Carving a niche into tree trunks

  • Article by: JOY PETERSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 8, 2009 - 11:11 AM

Woodworker Virgil Leih of Edina turned a lifelong passion into an art form like no other.

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Edina artist Virgil Leih shaped a tree trunk on his massive wood lathe. “My deal is all one piece, always tree trunk and there’s nothing glued up,” he said.

Photo: David Brewster, Star Tribune

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Virgil Leih visits a tree graveyard each week to find something that he might be able to work. His prize isn't the 2,000-pound stump he brings back to his Bloomington shop. Instead, it's the piece of art he creates from within.

The lifelong woodworker began log-turning five years ago -- a process by which he takes discarded tree trunks and turns them into pieces of art. Though some artists use chain saws to carve out a shape, Leih use a chain saw to smooth the outside and inside of a log to make a piece of art. And through research with fellow artists, he believes he's the only person who works this way.

"My deal is all one piece, always tree trunk and there's nothing glued up."

The Edina resident will premiere 20 pieces at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in the "Spring Trunk Show: Art of the Tree" exhibit running Friday to May 4. The artwork will be for sale, ranging from $4,000 to $8,000.

Though he's been working on his technique for five years, Leih said, "I was not interested in showing until I thought that this was about as good as I could do."

Steeped in experience

Growing up in a carpentry family, Leih said he was cutting wood on an open saw at the age of 8. He continued working with wood during his 20s in a California door-making shop with German woodworkers. However, his most recent project, a cabin in Ely, Minn., inspired his current works of art.

Through working 80-foot logs into smooth matching pieces to build the cabin, he said, "I really was taken with the beauty of these things."

"This is just an extension of being able still to work full logs, full tree trunks," he said.

The process is meticulous. It takes more than 120 hours per piece and involves transporting 2,000-pound tree trunks, sawing, turning, carving inside and out, sanding, drying, sanding some more, then finishing the pieces.

For turning the wood, Leih said he needed something large to carry the weight and length of a massive tree trunk. He said he looked everywhere for a lathe big enough, and when he found a 1917 Oliver lathe in Massachusetts, the rest was history.

"When I saw this advertised, I bought it sight unseen over the phone. I said, 'Do not sell this to anyone,' and, 'I'm wiring you money.'"

He hauled the nearly 8,000-pound machine, which was once used to make pattern molds for Navy ship driveshafts, back to his shop. "This is not made to make vases," he joked.

The lathe cost more than $10,000, but he said he considers it a small price to pay.

"There were hundreds of men who have worked on this lathe, so it's kind of a privilege, you know, to be an extension of this thing," he said.

Drying out

After carving the wood into particular shapes, Leih said he knew the wood needed to dry completely or it would crack. He invested $20,000 in a custom-made kiln, only to find it didn't work.

"I wasted 18 months of my life to make it work."

Leih enlisted the help of his friend of more than 30 years, Dale Bowman, to come up with a solution for drying his pieces.

After using a kitchen microwave oven to dry smaller pieces of wood, Leih and Bowman decided to make a microwave big enough for the pieces.

Bowman, a retired Honeywell temperature control manager, said they had experimented by making a microwave out of an emptied out washing machine, which worked. However, Leih needed something larger.

Though they designed it together, complete with three microwave tubes and a makeshift control panel, Bowman said Leih researched how to build the contraption from scratch.

It's in Leih's character to finish what he starts, Bowman said.

"If he has an idea, he's going to drive to a point of getting it done one way or another. I don't know that I've ever seen him start something that he's not completed or failed at," he said.

The final design is a 128-cubic-foot microwave oven that pulls the remaining water out of the wood in one to three weeks.

"There's not anything that I cannot dry," Leih said.

It's all about the finish

For finishing, Leih contacted a man he calls the "guru of wood finish," Mitch Kohanek.

Originally trained at the Smithsonian Conservation and Analytical Laboratory, Kohanek has been teaching wood finishing at Dakota County Technical College in Rosemount for 31 years.

Kohanek said he was intrigued by Leih's ideas and wanted the pieces to have the best finish.

"To complement his pieces, I was more than happy to sit down with him and discuss what some of his options were. And shellac, for what he's doing, there's just no more beautiful finish," he said.

This final step takes 10 coats of shellac and 20 days to finish the procedure.

Leih said he hopes to continue improving his pieces for the next 10 to 15 years, but for now he's looking forward to his April show.

Joy Petersen is a University of Minnesota journalism student on assignment for the Star Tribune.

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    Wednesday April 8, 2009

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  • SPRING TRUNK SHOW: ART OF THE TREE

    When: Virgil Leih's exhibit runs Friday through May 4; "Meet the Artist" days are April 19 and April 26, from 1 to 3 p.m. • Where: Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, 3675 Arboretum Dr., Chaska • Info: For more information and to see Leih's pieces, go to virgiltreeart.com.

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