Editor’s note: As Americans this month rush the big-box stores and Amazon to check off their Christmas lists, the Tribune-Herald is taking a look at locals who make things the slow way. Starting today, we will profile local artisans and “makers,” and explore what motivates them, how they make a living and what they contribute to the growing local craft scene.
Mark Borman is explaining the appeal of making things for oneself as his coping saw bites into a corner of a board to be used inside a drawer.
Borman, a veteran woodworker at Homestead Heritage’s craft village, said he encourages would-be makers to go for it, without worrying about perfection.
“It’s the satisfaction of doing something,” he said. “You make a Christmas present or an anniversary gift, something you made has so much more meaning. Even if it has a gash or a splinter, when people see it’s handmade, they’ll love it.”
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In the middle of this ode to amateurism, his blade follows the diagonal pencil line precisely, angles inward and makes an increasingly lower sound, like the barking of a sheepdog, letting him know he is approaching a stop cut. In the next few minutes, he punches more little trapezoids out of two board ends and snaps them together at a snug 90-degree angle.
It is a basic dovetail joint that might take a beginner a couple of hours to learn. After he has done it about 14,000 times, Borman makes it look easy — no gashes or splinters here.
Artisans such as Borman have helped make Homestead Heritage a beacon of the craft scene in the Waco area for 30 years.
The agrarian Christian community has 1,200 adherents, many who live on and around the community’s farm near Gholson. About 150 are involved in producing artisan products.
The community has been known locally for a quarter of the century for traditional agriculture and an ever-growing array of finely crafted artisan goods: furniture, pottery, soaps, metalwork, leather, textiles, cheese and other foods, many of them offered in a craft village on the farm.
The popularity of those offerings has exploded over the last few years, said craft village manager Josiah Wheeler, and he sees two reasons.
The first one is counterintuitive: the rise of smartphones and other personal technology. Wheeler said the virtual world has created a hunger for the real one.
“Since the iPhone in 2007 we have seen a perfect parallel … in the growth of people interested in getting their hands on something,” he said. “I can pull out my phone and see all kinds of things, but that’s just inside the phone. If I can get my hands on a piece of wood with a spoke shave and see that wood curl off, there’s something built in the human DNA that wants to see that immediate response to what your hand is doing.”
The second reason is more obvious but related the first, Wheeler said. Since 2015, when “Fixer Upper” stars Chip and Joanna Gaines turned a pair of rusty downtown cottonseed silos into a national lifestyle destination called Magnolia Market, the tourism flood spilled over to Homestead, about 8 miles away.
Nearly 200,000 people visited Homestead last year, overlapping with Magnolia crowds that in recent years have topped 1 million annually.
“Of the kind of people who are attracted to Chip and Joanna’s show, a big percentage of those appear to be very interested in craft and traditional lifestyle,” Wheeler said. “I think Waco is definitely becoming known for that.
“When we started the pottery woodworking shops (in the mid-1990s) we were the only ones in town doing any of that. Now there are quite a few others, and we don’t view them as competition. It really is creating a hub of craft here.”
Homestead has responded to the demand by expanding its formal classes, which include sessions on how to turn a log into a dining room chair. It has also opened up all the craft workshops for more casual hands-on experiences such as making a pinch pot, spinning wool or carving wood.
“On any given Saturday, we’ll have several hundred people out here, and I’d say 25% to 30% are doing hands-on activities,” Wheeler said.
In the coming year Homestead-related businesses are planning establish a beachhead in downtown to offer the same opportunities to Magnolia Market shoppers.
A venture called Heritage on Webster is planning to reassemble an antique barn at 823 Webster Ave. that will serve as a café and workshop where the public can learn from master artisans.
Wheeler said he hopes the Webster project can expand the visibility of Homestead and the Waco artisan scene as a whole.
“That is part of what we hope to do with the Webster project, not only to try to catch that wave but to move it forward for what we like to refer to as ‘makers,’” he said.
“We want to push that scene and make Waco to be known as a hub for that.”
