LOUISVILLE — In the midst of the wintry chill, Louisville artisan Dick Scheu hopes his intricate wooden ornaments — snowflakes and symbols of strength and faith — will bring some warmth to the spirit.
Scheu began making Christmas ornaments as gifts for his large extended family, to be able to give everyone something they'd really appreciate. The general reaction was, "Man, these are really neat. You should try to sell them," Scheu says.
Since 1997, he has been doing that through his company, Kentucky Snow, adding one or two designs each year.
Inspiration for these pieces comes from many sources. An ornament called Fire and Ice is an 18-point sunburst reminiscent of artist Dale Chihuly's glass forms. Snowbird, with featherlike rays of Florida black gum and Ohio black walnut wood, is in memory of his mother, who traveled between homes in those states. David's Star, a Star of David with interwoven equilateral triangles of walnut and maple, is in memory of a neighbor's son who died in a motorcycle crash.
Scheu also gets creative about sourcing wood. Shopping at T.J. Maxx with his wife, Lynn, he picked up bamboo kitchen cutting boards that were marked down because of breakage; they were reused in pieces like Beautiful Dreamer, an Ojibwa-inspired dreamcatcher-style ornament. He uses wood from white oak barrels where bourbon was aged in Moonshine, and repurposed mahogany from old church doors in this year's new Baptismal Cross.
Although the finished pieces appear uncluttered and not overly detailed at first glance, closer examination reveals the amount of planning, precision and patience Scheu puts into each one. Kaleidoscope, for instance, is a mosaic of 96 pieces, and Snowbird comprises 102. He aligns the grain of the wood perfectly to enhance the design of each symmetrical ray in the hexagonal snowflakes and along each axis of the crosses.
Scheu cuts the tiny strips of wood, then painstakingly glues them together a few at a time until he has a complete loglike roll about 4 inches in diameter with the ornament's pattern throughout. He then uses a saw to slice pieces across the face of each roll to create individual ornaments. He finishes them by sanding a few times, usually coating them with a clear finish.
It takes about a month to complete the process, which results in about 80 of one type of ornament. Prices range from $20 to $32.
Scheu has used not only inlay but other woodworking techniques, including the steam bending required to create Christian Fish, depicting an early Christian symbol. He also has designed a snowflake-embellished jewel box and a triangular wood display stand that would accommodate many of the ornaments.
Scheu has been working with wood since his father introduced him to the craft as a boy. Throughout his life, be it customizing his own car interiors with wood fittings or creating home and boat accessories for officers during his time in the Navy, he kept honing his skills.
Scheu is an award- winning, juried member of the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen and a participant in the Kentucky Crafted program, Ohio Designer Craftsmen, and the KYANA Woodcrafters Club among others.
After Scheu retired from a partnership that did tax work on unemployment claims, his basement workshop really got busy. The floor is stacked with lumber; ceiling joists and pipes are hung with hundreds of C-clamps; benches are piled high with different colors of duct tape; power sanders are fitted with various grades of sandpaper.
Scheu says it sometimes takes him months to organize a new design and then figure out how to put together his next snowflake idea, but it is work that he says he enjoys.
From the looks of it, that enjoyment extends to the people who buy his ornaments.
To find out more about Dick Scheu's company Kentucky Snow, including an online catalog with stories and photographs of all the ornaments as well as shopping information, go to Kentuckysnow.com.
Susan Smith-Durisek is a master gardener and writer from Lexington. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Blog: Gardening.bloginky.com.