James Blackledge combines love of woodworking, collecting to build eclectic showcase of art made from scratch|[2/19/05]

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 21, 2005

He’s not a whittler. That’s not making anything. Instead, he makes things, so he’s a woodcarver.

Whatever he is called, James Blackledge loves his hobbies, woodworking, collecting, art. He’s spending his retirement the way he wants to spend it, and every day is something new.

“I learned how to carve from a friend about 35 years ago, but it was just something to do. Now that I’m retired, it’s what I do pretty much every day,” the 62-year-old Blackledge said in his home on Mount Alban Road.

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He retired from construction work about six years ago, and he picked up his knife. It’s like riding a bike, he said, – you never forget how to do it.

From walking sticks to knife holsters to picture frames to old battle swords, Blackledge can carve most anything he sees.

“When I was working, I traveled a lot, so I gave all my stuff to my son. His house burned down, so I had to start collecting,” he said.

And collect he does – old comic books, airplane liquor bottles, spices. Between Blackledge and his companion, Betty Diggs, who collects dolls, brass and random knickknacks, the two have quite a collection.

She even has a collection of tiny doll furniture she built from wood scraps and toothpicks.

Their home is full of trinkets, all on display somewhere in the house. But soon, there will be no more room, so they’ll just add another room. They’ve done it before – all out of their favorite material, wood.

“We added on this living area about three years ago just to have more room to display everything. The room has a history. The wooden ceiling tiles, windows and the wood for the entertainment center are from Redwood and Bowmar elementary schools, and they date back to 1941. The wooden wall panels came from Jackson International Airport,” said Blackledge.

When working construction, he often got the opportunity to renovate older buildings, and anything that was up for taking, he took.

“It’s better when it has a history,” he said.

Most of the carvings that adorn the walls are made from scratch – some from a basic pattern in books he’s ordered, some carved after looking at similar objects.

One of the first things he experimented with carving was a lock. The lock, made out of wood, actually works.

“That one was pretty primitive, but it worked. I then learned how to make combination locks and screw locks,” he said.

Above the couch hangs a 20-foot long chain attached to a wooden ball and pair of shackles with a lock, all made from a combination of cedar, pine and cypress.

“That one was kind of hard to do, just time-consuming, I guess,” he said.

He’s learned how to make one pattern stretch into many different styles, and once he gets the hang of it, he sometimes doesn’t even need the pattern.

“Betty and I work together on projects now most of the time. She wasn’t all that into woodcarving until she met me about six years ago,” he said.

Together the two make a team. He cuts and carves the majority of the bigger items, and she works on the intricate details.

“It takes some patience, but I love it. It’s the only thing that keeps me sitting still,” Diggs said.

Of the hundreds of creations in their home, Blackledge finds it hard to part with any of them.

“She goes to flea markets to sell stuff sometimes, but I don’t. Anything I make, Betty makes me make two of them. She wants one of everything,” he said.

Blackledge and Diggs also have a nice collection of wood to choose from when starting on new projects. Some was given by friends, some they’ve picked up along roads and some they’ve just stashed over the years.

It’s all stored behind their house and in their workshop. The workshop, filled with tools such as a drill press, an air compressor, a band saw, a table saw, a chop saw, a belt sander and a jointer, is where Blackledge spends most of his time.

Lining the walls are stacks of old wood stumps, piles of walking sticks not yet cured – he cures each stick for a year beneath the guest bed before it’s ready – and boxes of deer antlers from friends who hunt.

“The antlers make great details. We use them as handles for our cabinets and drawers, and you’d be surprised, but these antlers make beautiful candelabras,” he said.

Also inside the workshop is a dart board, just to kill time when he’s thinking, and an old wood-burning stove for the colder months.

“It’s cozy. I have everything I need,” he said.

Blackledge said most of his days are spent in the workshop, just piddling, and most of his evenings are spent in the living area they added.

“This is a great way to spend every day,” he said.

Diggs is also retired and volunteers a few days a week at the Salvation Army thrift store, where she finds many of the collectibles.

“I buy the stuff that doesn’t sell. An old leather vest that’s stained, I buy and we strip it to make leather to add to our carvings. You can make a lot out of almost nothing,” she said.

Each and every one of their belongings, whether carved themselves or collected along the way, has its own place.

“Believe it or not, we both know when something is moved or rearranged. I know exactly what’s missing,” said Diggs.

Cleaning all the stuff? Diggs does most of it, but she doesn’t mind. Even for the drudgery, she has a system.

“I usually take everything down and dust the wood, then run all the brass in the dishwasher. That’s all I use my dishwasher for. Just for my stuff,” she said.

“It may be junky,” Blackledge said, “but it’s our stuff, and we love it. I guess it’s just what we like. It makes our home.”