Denny Carson finds beauty in exotic burl wood. Joe Strain finds it in kangaroo leather. Both local craftsmen get a chance to display their artistry in upcoming episodes of the television show “Handcrafted America.”
The show, hosted by Jill Wagner, profiles American artisans who craft pieces of functional art, the old-fashioned way – by hand.
In an email interview Wagner said her time in the Spokane area meant she got to visit her husband’s old stomping grounds.
“My husband used to play hockey here and always told me about how beautiful the area was – he was right! I loved it!”
(She and David Lemanowicz, a former Spokane Chiefs goaltender and Florida Panthers draft pick, married earlier this year.)
She got to experience the majesty of the Spokane River up-close while taping the segment with Carson.
Eight years ago, the Greenacres resident launched Bitterroot Nets after he found a way to combine his twin passions of woodworking and fly fishing.
He grew up in Tacoma and in 2005 he moved to Eastern Washington to open the Woodcraft store in Spokane Valley with his parents.
“I really liked shop class in high school,” he said. “I’ve had a table saw since I was 20.”
Carson also loves fly fishing. When the Woodcraft store hosted a class on wood lamination, he was inspired to try something he’d long aspired to.
“I’ve always wanted to make my own fishing net,” he said.
And he knew just where he wanted to start – with a burl wood handle.
“It’s stunning,” he said describing burl, the wood from the knotty growth of tree trunks.
Highlighting the splendor of the wood, Carson adds to it by inlaying the burl handles with crushed turquoise or malachite. The inlays are placed into the burl’s natural inclusions. He also offers custom engraving to personalize his one-of-a-kind creations.
Wagner said she was impressed with the sheer beauty his nets.
“I wanted to hang it on my wall, not fish with it!”
Carson said she’s not alone.
“I know most of my nets are sold as gifts and are hanging on people’s walls, but these are made for use,” he said.
The handles are stabilized with acrylic making them waterproof and durable, and the net is made of silicone rubber.
“It’s gentle on the fish and allows for safer catch and release,” he said.
In addition, he created an Integrated Magnetic Carry system. Extra laminations are applied to the top of the bow to house a magnet assembly. Using a wood lathe, a small hardwood barrel is turned to house the other magnet in the system. The system attaches to a vest or pack with an aluminum carabiner.
“You can carry your net, handle down, so you can just reach behind and grab it and you’re ready to cast,” said Carson.
His nets are available online at BitterrootNets.com and at Orvis Northwest Outfitters in Coeur d’Alene and Northwest Classic Tackle in Hayden.
While Carson usually fishes the St. Joe or the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River, after demonstrating his net-making process, he took Wagner to the Spokane River
“I loved putting on the waders and going out to test the nets,” she said.
Carson had fun filming “Handcrafted America,” but he said, “A day on the river with my kids is about as cool as it gets.”
However, Joe Strain might have upped the cool ante.
For a number of years, the Otis Orchard resident made all the whips in the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular show at Walt Disney World in Florida. In addition, his whips have been used in movies such as “The Legend of Zorro,” “Shanghai Noon” and “The Lone Ranger” (2013).
“I grew up watching Disney’s ‘Zorro,’ ” he said. “I found the whip really mysterious and wondered what it looked like up close.”
As a homeschooled kid, raised in the Rathdrum Mountains, Strain had ample time to investigate his interests.
“While other kids were riding motorcycles, I was riding horses in the mountains.”
He was also spending time at the local library where he found a book about whip-making.
At 13, he borrowed $50 from his mom and bought a piece of leather from Tandy Leather in Spokane.
His first whip sold for $75 at a gift shop at the Coeur d’Alene Resort, and he’s been making whips ever since.
The appeal was simple.
“I didn’t need to invest hundreds of dollars in tools,” he said. “All I needed was a sharp knife and a lacing fid to tie the knot.”
He met whipmaker David Morgan in Seattle and studied Morgan’s book “Whips and Whipmaking.”
Strain quickly discovered the best whips are made from kangaroo leather.
“It’s very lightweight and durable,” he said. “It’s also more expensive than the finest grade of cowhide.”
But it was the art of the braid that captivated him.
“It was a dying art,” he recalled. “No one was doing it.”
His 24-plait bullwhip made for the 2010 World Leather Debut in Sheridan, Wyoming, won first place in the braided leather category.
“It’s a fundamental technique,” he said. “There’s one right way and a thousand wrong ways.”
Wagner marveled at Strain’s mastery of the technique.
“The fact that he can braid so many pieces of leather (12) at once is amazing given the fact that I have a hard time braiding three!” she said.
Like Carson’s nets, Strain’s whips are works of art that are meant to be used. He crafts bullwhips and stockwhips as well as custom-made whips – and Wagner learned crack-the-whip isn’t just a childhood game.
Competitive whip cracking is hugely popular in Australia, but is gaining an American following thanks to demonstrations at gun and outdoor shows.
Wagner said she discovered it’s not as easy as it may appear. During the filming she gave it a try along with Strain’s son, Joe Jr., 12, who’s been perfecting his technique.
“I wound up whipping the back of my leg!” she said.
For 25 years, Strain made whips full time, but now he works as a UPS driver and whipmaking is reserved for evenings and weekends. The craft still fascinates him.
“There’s always something new to learn,” he said.
His whips are available online through his business, Northern Whip Co., at www.northernwhipco.com.
As for Wagner, she said what she enjoys most about filming “Handcrafted America” is spending time with the talented artisans she interviews.
“They are amazing humble people who teach me so much. I am so lucky to get to hang out with them for the day.”
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