Masters of Cottage Industry: Blue Ox Millworks

Welcome to the Craftsman’s Shire: Blue Ox Millworks’ Blacksmith shop, with the original sawmill in the background.

The Shingle Shack

Eric Hollenbeck and the Blue Ox Millworks are as familiar names to the residents of Humboldt County, California, as those of muralist Duane Flatmo and Kinetic Sculpture Race founder and impresario Hobart Brown. And yet, in spite of the fact that I was raised in Eureka and have lived in Humboldt County for a few decades all told, I have never visited Blue Ox Millworks. Until last week. Why? Because I’m stupid, frankly.

Blue Ox Millworks Workshop and Museum

Blue Ox Millworks’ combination museum and workshop. The “youngest” machine is the circular saw to the right, from 1938. In the foreground are my personal favorites, the collection of pedal/treadle scrollsaws, and the levered shaper that makes perfect Gothic arch fence pickets in one simple elegant motion.

I’m not a woodworker, but this is the biggest lathe that I personally have ever seen.

During the brief guided portion of my tour of the Blue Ox, Eric explained to me that this enormous workshop serves three functions: as a working job shop, where they do custom woodwork for new construction and restorations around the U.S.; as a museum, with an enormous collection of antique human-powered tools; and, for the past twenty years, as a pathway school for high school students who either have or are in danger of dropping out of school. Of this last, Eric explained, “We’re the carrot,” meaning, they make a deal with the kids that if they go to school at least three days a week, they get to come to Blue Ox and work in the traditional art of their choice. Teens who participate in the school program have many traditional crafts to choose from, including lathe work, printing, ceramics, stained glass, and blacksmithing.

The shop floor (or some of it, anyway.)

One of the many type sets from the Printing Shop. Students from the Pathway School make their own yearbooks here.

The Craftsman’s Apothecary. At Blue Ox, they make their own stains and varnishes from age-old ingredients like Dragon’s Blood, Oak Galls, and Pine resin.

The view over the bay, from the Sign Shop

Just to give you a sense of the reputation of the place: in 2014, Eric and Blue Ox Millworks were commissioned to help build a replica of the hearse that carried Abraham Lincoln’s body. The occasion was the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, and the hearse was to be a centerpiece in the commemorative procession. Eric used to opportunity to launch a program for Veterans, in partnership with the local College of the Redwoods. According to Eric, all they had to go on to recreate this vehicle was the single surviving photograph of the hearse from 1865, and the measurement of the diameter of the wheel. It took the Blue Ox team of Veteran craftsmen a year to complete the wooden frame and chamber, as well as the decorative metal castings (other craftsmen from around the country contributed the wheels, chassis, finish, and other fittings and embellishments).

The replica of the Lincoln hearse when it left the Blue Ox Millworks. Photo courtesy of Blue Ox Millworks.

A number of craftsmen teams contributed to the final product, shown here in the procession in Springfield, Illinois, in May 2015.

It quickly became apparent to me, that Blue Ox Millworks is not just about the technical aspects of traditional craftsmanship. What Eric and his wife Viviana have created over the past forty-six years is a world in miniature, a model of the craftsman’s revolution, a reflection of a vision of the natural world as a friend and ally, to be welcomed into the workspace. Where materials and people of all stripes are welcomed and put to work for the good. By the time I left Blue Ox Millworks, I had the feeling of having visited a world that I really wanted to live in, that I would be very happy to have come to life everywhere, and for everyone. That’s probably not possible. But it’s inspiring to know that at least two people have put their hearts, souls, and hands into making it real, at least in this beautiful little corner of the world.

The historic park at Blue Ox Millworks, includes a slew (or skid) of old logging camp buildings.

The outbuildings include a ceramics workshop, a stained glass studio, and a blacksmith’s shop.

The Earthen Oven at Blue Ox Millworks
The earthen oven at Blue Ox Millworks, made in conjunction with students from Humboldt State University’s Appropriate Technology and Whole Earth Engineering courses.

The library/main office of Blue Ox Millworks.

A photo of Eric Hollenbeck in the Main Office.

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