ARTIST OF THE MONTH -
Dan Batwinas - Wood Artistry
by Carol N. Wells
Batwinas wood furniture may be based on classic standards, but his
designs incorporate a unique beauty and elegance all their own.
Dan claims he wasnt much of a shop kid in high school,
but he had a friend who was, and just after high school Dan and his buddy,
Pete, built batches of furniture to sell at garage sales and to friends.
Their parents always bought what was left. The proceeds of these sales
were used to finance trips out west. So began the seed of Dans passion,
until it came into full bloom at El Carpintero gallery in Moab, Utah.
Dan took a hiatus from woodworking, although he enjoyed it, he confessed
that his other passion in life was rock climbing, and he spent most of
his time working as a bow-tie waiter to allow him the time
and the finances to be able to engage in this challenging sport.
climbing was also the reason that Dan came to Moab about 6 years ago.
But Dan no longer has time for rock climbing since he started Dan Batwinas
and Sons; New Covenant Woodshop with the help and support of his wife,
I got tired of waiting tables, says Dan, Finally, one
day I just decided to transform the garage as my shop and go full time
with my own woodworking business.
But it was a grim beginning for Dan. Armed with a cheap radial arm saw,
a drill press and a 4 inch portable joiner, the business paid like a hobby
in the early years. The cost of new tools, and the head scratching that
goes with the self taught learning process can eat up a lot of money.
New Covenant Woodshop has recently added a new shaper and a wide belt
sander to help with their custom door business.
the cost of tools and the amount of time needed with each piece, its
certainly a labor of love and still only pays a modest wage. If
I billed my clients by auto-shop standards, Id price
myself right out of business, admits Dan.
Dan works with oak, alder, cherry and other domestic hardwoods, but his
first love is the aspen, and wonderfully rich, beetle killed Ponderosa
pine cut from the La Sal mountains. The Batwinas family and friends cut
and collect the aspen. They leave the milling of the Ponderosa pine to
Timber Products mill in La Sal, Utah. A great relationship with the mill
has been critical to the Woodshops success.
Even though the wood is cut from standing dead trees, it is not dry. Giving
the wood drying time after it is cut keeps it from continuing to shrink.
A 4 inch thick slab can take up to a year to dry, and for other pieces,
depending on the thickness, about 6 months. But in Moab, the biggest challenge
is slowing down the drying process. It is especially important with the
thick slabs Dan likes to use for desk tops and benches. Although a 4 inch
slab could be dried in a week if it were set in a hot June parking lot,
it would end up a splintered pretzel. Better to take a year, allowing
it to dry in a cool shop.
as Dan pointed out, Wood is always a living thing. It contracts
and expands with heat, cold, and humidity. Everything I build accommodates
for that expansion and contraction. No matter how much you dry the wood,
you have to build each piece so that it can accommodate being at the mercy
of the final environment; and that usually looks like swamp coolers and
air conditioning in the summer and dry heat in the winter. Dan slows
down the drying process by keeping the wood inside his shop with the swamp
cooler running during the summer.
Sanding the slabs smooth in preparation for the actual construction of
the final piece, is another process that is time consuming, and varies
with different types of wood. For instance, Aspen trees dry in the round
without any particular care, whereas most other woods will not. Aspen
is also stringy, in that sandpaper cannot cut the fibers because
they tend to bend over, always leaving a fuzzy surface; unlike alder,
which sands very well. Old growth pine must be wet sanded with mineral
spirits to dissolve the pitch, keeping the pine tar from plugging the
Dan works with a variety of woods, the beautiful color differentiation
uniquely characteristic of Dans work is from beetle-kill
Ponderosa pine. The wild greys, blacks, browns, and golds found in the
wood come from a mold that travels through the sapwood in the tree. The
inner core of a large tree is retired and cut off from the water flow.
It remains a rich golden color that darkens with age.
Combining the contrasting colors in the furniture pieces that Dan builds,
gives each piece that distinctive quality rather than a manufactured look,
since each piece is one-of-a-kind. Dan mainly uses the butts or bottom
ends of trees, since there are less knots, and knots are always great
for decoration but not when you need weight bearing pieces such as chair
and table legs, for example, and with smaller boards large knots are cut
Dans designs are not only eye appealing, but the smooth finish makes
you want to touch them as well; and I just had a particular desire to
open the drawers of one of the chests in the gallery because I had a feeling
it would move as smoothly as the look of the finish. It was much more
than I expected; and to my delight it glided as on air; as if there were
no frictional parts. Dan credits his learning of moving parts to his friend
and colleague, Dave Howarth, who also supported Dan in his efforts by
loaning tools and keeping an eye out for certain pieces of wood.
Dan learned to build chairs and sharpen tools from his first shop roommate,
Jan Nicholieson, when they first moved into the Ricks Glass Building.
Dan still does his work in that shop. The gallery has moved to the Eddie
For the gallery, Dan usually builds his pieces a little larger, or oversized
because it is easier for people to envision a smaller version of the sample.
Presently, most of Dans work comes from custom pieces. As people
view the furniture in the gallery, it inspires them to want something
of a similar nature, but suited just for their particular needs. Custom
items, of course, meet the customers specs, but Dan still resists having
every detail spelled out.
Dan has a long list of credits to his furniture, including the chairs
and tables at Red Rock Bakery, and he also sells to clients in Colorado
and at Mountain Furniture Outlet in Salt Lake City.
all of Dans furniture has that impeccable quality to it, like perfectly
fitted hand cut dovetails at the corners of a linen chest, I asked Dan
how he comes up with his designs, and what happens if and when something
doesnt work out....
I think most of it comes down to serendipitous blundering, that
makes it all come out. I never build a scale model, nor do I draw proportional
sketches. I take some wild guesses and it comes out. But if I dont
happen to like one of the designs, I just recycle it and turn it into
something else. Customers often have great ideas. For instance, I did
some work for a couple, who were both really tall and wanted to replace
their bathroom vanity with a custom piece to fit their height. When they
told me it worked for them, I built my own taller version, and it feels
and works so much better than bending over the sink at the usual level.
Dan says some of the most popular designs he has originated from customers
sketches. He has built half a dozen beds just like one sketched out by
a couple from Montana.
Dan is a self-taught artist who has come into his own with his designs
and quality of work, and is one of the unique artistic assets to Moab.
Be sure to drop by the gallery during the artwalk, to see his work and
that of other artists which the Batwinas carry. Join them for the
artwalk, Saturday, June 9th from 6-9 pm at 59 South Main Suite #7 in the
McStiffs Plaza. And if youre thinking about a custom piece
or just want to check it out, gallery hours are 10 am till
10 pm 7 days a week, or call 259-0248.
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