In a New Hampshire hardware store 20 years ago, I happened upon the most exquisite collection of folk art people. Fairies and fishermen, children resting their heads on a mama’s belly, a cat with a whip-like tail ready to pounce. They were painted and sparkled, smoothed and natural, made of driftwood. A little old hermit periodically brought in a few new characters, collected the pittance he asked for them, and then ambled off back to his shanty on the beach. Who thinks of this stuff? These guys do.
Stair Steps to Anywhere
Bill Amaya’s creations lead to new heights
So far, just about the only kind of unconventional staircase craftsman Bill Amaya hasn’t built is a stairway to Heaven. But there’s still time.
Some of the staircases he has completed, though, include the one that required two circular staircases—one right above the other.
“It was an incredibly intense project—among the hardest things I’ve ever done,” he says. “For six months, my head was wrapped around that.”
Amaya can build other one-of-a-kind necessities like cabinets, bridges and garden arbors with facing seats. He’s even built an office that resembles the interior of a yacht, what with its arching white oak rafters and portholes. But his specialty is stairways.
He’s built staircases that curve and drop in unexpected ways. Staircases with newel posts that you can spin as you ascend them. Southwest-style hand railings with Southwestern motifs etched into the wood. Hand railings that look like musical cleft notes. Craftsman-style hand railings that resemble the steps of the staircase. Stairs whose silicon bronze forged steel railings are crafted to look like wings. Railings with willow branches built into them. Stairs built from solid pieces of wood so not a single strip has been glued together.
He’s even built drawers that emerge from a staircase that he built for an Elkhorn condo where space was a premium.
“As far as I know we’re the only shop in Idaho capable of building some of the staircases we build,” he says.
A Nebraskan by birth, Amaya began working in construction before he got his driver’s license. When he did get wheels, he worked his way west through Colorado and Montana as a traveling carpenter.
After studying at Montana State University in Bozeman, he moved here in 1980, up the highway from his sister, who lives in Jerome.
His resume includes the Elkhorn condominiums and singer Steve Miller’s sound studio.
In 1999, after his two children were grown, he pursued his dream of opening his own architectural woodworking firm.
He chose the name Cimarron Lofting, inspired, he said, by reading Goatwalking, about the early work of well-respected conservationist Jim Corbett who led the sanctuary movement, smuggling Central American refugees into the U.S. during the ’80s.
“To me, it signified a person operating on their own judgment—perhaps as an outlaw outside the reach of the government. To me, it represented doing my own thing. And, really, a project has got to be interesting to me to want to do it,” Amaya says.
Amaya’s certainly been able to find plenty of projects to keep him interested in a Valley where clients and architects alike are just as eager as he to strive for one-of-a-kind designs.
Amaya usually sketches his design concepts by hand and computer. When he and the client agree on something, he retreats to his spacious 2,500-square-foot, state-of-the-art fabrication facility near Hailey’s Friedman Memorial Airport.
Helping him are two colleagues, Mike Rice and Bob Heed. He uses a technological marvel like the CNC router, which cuts wood according to the design Amaya has composed on a computer.
“When I started out in construction, we didn’t even have nail guns,” Amaya says. “Now we have computer-driven robots, which can carve the handrails I used to do by hand.”
Amaya credits those locals he collaborates with—from architect Michael Blash to Dennis Proksa of Black Rock Forge—for his success. Many of his colleagues have traveled the world, bringing back ideas from palaces in Europe and other architectural marvels, he notes.
“From the designers to the contractors. Even the clients end up having their fingerprints all over these pieces we do,” he says. >>>
Traditional Tools Dictate Contemporary Direction
Lanson Crawford thinks through every step
Lanson Crawford can’t help but beam about the surprise he’s about to reveal as he ducks inside a charming log home in the Warm Springs area.
Surprise, indeed—the rustic look on the outside gives way to an ultra-modern inside, with sleek, stylish contemporary cabinetry, stairs and even light runners in the ceiling.
“A lot of the work I do is a little out of the box,” he says.
Indeed, this house features aluminum inlays set in maple wood stairs that give the stairs a clean, polished Scandinavian look. Without backs between steps, the stairs look as if they’re floating.
He’s built a topless four-foot-tall closet with sliding glass doors in a room that couldn’t support a normal closet because of its alpine-shaped ceiling.
And, then, there are the aluminum brackets that wrap around ceiling beams with nary a visible fastener in sight.
“So much of what I do is stuff you don’t even see,” he says.
Crawford traces his artistic talents to his father, who cut short art school in Vienna because of World War II, but who went on to become an acclaimed watercolor landscape artist.
“I get a lot of my flair for art from him,” Crawford says. “His paintings were so realistic looking that people thought they were photographs.”
But, instead of taking up a brush, Crawford took up a hammer when he came to Ketchum from California in 1977 to ski.
His passion for craftsmanship was stoked as he worked on the restoration of the Frank Lloyd Wright home designed for landscape painter Archie Teater on a bluff overlooking the Snake River near Bliss.
“It was the first thing I really worked on of architectural significance,” Crawford recalls. “I spent so much time in that place, I started getting it. I started getting the design. I started getting how it worked.”
That job prompted in him a fondness for the contemporary look, which he calls “a cool part” of American architecture.
“I like the cleanliness, and the design principles just seem to work,” he says.
