Community December 22, 2008

Discovering the Trades

Building beautiful homes is nearly a competitive sport in the Wood River Valley. Some of the best architects, builders, and designers in the world hone their crafts here. But, who actually creates the exquisite and technically demanding details in these projects? Whose hands are blistered at the end of the day?

Often, those hands belong to the people you see in the market everyday. Maybe the neighbor you don’t know very well. Or, the guy in the torn, stained Carhartts next to you at the bank on Friday. Makes you wonder what Michelangelo looked like in his painting smock, doesn’t it?

In a creative and symbiotic cycle, the master craftsmen of our Valley bring to fruition the hopeful concepts of clients, architects and designers. In turn, the architects, designers and builders call on these craftsmen again and again to push the edges of their crafts, to take creative risks, to redefine possibility. Read on to get inside the heads of three local craftsmen whose beautiful works add grace notes to our daily lives.

Don Fraser

When it comes to choosing the stones for his trademark fireplaces, Don Fraser is finicky about which ones make the cut. “I reject a lot of rock,” the 71-year-old stonemason says. “Some of them may be good rocks, but they just don’t serve the purpose.”

His selection process starts with a mental picture of the stones he’d like to include. Then he carefully studies each rock, judging it on shape, size, and color. He admits that, in the end, “It’s the rocks that dictate what I do.”

If you’ve been to the Sun Valley Resort, you’ve probably seen the by-products of Fraser’s meticulousness. The lodges at River Run, Warm Springs, and Seattle Ridge all exhibit his towering fireplaces and stone veneer. And even if you haven’t been to Bald Mountain, you may have seen Fraser’s work when he was featured on HGTV’s Modern Masters in September 2003. For the soft-spoken craftsman, the television attention has been, well, “embarrassing.”

With more than three decades of experience working in stone, the Denver native is carrying on a family tradition. “My father was a mason and my grandfather was a stone carver,” he explains, a small smile lighting up his tan, chiseled face. “I started as an apprentice when I was fourteen. My parents used to tell me it was something to fall back on.”

Fall back on it, he did. Fraser got his start working on the Bavarian Villages in west Ketchum in 1970. “Carl Wick was the contractor,” he says. “He hired me to lay block, then gave me a chance with stone.” Fraser was a “dynamite bricklayer”; but, finding that too mechanical, he turned to stonework for the challenge and creativity.

The Limelight in Warm Springs was his first rock job. Soon after, the demand for his skills forced him to begin renting mixers and wheelbarrows. “A lot of people saw my work, and it just sort of mushroomed from there,” he says. “I started picking up jobs on my own.”

Fraser started Wood River Masonry in 1975, and runs the business from his home to this day. Over the years, he has built fireplaces with round, smooth-flowing river rock from area streams, and with flat, sharp-edged stones from quarries throughout the West. His favorite undertaking thus far is a Ketchum home that combines both. “The whole exterior of the house is river rock,” he says. “It’s really wild. We used local river rock and then mixed in some brown rock from Montana. [The color] gives it more variety.”

Fraser built his own home in Indian Creek, and it is equally distinctive. Featuring a unique, circular stone sitting room with four-foot-thick river rock walls, a built-in fireplace, and a skylight to let in the blue sky and stars, the home is “just a little bit different,” as Fraser says wryly.

“Stonework has become quite popular in the Wood River Valley,” he adds. “We’re turning out some pretty good masons.” Among them is Fraser’s son, Cameron, 25. “He’s pretty damned good,” beams the proud father. A family tradition is moving on to the next generation. >>>


Barclay Barnett

Woodworker Barclay Barnett has been making furniture and cabinets in the Wood River Valley for almost twenty years now. He has a reputation for being able to make anything—and make it well.

Since opening Sun Valley Woodworks in 1985, Barnett has been commissioned for everything from millwork to store fixtures to kitchen cabinets. These days, however, the bulk of his business is custom residential furniture—dining tables and chairs, beds, dressers, nightstands, armoires, bookcases, and hutches. Every piece is carefully crafted according to Barnett’s exacting standards.

“We take the time to make sure things are well constructed,” he says. “I don’t want any callbacks in a year or five years saying, ‘Oh, it broke,’ or ‘A piece fell off.’”

Perhaps the best endorsement for Barnett’s work is the fact that his business is all word of mouth. “I don’t advertise,” he admits. “I wait until people come to me.” In some instances, clients have a specific design concept in mind, and Barnett does his best to execute it. “Some people come in and say, ‘Can you make something like this?’ and if I can, I will.” Others may not know exactly what they’re looking for, in which case Barnett does his own sketches.

“I like the challenge of coming up with new designs and new ways to accommodate clients’ needs,” Barnett comments. “I get a lot of satisfaction from building quality pieces that people enjoy.”

For a client who wanted an armoire resembling an old tool shed, Barnett used recycled wood and custom hinges made by an area blacksmith. The end result is a rustic-looking cabinet with pocket doors, a pullout TV shelf, and space for a modern stereo. Other unusual pieces include a cabinet for a plasma TV with bi-fold pocket doors, and a trundle bed that pops up into a double bed.

