Dan Johnson and Tony Sealy like a little history behind their carpentry.
The two retired engineers had a chance to work with a unique piece of wood from Hopelands Gardens which they used to build four benches that will later be placed in the well-known park.
A portion of a Deodar cedar tree, located in front of the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum, died in the fall of 2011. This multi-trunk tree has been in the gardens well before it was bequeathed to the City of Aiken in 1970 by Hope Goddard Iselin, and is more than 100 years old. In an effort to preserve the massive cedar, City crews carefully removed the dead wood and performed soil remediation, according to Public Services Director Tim Coakley.
Rather than discard the large piece of cedar, it was decided it would be better to do something constructive with it. The piece that was cut from the tree was big enough for a few benches. City Horticulturist Tom Rapp contacted Johnson and Sealy, who both agreed to help out with the project.
Johnson, who retired from General Electric, picked up woodworking as a hobby at a young age. He spent his childhood days observing his neighbor in New Jersey who was an Italian carpentry apprentice for about 14 years before coming to America. Johnson remembers him working on reproductions of period furniture with leather tops and gold embossing.
Sealy, who retired from Westinghouse, said that when he met Johnson, he knew he would learn a lot from him. Johnson knew the tools of the trade, the difference in the various types of wood and, at times, could even tell what kinds of bugs created certain holes in the timber, Sealy said. The two started working on several projects together such as making a kitchen table and sink bowl out of an oak tree that had been struck by lightening in Union. Johnson also helped Sealy restore an organ cabinet built in 1892 that had been in the family for years.
“Dan has always done that – he’s enjoyed getting a piece of wood with history, that gives it a special meaning, more than just the object itself because of the history behind it,” Sealy said.
Johnson and Sealy put many hours and a lot of hard work into the project. The four benches took about nine months to complete. An electric chain saw, ax, belt sander and other hand tools were put to use to skillfully transform the massive piece of cedar. The bark was stripped, revealing a soft, yellowish-orange wood. The logs were coated with penetrating preservative as well as a wax paint to prevent the wood from cracking. Small copper boots were added to the ends of the legs to prevent them from soaking up moisture from the ground.
After the sawdust settled, the final product was four glossy, smooth benches.
A plaque was also made from leftover wood to go along with the benches. It describes the tree that the wood came from as well as asking those sitting on the benches to try counting the rings that are still visible at the ends of the seats and guessing the tree’s age.
The two wood workers were pleased with the product and hope residents will be, too.
“I feel this is a beautiful, wonderful town and it’s unique,” Johnson said. “I feel this will give people something interesting to look at, and it will last a long time.”
The benches were presented to Aiken City Council at the last meeting in December. Council members and other city staff raved about the outcome of the two woodworkers’ creativity.
The four benches will be placed around the deodar cedar from which the wood came.