A lot of Crawford’s work is based on contemporary European-style cabinetry, which emerged in places where space is a premium. The concept lends itself to open living spaces with a bold design and clean look, frameless cabinets and concealed hinges that minimize wasted space.
Crawford relishes the thought process that goes into building windows with different angles, and closets designed to minimize the crookedness with which a framer built a house years ago.
His zest for the thought process comes through in his drawings of a display stand he’s designed and built for an old ski chair. What was going to be a simple stand has grown to an 18-foot curved bronze tower that resembles a piece of art.
He also relishes coming up with ideas for using hardware that is so exotic it’s a three-month wait as it goes from design to reality.
“You order it and they build it for you,” he says. “Stuff like that is so much fun because I’m helping a guy who has an idea, a dream. Getting people to where they want to go is exciting.”
For all his work in contemporary finishes, Crawford eschews the conveniences of modern tools, like belt sanders for hand planes, scrapers, edge tools and other hand tools.
“These tools beg you to think through every process,” he says. “These tools have been developed and perfected over hundreds of years. The new tools do the job, but the old tools work better, in my opinion.”
The old tools prove their worth, too, when Crawford boasts the integrity of 17-century antique doors and then marries them to new doors that he creates to replicate the old.
“The work I do is exciting,” he says. “Some of that goes back to working on the Frank Lloyd Wright home. The guy who was supervising us was an apprentice in 1953 when they built the home and he was so passionate about every detail. When you deal with someone who’s so passionate, it rubs off on you.” >>>
Clients talk to him, then the wood does. And sometimes it plays a great tune, too.
Wood is given a face and sometimes, a voice, in Bozo Cardozo’s hands.
The longtime Sun Valley craftsman has made cabinets, bedposts and spiral staircases, but he’s also created dozens of guitars, mandolins, steel guitars and even electric/acoustical hybrids accented by inlaid mother of pearl and ebony that are functional works of art.
He is quite defensive about labeling his work. He scoffs at pretension and despite what his clients say, he doesn’t like the term artist.
“We are losing a sense of what people’s hands can do,” he says. “People say, ‘You’re an artist.’ I say, ‘No, I’m an old-time craftsman.’ Craftsmen 200 years ago were very important people because they built value. I try to do the same and make everything the best it can be.”
Cardozo grew up in New Hampshire but came west to ski in 1977. He stopped first in Jackson, Wyoming, but soon found himself on the road to Sun Valley because he heard Sun Valley was hiring.
He was flipping burgers at the Lookout Restaurant atop Bald Mountain in Ketchum when he decided to take a guitar building class in Vermont under Charles Fox, who is considered the standard-setter for guitar builders in North America.
Cardozo fell in love with the touch of wood and the problem-solving that building guitars and other things entailed.
“Guitar building sounds like it’s magic, but it’s like everything else—it’s a series of steps,” he says.
As he expanded his resume to include pinhole cameras, lazy Susans, classic Shaker tables and beautifully carved wooden display cases, he realized woodworking offered him the means to pursue skiing and kayaking and still make a living.
That flexibility became critically important in 1994 when his wife was killed while vacationing in Costa Rica, leaving him alone to raise a six-year-old son.
“Bruce Martin put me to work making furniture I could do at home on my own time, and that really helped out,” he recalls.
Over the years, Cardozo has made spiral staircases that curve 90 degrees, arching cabinets for hard-to-fit corners, elaborate baby cribs and footstools, copper shelving to match copper pots, fireplace mantles, elegant fly-tying boxes, expensive cigar boxes that feature detailed fly-fishing scenes and guitars that break down for easy traveling.
He also does a lot of lathe work, churning out table legs, decorative headboards, footboards and bedposts—even hollow legs that allow people to hide the cords of lamps and laptops.
“A lot of what I do is problem-solve—figuring out how to create what other people want,” says Cardozo, who doubles as a helicopter ski guide during winter. “I like to do clean-cut work—no nails, no putty.”
Cardozo’s 400-square-foot workshop features a display of new and old power tools, files, lathes and saws. Bozo clown stickers affixed to various tools serve as a reminder of the nickname that was passed down by his older brother—Bozo’s given name is William.
“I like to think of what I know how to do as being a mix between old and new school. This applies to both tooling and methodology. I love hand tools and the relationship that one builds with one. Unlike a computer, it is one that is relatively timeless.”
Cardozo has mentored youngsters building guitars for their senior projects for 15 years.
“I’m amazed at how little these kids use their hands and how joyful they are at finding out that their hands are such useful tools,” he says. “I had one kid who spent 60 hours building a guitar.
He looked at the clock after five hours and said, ‘Wow! I’ve never done anything for five hours in my life!’ He had been so engrossed in his work he had lost all track of time.”
In fact, Cardozo’s biggest dream is not to build a particular piece of furniture or a certain style of guitar—although he has plenty of those in mind. His biggest dream is to figure out some way he can work with more kids—particularly troubled teen-agers.
“I like working with the kids and there’s no shop in school, anymore, like there used to be. Troubled teens tend to do well with physical projects,” he says.
“What I need to figure out is how can I do what I do—make a decent living—and do something for the kids at the same time? And why stop at the kids? Why not give those sitting in jail something to do—something they can maybe even make money at!?”
Karen Bossick wishes she could wield a carving tool. But, alas, all she can handle is a word processor and a writing pen. It’s best that way—the latter two tools don’t draw blood. A freelance writer, Karen has written for a variety of publications, including The New York Times, USA Today and Smithsonian Magazine.