DEER ISLE — Stepping into Don Carmichael’s workshop on the shore of Eggemoggin Reach is like embarking on a world tour of the wide-ranging kinds of wood that he works with.
There’s purpleheart, a hard, dense wood from Central and South America, and bocote, a wood from Mexico with what one supplier described as “beautiful swirling patterns” that is one of Carmichael’s favorites. Padouk, with African roots, creates a bright red sawdust that looks like paprika, while other types (such as the distinctive birdseye maple) can be found in the forests of Maine.
Leopard and zebra wood both have grain patterns that evoke images of the animals they are named after, while lignum vitae (Latin for “wood of life”) is an exceedingly hard wood native to the Caribbean with a distinctive green hue. Lignum vitae has been used in everything from the neck of Pete Seeger’s banjo to British police truncheons.
Carmichael uses them all in different combinations to create high-end walking canes, not to be confused with hiking sticks or other types of staffs. They are fancy — each one involves 30 to 40 hours of work, if not more, with exquisite details and combinations of colored wood — but also designed to be functional.
“These are canes for people who need them,” Carmichael explained.
He made his first one 30 years ago for his favorite aunt who was about to turn 100 and was by then, he said, starting to need a cane. Carmichael, whose only background working with wood was two years of shop class in junior high school, made her the cane as a surprise. She used it until her death five years later, and Carmichael ended up making more after her friends complimented his craftsmanship.
His interest in wood itself, however, goes back much further. Carmichael recalls going to the mountains of Alabama as a child to visit his grandfather, whose home dated to the late 19th century. The house’s interior featured heartwood of the longleaf pine, with some of the boards 20 feet long and 2 feet wide and bearing wavy, curly grain patterns.
“It was just gorgeous wood,” said Carmichael, now 81. “I can remember being just a little bitty kid and looking at that and thinking how gorgeous it was.”
A retired law professor and law school dean who taught in Wisconsin, Colorado and Seattle, Carmichael specialized in environmental law. Living on the coast of Maine, he draws inspiration from the environment around him and the names of the canes he creates reflect that: Ebb Tide, Tide Rip and Nautical Braid, among others.
Carmichael gets the unique and colorful woods that he works with from a company called Rockler Woodworking, whose only Maine store is near the Maine Mall in South Portland. Using saws, belt sanders, power grinders and hand-held tools, he then shapes the wood from pieces ranging from thin boards and 2-inch-by-2-inch turning blocks into his beautiful canes.
The canes he makes can be found and are sold at Island Artisans shops in Bar Harbor and Northeast Harbor. Because Carmichael does not know who will end up using his creations, he puts extra wood at the bottom of each one so that it can be cut to the correct length. To determine the proper length of the cane, he said, one should measure from the bony knob of the wrist (with the arm held straight down at the side) to the floor and then add an inch.
“Try two [inches] first,” he quickly added. “It’s easier to go back and cut more off than it is to put it back on.”
Making canes has not been the only outlet for Carmichael’s creativity over the years. When he worked in Seattle he told the law school’s student newsletter he enjoyed “operating bass fiddles and woodworking tools.” In addition to canes, he also has made furniture pieces and elaborate smoking pipes (though he notes the general trend against tobacco has meant less interest in pipes).
Thinking back to his time in shop class in junior high school, Carmichael said he believes it is an experience that every student ought to have.
“It teaches you how to put your hands to something and that you can make something that way,” he said. “That’s a nice thing for a young person to learn, I think.”
His musical pursuits also began as a young man. Carmichael said he learned to play bass in high school and has played ever since. Jazz music is his forte, and he said he and his wife, Suzanne, “checked out the jazz scene before moving here.” Finding it to their liking, they made the move to Maine and have “been just delighted” to call it home. He still performs at local venues.
In addition to the two galleries on Mount Desert Island that sell his canes, Carmichael will also make canes on commission. He can be reached by calling 348-2791.