Arts and Entertainment

Woodworking stays alive on Whidbey with Woodpalooza

Gary Leake
Gary Leake's three-legged chair will be on display at Woodpalooza.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Gary Leake

BAYVIEW — It goes against Gary Leake’s grain to think about the demise of woodworking as a craft.

He and the rest of the Whidbey Island Woodworkers Guild are doing their best to make sure it doesn’t happen.

“My grandfather was a cabinetmaker, and he was always concerned he was part of a dying breed,” said Leake, secretary of the guild. “But we’re still going.”

“Our mission is to promote woodworking and the ability to make a living doing it,” he said.

The latest promotional effort by the guild is the Sixth Annual Woodpalooza, a free exhibition by Leake and 16 other craftspeople that runs from Friday, Sept. 4 through Sunday, Sept. 13 at Bayview Corner Open Door Community Gallery, downstairs in the Bayview Cash Store.

“We’re all making something to put on the table for the world to criticize,” Leake said. “Even though the economy is sideways, we’re looking to expand our exposure off-island and throughout the Pacific Northwest.”

The show will feature a couple of woodturners, four woodcarvers including chainsaw artist Pat McVay of Clinton, musical recorder maker Jim Bartram of Coupeville and a crafter of Japanese wooden lunch boxes.

“The rest of us pretty much make furniture in one fashion or another,” Leake said.

Cabinetmaker Robert Bennett of Clinton has participated in every Woodpalooza. This year he will display a unique wall cabinet and a cherry wood table.

“It’s a way to show my work on South Whidbey,” said Bennett, 57, who took up cabinetmaking on the island full-time about

13 years ago.

“You don’t get many opportunities to do that,” he added. “Most of us are tucked away in the woods.”

“It’s a pretty significant thing,” Leake said of the show. “Trying to line up woodworkers is like trying to round up farmers, or clouds.”

Leake said the guild was formed about nine years ago as a networking tool to advance the cause of custom woodworking.

“We’re all in little one- and two-person shops, and never get a chance to get out and see what’s going on,” he said.

Leake said the guild has about 140 members, all but one full-time on the island.

Current president, Rob Hetler of Greenbank, will also show at Woodpalooza.

Leake said about 40 guild members make a full-time living at their crafts.

He said the goals of Woodpalooza are to “get the word out that woodworking is alive on Whidbey,” to convince people to shop locally and to ramp up interest in woodworking in general and the guild in particular.

A sale or two would be nice, too, he added.

“When you make something for the show a year ahead of time, you hope to sell it,” Leake said.

Leake, 53, who lives and works just south of Coupeville, said he will display an unusual three-legged chair and a table this year.

He was an engineer by trade until taking up cabinetmaking full-time about nine years ago.

He’s a third-generation cabinetmaker who has been working with wood since he was 5.

“I’ve always had a keen interest in making things,” he said.

Leake holds out hope for the future of handmade wood products, noting among other things that high schools are beginning to revive classes in woodworking.

Bennett is more cautious.

“It’s really tough to tell what will happen,” he said. “There’s so much material out there for sale that isn’t handmade, that has no individualism or thought to it.

“It’s difficult to compete,” he continued. “You have to attract people who know what they’re getting. The biggest problem is communicating that.”

Other craftspeople participating in the show, besides Bennett, Bartram, Hetler, Leake and McVay, are Joseph Albert III, Thomas Fisher, David Gray, Robert Johnson, Bruce Launer, Jon Magill, David Oddo, Christopher Pope, Bruce Schwager, Christine Schwager, John Shinneman and Jim Short.

For details, call Hetler at 222-3121 or e-mail him at

Leake can be reached at 360-678-1347 or

For more about the guild and the show, click here.

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