Barnett’s most memorable project, however, is a mantle built from an extravagantly carved teak doorway that once belonged to an ancient Hindu temple. After lightly sandblasting the teak to remove the “300 years of soot from burning incense,” he fashioned the mantle with the delicate sculpture right in the middle.

“I like the challange of coming up with new ways to accommodate clients’ needs.”

Born in 1955 in Seattle, Barnett studied art and music at Western Washington University in Bellingham. He began doing construction and carpentry work after moving to Ketchum in 1980, and launched Sun Valley Woodworks five years later.

After being injured in a 1992 dirt-biking accident, Barnett rearranged the shop so he could work from his wheelchair. “I can’t pick up any big boards,” he explains, “but there’s a lot I can do.” Though he has two full-time woodworkers on staff, the 47-year-old craftsman still calls the shots. “I have my hands on every single piece. I may not be sawing up every board, but I’m there from the first drawing to the cut list to helping with assembly to working with my finisher.”

That hands-on involvement is what keeps his clients coming back. In addition to repeat jobs with designers in Idaho, Seattle and San Francisco, Barnett has worked extensively with Jackson Hole artist A.D. Maddox on a variety of custom-designed pieces, including cabinets, game tables, and log benches painted with vivid wildlife scenes.

“I’m in a pretty good spot right now,” Barnett says when asked where he plans on going next. “I enjoy what I do. I’m not really looking to expand. It would be hard to maintain the level of quality and service if we got any bigger.” >>>

Derek Jones

Painter? Stonemason? Interior designer? It’s difficult to put a label on Derek Jones. The 32-year-old may be best known for the intricate stone wall he created inside the former Hana Sushi in Ketchum, but he has produced dozens of other distinctive creations, including custom wall finishes and mosaics, throughout the region.

So, how does Jones classify himself? “I guess I’m a dreamer,” he jokes, his intense gaze lightening for a moment.

When describing his work, Jones uses words like paradox and relationship, instinct and organic. Of a stone fireplace he created in Warm Springs, Jones says, “Due to the fact that it’s so micro-detailed, a lot of funky lines happened. For me, the relationship between the lines and the rocks is my first priority, and then coming back in and out of plumb—so it’s organic, in the sense that it flows.”

Born in Alexandria, Virginia, and raised outside of Washington, D.C., Jones migrated to Ketchum in the spring of 1996. A few months later, while working as a house painter, he met local artists Stan Acker and Leslie Rego.
“They were working together on a large residential project that involved unique, Old World, specialty wall, wood, and furniture finishes,” Jones says. “Their finishes were dynamic and colorful compared to what I’d been exposed to up to that time. I made a light inquiry [about an apprenticeship], and next thing I knew, I was knee-deep in Grumbacher artist oils, surrounded by pyramids of latex paints and gallons of shellac.”

“It takes patience to be able to do things of this caliber. The quick-fix, production-line mentality doesn’t really work when you’re trying to achieve a particular look. But, given enough time and patience, you can accomplish anything.”

Jones credits Acker and Rego for helping him develop his innovative skills and technique. “They were exceptionally influential in terms of educating me on color,” he says. “We essentially developed a style of painting together. That’s how I started to discover my own instinctual and organic approach to color, which is definitely inspired by the earth.”

Jones put that “instinctual and organic approach” to use in Nimbus, a restaurant he designed in Bellingham, Washington. “Being near the water, in a place that tends to be overcast and gray, the idea came to me to represent earth elements through color,” he says. “I used a lot of primary colors. Really raw, organic colors. I wanted to create layers, so that at any given point you can see the colors relating to each other. Where red and yellow overlap, there’s an intermediary color that links them.”

For a project in Hailey, Jones united his creative approach to color with stonework, creating a mosaic of quartzite to fill cracks in the logs of a building’s interior. The mosaic runs both vertically and horizontally in a twisting, tapering kaleidoscopic effect.

For a kitchen in a north-Valley home, Jones went for powerful color in his painting and texturing of the interior. “In this case, I knew I wanted red in the dining room. We also wanted to produce an old, antique plaster look on the walls.” The result is an authentic Tuscan feel.

“I enjoy talking about relationships between color and elements,” Jones says. “Whether it’s the way the colors interact, or the effect they have on the viewer, or the movement within an element—it’s fascinating to me.”

Artistically, Jones seems to enjoy pushing the envelope. His work can be time-consuming, but he says the payoff is worth it. “It takes patience to be able to do things of this caliber,” he explains. “The quick-fix, production-line mentality doesn’t really work when you’re trying to achieve a particular look. But, given enough time and patience, you can accomplish anything.”

 Luke Smith has written professionally since 1995, contributing print and online copy for Knight Ridder/Tribune Services, The Missoulian, The Park Record, The Hungry Horse News, and magazines including Park City, Edging West, and Couloir. He also edited online content for



This article appears in the Fall 2004 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.