Homestead’s orbit has overlapped many times in recent years with Magnolia’s. Its craftspeople have built a pavilion and a reconstructed Victorian church building at the Silos.
Others, such as coppersmith Joe Quiñones, will be featured next year as part of Magnolia’s new TV and online lifestyle network.
Quiñones learned woodworking and blacksmithing growing up in the Homestead community but has taught himself the art of copper work. His Vintage Copper Works workshop is near Interstate 35 in Elm Mott, but he hopes to move to the Homestead village in coming years.
He makes pendant lighting, utensils, coasters and other items out of the versatile metal. This week he spent several days working on his largest pendant light yet, about two feet in diameter, meant for a client in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
He prepared the copper disk for working by annealing them, using a blowtorch to heat them to a certain temperature so the metal becomes malleable when cooled. He shapes and stretches the copper as it turns on a lathe.
He said he gravitated to copper because of its unique properties.
“It’s historically the oldest metal that’s been used by man,” Quiñones said. “It just has a warmth to it. It’s easy to work with but it has its quirks.”
Back at the craft village, other artisans were putting the same time and attention into fiber, ceramics, wood and iron. Craftspeople own the businesses but pay rent to the community.
At the pottery workshop, master potter Hailey Carlson was turning clay into glazed vases and dishes that are popular with Christmas shoppers.
With a few minutes on the wheel, she turned a lump of white clay into a slender vase, using her 19 years of experience to guide her fingers for the right shape and thickness.
But that is just the beginning, she said. Carlson knows the right proportion of her materials — clay, glass and the binding minerals known as flux — that keeps the pots from melting at temperatures of up to 2400 degrees.
She knows the nuances of glazes and how to operate the massive wood-fired kiln that gives certain pieces a distinctive look.
“What wood does is it creates actual flames inside the kiln,” she said. “The atmosphere is oxygen starved, and it pulls oxygen from the pot and glaze and chemically changes them.”
At the textile workshop, Yohannah Klingensmith was putting her nearly 24 years of experience into weaving a length of patterned cotton that would be cut into dishcloths.
To make the patterns, she manipulates a complex set of pedals and pulleys on the loom, and then forms the cloth thread by thread.
The dishcloths and other fabrics made there are not cheap, but Klingensmith said the dishcloths can last 10 or 15 years.
“I actually figured out how much we sell our towels for and what Walmart towels cost, and we’re cheaper than Walmart,” she said with a chuckle.
The same long-term thinking pervades the woodworking shop just across the creek, where artisans routinely make pieces that sell for more than $10,000.
Borman is spending eight weeks turning an old mesquite tree into a dining table that expands to 8 feet long. The combination of a durable wood and careful joinery will ensure it is worthy to be an heirloom passed down over generations, he said.
“The average dining table you get from Ikea is meant to last about seven years,” he said. “I expect these to last two or three hundred years. It’s an investment.
“A lot of our customers will come in and say, ‘We’re buying this piece to hand down, so we need two pieces, one for this child and one for this one.’ Some will buy one and let them fight for who’s going to get it.”
Homestead customers also want the personal touch that comes with handcrafted items, and the mesquite table is an example.
“A lady in Arizona called and said, ‘I’m going to have you make a table on one condition, that you bring it out here,’” Borman said. “She’d never been here. She said, ‘I want to meet the guy who made it, so if you can’t bring it out I’m going to go somewhere else.’”
The time involved in making such pieces makes it difficult to produce them on a large scale. But Wheeler said what Homestead offers is not just products but an experience, and the latest expansions in downtown and the craft village are focused on the latter.
“The truth of the mater is that a lot of our growth both in crafts and experience has been in response to this two-way interaction with us and the local community,” he said.
For the first decade or so after Homestead Heritage moved here from Colorado in 1990, the community was not widely known or understood, Wheeler said. But he said artisanry has been a meaningful way to connect with the community.
“We recognized from the beginning that we’re different from a normal local church, but our desire has always been to be part of the local community and share what we have,” he said.
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