Modern woodworkers’ treasure: A key to the vintage craft guild of Mercer Island

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What’s new in the 67-year-old Mercer Island Craft Guild are some high-tech computer-controlled tools hooked into a power vac, which would have knocked the socks off 1940s guild founders Harry Slater and E.A. McGilvra.

The 1,000-square-foot clubhouse at 2832 61st Ave. S.E. also is getting a new roof, as leaks creep closer to the tools.

However, what’s remarkable about the craft guild is what hasn’t changed.

The guild and its shop are much the same as they were when the 10 founders built the clubhouse on their $50 lot in 1941. Originally, Slater, McGilvra, Ronald Drake, Bill Morrow, Bob Maxwell, Harold Tate, George Teply, V.M. Upper, Bill Walenta and Richard Waiting formed a co-op to share tools to build homes and boats in the earlier developing community.

Today’s shop sports the same two-inch decking on its floors and solid wood beams surplused from Mercer Island’s first bridge; the same wood lockers and the 55-gallon chip-burning barrel - the only heat source for the cabin. Members have no apologies for “zero plumbing.”

The safety rules and by-laws are posted along with reminders to sweep up after yourself, and return tools and brushes to their original places. This keeps the need for business meetings to one each February, accompanied by strong drink.

Fees remain modest. Initiation now costs $100 and annual dues $60, compared to the founders’ original $5 initiation fee and $5 annual dues.

Same pride as well.

“We’re not carpenters,” says Dick Campbell, former president and 30-plus-year member, “we’re craftsmen.” Well, crafts-people, he adds, now that the 55 members include two women. “We’re lucky to have such a well-stocked and maintained shop with precision tools.”

In fact, membership requires signing a waiver that one won’t use the facility for business purposes. It’s all hobbyists who want to have their way with planers, saws, lathe, grinders, buffers, joiners, drill press, router and work spaces to create furniture, home-improvements or other fanciful woodworks.

Campbell adds that the serendipity of this size group is that rarely are there more than two people there at the same time. The guild is open to bringing in a few more members right now. Those interested may phone 232-6916.

Richard Dawson, more recent member, said, “There’s a wide range of skills in the Guild. Don't let the term ‘Guild’ fool you. There’s little that is professional about the majority of us. Regardless of interests or experience, you should find some benefit in being a member.”

Today’s leaders are Rick Tydings, president; Steve Henkel, vice president; Bob Mangino, treasurer; John Shrader, secretary; Ray Novotny and John Strasburger, board members at-large.

They say the guild is unlike any others around. “It’s a non-profit co-op for Mercer Island residents who are interested in woodworking and have the basic knowledge about it and power tools,” says Tydings. “Its members use the facility to make anything from backyard furniture, home cabinets and tables to birdhouses and other small projects.”

Tydings built much of the furniture in his home at the guild-shop, says Campbell.

Yet the real brass ring for those who belong is receiving their own key to the clubhouse, where hours pass without notice, and they leave with something tangible.

To see woodcraft in its finest art form, the Bellevue Arts Museum exhibit Turning Wood into Art runs through May 20: The 120 works by more than 40 artists are a remarkable assemblage of fine turned-wood objects.

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