CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Vern Roof hated drawing in his eighth-grade art class in the 1940s. So when his art teacher learned he preferred woodworking, she said to pursue it because it's still art.
Roof said his art teacher paid for the wood, and he and another student would pick it out at the lumber yard.
By the end of the art class, Roof and his fellow student had made their art teacher two end tables for her living room.
"Today that would be called student manipulation, but it was great for us because we hated drawing," Roof said, laughing.
After that, it would be the 1960s before Roof would dabble in the hobby again.
Over the years, Roof has made his own versions of historic and antique furniture with ornate details; many pieces fill the home he shares with his wife, Corrine Hathaway.
Roof has made what he calls "the pope's chair," a Chinese court bed and a griffin desk.
The legs of the desk have ornately carved griffins, a mythical being with the body and hind legs of a lion and the head, wings and claws of an eagle.
Working in Iran
When he rediscovered his hobby, Roof was working with the State Department's Office of Security in Iran.
"The shah was in power, and although his secret police made it a totalitarian state, it was pleasant to be there in those days. The locals didn't have any trouble with us," Roof said.
While in Iran, Roof set up a temporary woodshop until he was posted to Taiwan, where he shipped his saws, planers and lathes as well as household goods.
"My next stop-off was Moscow, and again I built a small workshop there. But there wasn't much room for one," Roof said.
"I was teaching myself to do woodworking, the classical kind," he said. "I used antique furniture books and pored over them to find out what people before me had done."
In Moscow, Roof didn't have room for his power tools, yet he still was able to make a pie crust table.
"It was a round table on a three-legged pedestal, and the edge is scalloped, which reminds you of pie crust," he said. "The British had that as part of their choice furnishings, and it became popular in Colonial America."
Shipped to Moscow
The parts of the table that required power tools were made while Roof still lived in the U.S. He later shipped them to Moscow.
"I assembled them in Moscow as time permitted and hand-carved them in Moscow," he said.
Roof retired when he was 46.
"I retired on a Friday, and on a Monday I started cabinet making in Middleburg, Virginia," he said. "I went from white collar to blue collar."
He moved his family in 1986 to Albuquerque, N.M., where he worked for an interior designer at a dinner barn theater.
"When the actors got careless and would bust the chair's legs — I'd be called to repair that," Roof said.
Roof said he finally bowed out of the commercial end of furniture making.
"I wanted to make furniture for myself from that point on, and that's the work that I do," he said. "It takes hundreds of hours."
Few people can afford his creations, Roof said.
"When it came to private individuals, I never found a person who had the ability to pay for that sort of thing," Roof said.
In 1995, Roof returned to Moscow, where he was the driver for the U.S. ambassador for 2½ years. He lived at the embassy but didn't do any woodwork.
He returned to the U.S. in 1997 and decided he wanted to do woodworking and to work for himself.
Roof is making a Portuguese coffee table for his son, Vernon G. Roof, and daughter-in-law, who live in California. The coffee table — a miniature version of an English desk made in the 1800s that Roof found in a book — will match the Portuguese cabinet he carved for them years ago.
When Roof makes furniture for himself, he researches old furniture books and picks a piece of furniture that will challenge him.
The furniture has to meet certain requirements before he'll make it — carvings and certain edging procedures that can't be done by a machine.
He made the griffin desk to replace an early American desk he had made and given to his son.
"The reason I chose that thing is the reason I chose to make most of the projects — because it's a challenge," Roof said. "Like some people gravitate toward puzzles or getting that golf score, I see a piece of furniture and … I just have to make it."
Woodworkers once did everything by hand, and Roof tries to carry on that tradition with the elaborate carvings on his furniture.
"I just have regular stuff that any serious woodworker would have," he said — planers, a drill press, a radial arm saw, a compressor to spray the final finish and a complete set of woodworking chisels.
One question that Roof hates being asked is, "How long did it take you to make that?"
"On the Portuguese cabinet, I had 1,000 hours and stopped counting," he said. "There are times that I have to cut the grass, or the dishwasher conks out and I may make a piece from 8 a.m. to 8:15 p.m. When I'm logging in and out on a piece of paper, it ruins my enjoyment.
"When I made the pope's chair, I vaguely remember starting that during Thanksgiving one year — by February of the next year it was finished," he said. "That not only included the carving, but the spring-loaded platform and the recliner."
Actually a less fancy version of a porter's chair, it was a type of chair that always intrigued Roof.
"They had them in hotels, and I don't know why he needed a roof overhang over his head," he said. "I looked through a book I had and I usually modify. If it was used in a castle, then it's sometimes a couple stories high."
Roof almost always uses willow wood because it's the least expensive and has a nice grain to it. But there are exceptions.
"If you're dropping dishes or glasses on willow, it will dent; on oak it will not dent," Roof said. "The coffee table is made of walnut with its matching walnut Portuguese cabinet. The pope's chair is made from oak, and the griffin desk is made from mahogany."
Roof picked up woodworking details on his travels. "When I was in Taiwan, I went to Chinese workshops and I saw how they were doing woodworking," he said.
Even though neither he nor the Chinese spoke the same language, Roof said he made hand motions.
"We'd talk that way, and I'd ask how they'd do it," Roof said. "We got along pretty well talking about wood."
Roof's Chinese court bed is in the living area in the downstairs area of his home. Before he made it, he'd only seen a photo of it.
"I like to sit and watch television, and my wife likes to spread out," he said. "So I wanted something for our basement that she could lounge back on pillows."
Hathaway makes stained glass pieces for the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens' Stained Glass Show, and Roof crafts elaborate frames that often go along with her pieces.
"Vernon Roof's hand-carved frames are in their own right a piece of art," said Trudy Fox of the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens. "Vernon's frames encircling Corinne Hathaway's beautifully hand-crafted stained glass works add another artistic dimension to the overall creation. It is inspiring to view two handcrafted works of art, coupled into one inspiring piece."
Another challenging piece was a graduation present for a relative when he used a 5-inch-long ceramic lion as a model for a 5-foot-long carousel lion.
"It was a sweet-looking lion and was not ferocious like people normally carve for carousels," he said.
Roof crafted ornate paneling for his home as well as a bathroom vanity and a big cabinet.
"It reaches to the ceiling, and it was in a book of classics of American furniture. It's a high boy," Roof said. "I get a lot of enjoyment looking at it. I had no plans to work from. I just know that I have to make it less than the height of our ceiling, which is 8 feet."
Roof doesn't sell his work.
"I wouldn't sell any of this," he said. "My son will have possession of it eventually. He already has quite a few pieces in California."
Hathaway said she likes that Roof has been able to give so much of the furniture to his son in California.
"I had to be educated because I had never seen furniture like that before," she said. "I've always had Colonial or early American.
"I love the furniture now, and I'm always in awe of the furniture that he makes," she said.
Roof made the four-post bed as a Valentine's present to Hathaway with a carved heart. A unicorn, enlarged from a photo of a porcelain jeweled head of a unicorn, was a Christmas gift.
"It's a God-given gift to have that skill," Hathaway said.