Westminster Winter Park woodshop gives residents a creative outlet
From creative carvings to antique furniture repairs, there's always a project happening at the woodshop.
| 5:32 p.m. January 18, 2019
Winter Park - Maitland Observer
There’s something special in the works in the resident woodshop at Westminster Winter Park.
Furniture is repaired and brought back to its original state. Wooden sculptures are carved meticulously with chisels.
It’s a place where ideas are crafted, skills are shaped and old, forgotten treasures are made to look like new.
The woodshop in the Winter Park retirement community always has a project in the works.
JUST LIKE NEW
Ralph Bowdish, 74, has worked with wood most of his life. It started back when he was about 13 years old in the mid to late 1950s.
“I enjoyed it — I did well with it,” Bowdish said.
However, instead of pursuing the woodworking, Bowdish enrolled in college — only to find out it wasn’t for him.
“After a year and a half, they told me I probably shouldn’t be there,” he said, laughing.
Bowdish went back to working with his hands. He became an apprentice to a tool and die maker — where he could create something once again and visualize that final product in his mind’s eye. In 1964, he joined the U.S. Navy, where he served as a deep-sea diver for more than 20 years. But when Bowdish wasn’t underwater, he was working in the woodshop on the ships.
“I just like making things,” Bowdish said.
After finishing his time with the Navy, Bowdish started a rigging house company, which he ran for almost 20 years until his retirement.
When choosing a place to live with his wife, Judy, three-and-a-half years ago, Bowdish knew he wanted to keep busy. That’s when he discovered the woodshop at Westminster Winter Park.
“We visited (Westminster), and it had the best shop, and it had more of everything we wanted,” Bowdish said.
Today, Bowdish serves as the president of the Woodworkers, the group of residents certified to use the equipment in the woodshop. The group was founded in 2007 and today consists of about 17 members. About seven members of the group are especially active and come to the woodshop frequently to create or complete a repair project.
Safety is a priority, Bowdish said. Members are allowed to use pieces of equipment in the woodshop once they become certified through an interview process — also demonstrating and discussing the use of the device in front of a seasoned member, he said.
On Tuesdays though, the woodshop opens its doors for any Westminster resident to bring in something that needs fixing, such as a water damaged antique rosewood table one resident brought in recently.
Bowdish and members of the Woodworkers removed some of the moisture underneath the finish by using heat, filled a crack that had started to appear, rubbed it and smoothed it down without getting into the veneer, and cleaned and waxed the table.
“That’s very gratifying,” Bowdish said. “I like old stuff — anything I can do to improve it without changing it.”
Another project was the tiger maple table that was covered in stains. The members disassembled the table, scraped off the old finish, sanded the pieces down and re-stained the table. Today it looks good as new, Bowdish said.
The efforts of the Woodworkers can be seen throughout Westminster — from the repairs in people’s shoes to the mailbox that sits in the lobby.
It fills Bowdish with a great satisfaction to use the skills he has learned over the years, he said.
“It’s relaxing, and it makes me feel good,” he said. “I got another project I just started the other day. It gives you a purpose, and everybody needs a purpose of one kind or the other. I’m glad to be able to help people. I enjoy it.”
John Demopoulos, 88, remembers the day he first saw the woodshop at Westminster. He was getting a tour of the facility and saw the shop through a window — the lights shut off and the equipment collecting dust.
But it didn’t have to stay that way, Demopoulos said.
Fast-forward about 12 years, and that window is no lined with Demopoulos’ wooden sculptures— a collection of fish swimming together, mallard and more.
The woodshop is now active and alive — thanks to the efforts of Demopoulos and resident Henry Spang, who cleaned up the shop in 2007 and placed several tools that Spang inherited from his father.
“Between the two of us, we started to put the shop back in shape,” Demopoulos said. “It had been used previously, but it’d lain fallow for probably four or five year. Once we got it going, a couple of the older guys showed up and expressed an interest in being able to use the shop.”
Demopoulos, Spang and a group of residents started the Woodworkers group, which has met once a month ever since.
“We just do all kinds of things — it’s a wonderful thing for those of us that are interested in that,” Demopoulos said.
As pieces of equipment and tools made their way into the woodshop through donation, Demopoulos happened upon what would be become one of his greatest hobbies.
“When I moved in here, I was looking for activities to pass my time — I had no previous carving experience other than whittling when I was a youngster,” he said. “When the shop got set up, I found all of these carving tools and chisels and some very nice carving knives and thought, ‘Gee, why don’t I try carving?’”
Since then, Demopoulos has carved numerous creations — with most of them taking the shape of wildlife he sees in photographs or creates in drawings. At least a dozen or so carvings sit on display in his home at the retirement community, but he has given away about twice that many.
“You’re producing something and you wind up with a result that’s permanent that you can enjoy seeing,” he said.
Demopoulos hadn’t given art a try until he arrived at Westminster. The career insurance salesman for 45 years now sells pieces of art occasionally to residents and visitors at the retirement community.
“I suppose I have a knack for it — I haven’t had any particular training,” Demopoulos said.
Every year for almost a decade, Demopoulos carves something for his granddaughter, Lesley, as a birthday gift. He’s made her birds in the past, but most recently, he undertook a project to carve the image of Artemis, the Greek goddess of wild animals and the wilderness. The figure wielding her bow and arrow to protect the animals represents his granddaughter’s latest interest in veterinary medicine, Demopoulos said.
The carver at Westminster said he is grateful for the woodshop and all of the activities the retirement community gives its residents.