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Dan Batwinas - Wood Artistry
by Carol N. Wells

Dan Batwinas’ wood furniture may be based on classic standards, but his designs incorporate a unique beauty and elegance all their own.

Dan claims he wasn’t 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 Dan’s 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.

Rock 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, Kerry.

“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.

With the cost of tools and the amount of time needed with each piece, it’s certainly a labor of love and still only pays a modest wage. “If I billed my clients by ‘auto-shop’ standards, I’d 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 Woodshop’s 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.

However, 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 sandpaper.

Although Dan works with a variety of woods, the beautiful color differentiation uniquely characteristic of Dan’s 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 off.

Dan’s 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 Rick’s Glass Building. Dan still does his work in that shop. The gallery has moved to the Eddie McStiff’s plaza.

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 Dan’s 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.

Since all of Dan’s 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 doesn’t 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 don’t 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 customer’s 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 McStiff’s Plaza. And if you’re 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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