It was a severe injury and a lottery winning that turned Chuck Felten into a master woodworker. And what a craftsman he is. The Felten home is crammed with more than 200 of Chuck’s creations, and his wife Leslie shares his passion, learning from her husband the fine art of intarsia, which is using small wood pieces to create designs.
Chuck started his woodworking craft fulltime in the early 1990s. That’s when he fell while unloading heavy equipment from a flat bed truck. “I slipped on the ice and broke my hip,” he explained. “My doctor told me I would never work again.”
Chuck was in the sheet metal business at the time of his injury, but during his free time, he could always be found tinkering in his workshop. While he was convalescing, he happened across a wood working magazine with plans for a small wooden toy car. “When I saw it I knew I could make it,” he said. “That’s when I really began to get interested in making machinery out of wood.”
Fortuitously, about that time he also won $2,500 in the lottery. “I bought myself a table saw and a planer with that money,” he said. “Those were the tools I needed to really get started.” Leslie was by his side the entire way. She is a medical transcriptionist, and works from home.
Once Chuck started making his creations full time, they began to pile up. “We gave some away but we thought why not try and sell them,” Chuck said. Since Leslie can work from anywhere as long as she has an Internet connection, the couple bought a big camper, loaded up most of Chuck’s creations, including his table saw and planer, and headed to San Benito, Texas, for the winter months. For a few years they hit the craft show circuit, participating in many shows, showcasing and selling Chuck’s work.
Then gas prices spiked and the economy went downhill. “We decided to sell the camper and stay home,” said Leslie. Chuck was once again back in his familiar workshop turning out piece after piece of his craft.
For this industrious and hard working retiree, making wooden machinery is more than just a hobby. It is a passion, but early on it soon became clear the cost of wood was going to put a halt on the entire operation. So Chuck began looking for alternative options in obtaining material for his art. He found a place that was giving away wooden pallets from shipping orders. “You would not believe the kind of wood pallets are made of,” he said. “Some of it is oak, some cherry, some kinds cost six or seven dollars a foot. It works perfect for my kind of work.”
Chuck takes great care when he finds the perfect wood for his creations. He painstakingly takes the pallets apart, and then carefully planes the rough pieces into smooth and luxurious planks. This work brings out surprisingly beautiful hues and designs in the wood, which he matches to the machinery he is going to replicate. None of the wood is ever painted or stained. “It’s all left natural,” he said. “I like to make these pieces with contrasting colors and sometimes the designs in the wood work well when I’m building certain pieces like military machines. ”
Most of the pieces he creates actually work. For instance, on a big excavating machine the bucket swings back and force; on a Blackhawk helicopter the rotors turn and on his big army tank the tracks rotate. In fact, each tiny piece that makes up one section of the track to these tanks (there are several different models) requires five drill holes and three individual pieces of wood.
Most of his creations are made from plans, but some are custom designed too. “I had one guy ask me if I would make a cable installer machine,” he said. “He worked for Frontier.” Chuck will also embellish his creations, such as adding steering wheels, seats and appropriate placed levers and knobs. He doesn’t keep track of the time it takes to build one of his masterpieces, but he does admit that some are very time consuming. “The Blackhawk helicopter took me a month to build,” he said. “And that’s working 40 hours a week.”
In 2001, when 9/11 hit, Chuck and Leslie wanted to thank all the brave emergency personnel that had worked at the scene and even lost their lives, and so Chuck worked painstakingly on a 1933 Ceagrave fire engine with the intent of donating it to the New York fire department that was closest to the twin towers when they were hit. The couple made their way to the firehouse a few years ago and presented Chuck’s fire engine to the crew. “They were really moved by that,” said Leslie. “But you could tell they were still shell shocked. I never saw such old looking eyes in such young men.”
Without traveling to craft fairs, it became clear that once again the Felten household was bursting at the seams with Chuck’s work, and so the couple turned to the Internet to market their art. In the meantime, Leslie also learned the intricate craft of intarsia. This is an unusual woodworking form and uses wood pieces to create a figure similar to a puzzle. The process is time consuming, but Leslie finds it relaxing. However, she has had to put a halt to the hobby for now. “I need really good hearing for my job, and the machinery used to make the wood pieces is really loud,” she said. “I was afraid I would damage my hearing.”
Now, with worldwide exposure through the Internet, Chuck (who is known as the Wisconsin Woodchuck on the Internet) sells his artwork all over the planet including places like Japan, Sweden, Denamrk, Asia, Australia and of course every state in the U.S. “I sell a lot of it to corporations for decorations at their headquarters,” he said. “Lots of retirees buy my stuff and they are also a hit in fancy offices.” In addition, Earl and Margo Morey, owners of the Fireside Restaurant on Cty. K, have some of his work on display.
It’s clear that while Chuck is retired from the sheet metal business, building life-like machinery of every caliber will always keep him busy. “I’ve always been fascinated with big machines,” he said. “I find it a fun challenge to replicate them in wood. And I like that they really amaze people when they see them up close.”
Editor’s note: To see more of Chuck and Leslie’s work, check out their website at wisconsinwoodchuck.com.