From bowls to butterfly houses and from bird houses to letter openers, Artisan Kirk McCauley makes an assortment of handcrafted products out of wood from Monticello. McCauley highlights the inherent qualities of the wood in each item he makes and frequently experiments with a variety of different forms.
His experience working with wood from the Monticello Tulip Poplar trees, long thought to be “originals” from Jefferson’s time that were recently taken down due to their increasing structural instability, has been a remarkably positive one. According to McCauley if the “history alone” isn’t enough to impact you, the beautiful colors of the tulip poplars should do the trick.
“The colors are not normal for Tulip Poplar,” McCauley remarks, “but the wood is so old and there was so much metal added from trying to stabilize the trees that purples and blacks were added to the wood.” This sentiment, that both age and preservation efforts have colored the Monticello Tulip Poplar wood unique, is shared by all who have worked with it, including bowl turner Fred Williamson. “There’s a real sense of connection with the tree,” Williamson says, “The wood was remarkable to work with, much harder than any poplar I’d experienced before, and with an immediate sense of age to it.”
McCauley uses a number of different processes, mixtures of carving and turning, when working with the Monticello Tulip Poplar.
“One of the most interesting pieces I’ve worked on is the chess set,” McCauley notes. The sets are painstaking crafted with hand tools making each piece one of a kind. “The process takes a really long time, but the end results make it worth it” he adds. His craftsmanship and experimentation have landed one of the sets on display in the World Chess Hall of Fame.
Thomas Jefferson, an avid chess player, would probably have appreciated McCauley’s efforts. Jefferson’s granddaughter, Ellen Wayles Coolidge described Jefferson’s chess abilities as follows, “he was, in his youth, a very good chess-player. There were not among his associates, many who could get the better of him. I have heard him speak of ‘four hour games’ with Mr. Madison.” On several occasions Jefferson sent chess sets to friends he held in high esteem and in 1771 he wrote, “we shoud talk over the lessons of the day, or lose them in Musick, Chess, or the merriments of our family companions. The heart thus lightened, our pillows would be soft, and health and long life would attend the happy scene.”
For more information on the history of the Monticello Tulip Poplars and gifts crafted from Monticello wood, visit the Shop’s Handcrafted Gifts section. For more history and quotations about Jefferson and chess check out the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia.