Woodworking Hobby Supports Charity; Biking Around Plains
By DOUGLAS A. BLACKMONFebruary 9, 2008; Page A1
PLAINS, Ga. -- Several hundred people are expected tonight at a resort in south Florida to attend the auction of a six-foot-long wooden bench, handcrafted from two thick pieces of maple in a small workshop here.
The bench should fetch a six-figure sum, thanks to the name of its maker burned into the seat: Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States and winner of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize.
A look inside in Jimmy Carter's wood shop.
In the 27 years since Mr. Carter lost the White House to Ronald Reagan, he has been the most active ex-president in modern history. He travels the world on behalf of the Carter Center, a nonprofit organization he and his wife, Rosalynn, founded in 1982. He has participated in peace negotiations, monitored elections and spearheaded public-health initiatives around the world. He has written 25 books, many of them best sellers, some of them controversial. His 2006 book "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid" stirred bitter controversy for its criticism of Israel, and led some Jewish leaders to resign from a Carter Center advisory panel.
Mr. Carter is less well-known for the wood shop in his garage. There, in a refuge of saws, planes, chisels, drill presses and lathes, he has made dozens of chairs, tables, beds, chests and cases for his family, friends, and -- once a year -- for the Carter Center's annual fund-raiser.
"It's like taking a vacation," Mr. Carter said in a recent interview, describing the time he spends in his workshop as a break from writing in his den. "You're immersed in a paragraph or sentence or definitions of words, or studying about the Middle East or worrying about the future of America -- things like that -- and all of a sudden you walk out 20 steps, and there you are in a different environment completely."
Mr. Carter first auctioned off furniture in 1983, three years after he lost his bid for re-election to Mr. Reagan. He offered four handmade hickory chairs for sale by Sotheby's to help fund the fledgling Carter Center. Early Carter pieces, including a wooden pitchfork, sold for $50,000 or less. With the passing years, they have attracted higher bids. A bookcase sold for $200,000 in 2000. A four-poster bed in 2002 fetched $250,000. Two years ago, a cabinet crafted from a huge, century-old piece of persimmon wood sold for $1 million. In 2007, the winning bidder paid $320,000 for a cradle -- the only one of four made by the former president that isn't in the hands of a Carter family member.
This maple bench made by former President Jimmy Carter could fetch more than $100,000.
Altogether, the annual auctions have raised more than $10 million. Tonight's bidders can also participate by phone or online.
These days the Carter Center is grappling gingerly with the issue of mortality. Mr. Carter is 83 and his wife is 80. Both are in excellent health, he says. Last month, he spryly led a tour of his workshop and the house the couple built in 1961. He still occasionally rides his bike through tiny downtown Plains, closely watched by the Secret Service.
But recognizing the inevitable, the Carters have been gradually withdrawing from the daily management of the organization that bears their name. Currently, the center employs 160 people at its Atlanta headquarters and operates on a budget of about $90 million, nearly all of which comes from private donations. Three years ago, Mr. and Mrs. Carter relinquished the titles of chairman and vice chairman of the center -- though they retain permanent seats on the board.
"We have tried to ensure that the center will go on in the distant future," Mr. Carter says. A key step has been an aggressive effort to build an endowment in recent years -- now totaling about $400 million.
In health care, the nonprofit has focused on attacking scourges of the developing world. The Carter Center has led an international effort responsible for the near eradication of the guinea worm, a painful and debilitating water-born parasite. Millions of Africans were infected with the worm. But programs to distribute drugs and combat the parasite's reproductive cycle have reduced the total number of cases to about 25,000 in 2006.
In Latin America and Africa, the organization has also focused on "river blindness" -- another parasitic malady. Of about 18 million people infected with the larvae of the Onchocerca volvulus worm, more than 750,000 victims had gone blind or lost some of their vision. The condition can be remedied with an annual dose of a drug to kill the parasite, but many people in impoverished areas never received the medicine.
Mr. Carter began dabbling with making furniture as a naval officer stationed in Hawaii in the 1940s, when he and his young family lived on a salary of $300 a month. He made bunk beds for his children and other furniture, using simple tools and hot glue.
After Mr. Carter's defeat in the 1980 presidential election, the White House staff raised money to buy him an elaborate woodworking shop as a parting gift. He had the equipment installed in the garage behind his home here in Plains. (The Carters haven't owned a car since he was elected president.)
Woodworking, along with writing and painting, became a form of therapy. In the years since, Mr. Carter has become more and more expert at making furniture, relying on his training in nuclear engineering to draft detailed plans for each piece and seeking out advice and inspiration from some of the world's most notable woodworking artists. Mr. Carter also collects hand tools in his travels around the world.
Each summer, Mr. Carter begins conceiving the piece he will make for the annual auction. He started work on the bench last fall, using an altered version of a bench design he created years ago.
"It's a very meticulous design. It has to have exactly the right angle on the back support," he said. "I particularly like this design...a monolithic seat six feet long or so, and the back is put on with dovetail joints....It's very strong and will hold up everybody who could possibly sit on it."
The former president started with two big pieces of maple sent to him by an admirer. He cut the wood into pieces of roughly the size he needed for each component of the bench, then glued together the two largest sections of maple for the seat. He used his planing mill to give the wood a consistent thickness, then undertook the weeks-long task of chiseling, carving and sanding the wood into a concave shape comfortable to sit on. "It took a lot of time. Whenever possible I like to use hand tools," Mr. Carter said.
Mr. Carter turned the legs of the bench on his lathe. To attach the back of the bench, he used mortise and tenon joints to create a frame that appears deceptively delicate but is extremely strong.
"It's a very good and solid and tough design, but also very beautiful," Mr. Carter said. "I hope that 500 years in the future, somebody will be sitting on the bench [saying], 'A president made this bench.' I hope it will be a source of pride but still in use."
Write to Douglas A. Blackmon at email@example.com