.gazetteextra.com

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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