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Carving Out A Place In Time

Kip Knight - October 27th, 2005
After breakfast and a few morning chores, Dick Lamphier finds the truck keys and points his silver Ford pickup in the direction of his woodworking studio a few blocks away in Elk Rapids. Upon entering, you see just how busy he is. Lathes, vices, clamps, saws, a drill press, mallets and custom crafted wooden boxes filled with delicate hand tools along with wood in all shapes and sizes, unintentionally decorate the interior of this cedar shake cottage-like garage. On his wall, measuring six feet tall and five feet wide and about six to eight inches thick is his current artistic pursuit. As you study the detail, it seems even bigger.
In the late winter of 2004, Lamphier accepted an offer from Harbor Beach, Michigan to design and carve a large wooden panel of the town’s lighthouse and its adjacent pier and shoreline. When completed, the approximately 250-pound rendition will be displayed in Harbor Beach Community Hospital. It will include the names of donors to the medical communities, the many programs and the hospital itself.
“It all began with a web posting on Michigan Wood Carvers Association in January 2004. I hesitated and didn’t reply right away.” Lamphier admits. “Then, a few weeks past and I sent them my portfolio. In the end, I was selected out of about four other interested carvers.”

Most carvers do so for the artistic release. “Working with wood rests the mind.” Lamphier states with an almost musical tone. In addition to the therapy that holding a mallet and chisel and watching the wood transform provides, this time he will get paid a modest stipend.
Lamphier’s works are incredible. Tables and caricature carvings with detailed hair carved from a single piece of wood seem almost magical. The lighthouse panel’s edges have been delicately trimmed resembling a curled swatch of parchment that has aged well with time. You have to look twice to convince yourself that this is indeed a solid piece of wood. It would seem that to achieve this level of competence, one would need to have dedicated a career around such demands. Not so for Lamphier. For nearly 30 years, Lamphier proudly accepted the duties that come with wearing a badge. His musings provoke anything but restful thoughts.

On a warm summer morning in the late 1970s, Lamphier and one of his law enforcement colleagues, a local DNR officer, were in hot pursuit of a suspected poacher.
“He (the DNR officer) ended up in a high speed chase that took him down a labyrinth of two tracks. Some of the roads were barely wide enough for a truck to fit through.” Lamphier explains. “And at speeds of up to 70 miles per hour, it was a real white knuckle drive.”
After being blinded by the culprit’s spotlight, his partner’s vehicle became snagged in the sand and stump-laden shoulder of the national forest’s maze. Lamphier was left with the task at the other end of nabbing the suspected rustler as he emerged.
“I waited in the dark and when he went by, I pulled across the highway and used a cut-off and block maneuver. It took him completely by surprise.” Lamphier exclaims. This case and several others like it were more the rule than the exception.
Even though his predicament had the volatility of a garage sale bargain pressure cooker, Lamphier took pride in remaining in control of the situation, with his hat sitting perfectly atop his head and his uniform crisp and clean. “It was important for me to demonstrate professionalism and poise despite the fact that it was not always mutually given in return.”

It is this discipline to the details that continues to make Lamphier successful as a carver. He retired from law enforcement in 1979 and made his way to Elk Rapids where he and his wife opened up a real estate business.
“We did this for about 18 years and had notable success” Lamphier remembers. “Then, in 1991, we purchased a large Victorian home and opened up the Lamplight Inn, a bed and breakfast.” And all along, his interest in wood, woodworking and carving grew steadily. Today, instead of a standard issue police revolver, the mic of a radio or the steering wheel of a Ford Crown Victoria, Lamphier prefers to grasp a wooden mallet and a chisel.
One of nine children, Lamphier purchased his first set of carving tools at the age of 13. His interest and desire in working with wood seems as instinctive as his nose for solving the “who-done-its” of the past. By the age of 17, he found himself remodeling the kitchen of his grandmother’s home.
“My approach to that project was purely guided by instinct and feel,” Lamphier remembers. “I had no real formal training but I think I did a real nice job. I really liked how it felt when I finished.”
His love for carving wood came from that first farmhouse project and the trim work that moves a project from completed to breathtaking. Since his move to Elk Rapids, Lamphier has joined a group called the Chain of Lakes Wood Carvers. The wood now being carved for Lamphier’s lighthouse project originated from a fallen basswood tree on the southwest shore of Elk Lake. Lamphier estimated the tree’s age exceding 100 years.

Basswood is by nature a wood carver’s friend. The grain of wood-oak, maple, cherry and the like of which many wood-workers adorn and relish, can pose a constant challenge to the edge of a chisel -- even one that is honed razor sharp -- and to the wooden mallet that converts energy into art. Basswood, one of the softest of all hardwoods, makes for a smooth flow of thought, design and effort. This is due by and large to its nearly indistinguishable grain. This allows for significant detail to be created and easily seen by the viewer.
When Lamphier decides to bring this section of wood back to life, he places the chisel on its mark and selects an angle. Then, the round wooden mallet wrapped in a thin sleeve of rubber is lifted from its place within a rack and gently strikes the chisel’s handle. The wood chips curl and roll into a small circle as it retreats from its life-long hold on the tree. They fall to the floor and join the ranks of hundreds of others of varying shapes, sizes and thickness. The fragrance is aromatic. Something along the lines of a fresh pot of java brewed at 6:00 in the morning on a cold November day. Coffee drinker or not, the sight, sound and smell of an experienced wood worker in action piques the senses and is downright inviting.
In addition to this project, Lamphier opens his workshop doors to teach fellow carvers, novice or experienced, the finer points of the craft. This passion and generosity pretty much keeps his hands working at a steady pace.
Lamphier has a goal of completing his lighthouse carving for Harbor Beach by the end of November. It is comforting to think that a tree that was a mere seedling at the turn of the last century will once again find itself near the shores of open water as the outcome of Lamphier’s carving. And with a bit of luck, perhaps this tree will continue to provide the solace, comfort and pleasure for another generation and another 100 years to all that view her in her new home.

For further information regarding carving workshops, Dick Lamphier can be contacted at 231-264-5630.

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