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Come see the rhombicosidodecahedron in the window

Wooden Alchemy opens in Camden

By Susan Mustapich | Mar 31, 2021
Photo by: Susan Mustapich Wooden Alchemy owners Rob and Barbie Jones offer hundreds of originally-designed, Maine-made wooden products, including popular three- dimensional views of Maine lakes, which double as cribbage games and wall art.

CAMDEN — Inside Wooden Alchemy, a new store at 19 Elm St., there are hundreds of originally-designed products, from coasters and ornaments, to games, wall art and eye-catching globes made from intricately carved shapes.

The man behind the designs is Rob Jones, who owns the store with his wife Barbie. Jones, who is originally from Lincolnville, has a history of magically transforming bits of wood into amazing creations.

"We’re very proud that we have made-in-Maine wooden products that start under $10." he said. There are $8 Christmas ornaments and $7 coasters in appealing designs, all the way up to $3,800 hundred dollar sculptures, he said.

"Three-quarters of our entire store inventory is $20 and under. It’s important to me to offer a quality, attractive piece, that anybody can afford."

There is something for every demographic, from a popular selection of board games for kids and families to pieces for an art collector.

For Jones, the creative magic comes from a flow of ideas. He thinks about new designs and can see them. It comes from his background in art, math and engineering, and countless hours of drawing, carving and now designing on CNC machines and laser cutting products.

A popular product at Wooden Alchemy is the selection of three-dimensional maps of Maine lakes, painted in shades of blue, with hues deepening to indicate depth. The maps double as cribbage boards, with pegs supplied, and as wall art. When the store was located in Damariscotta, he made his first map of the lake there.

"Man was that popular, we just couldn’t keep it in stock," Jones said. He created designs for Moosehead, Sebago and the big lakes in Maine.

Up until last year, he had eight lake designs, but people would request more. Those requests turned into a list of 45 lakes. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Jones found he had time on his hands. In the months before Christmas he decided "to play Santa’s workshop and do every single one of these. I made a new one every day." He even drove some of them to people’s houses so they would get them in time for Christmas.

Now they have 60 lake designs they can make, with 30 more requests on top of that.

"It’s really a strong future for the direction of our business," he said.

Outside of the store, looking in through the plate glass windows, there's a huge, rotating multi-sided globe, made up of curved intricately carved pieces, with cuts-outs for light to pass through.

"It’s a treat for the crowd, like an entertainment. It’s "eye-candy" "and it brings people into the store," Jones said.

"It's a rhombicosidodecahedron," he adds without a pause, as if everyone knows the term for a 62-sided shape, made up of triangles, squares and pentagons.

The display globe in the window is 7-feet across, and something Jones began to imagine one day when he was making bowls.

He thought about making a sculpture, but instead of covering the exterior with solid plates, he would design three-dimensional bowls in various shapes, for each of the 62 sides.

He also makes icosahedron globes — which is what you get if you take all the shapes out of a rhombicosidodecahedron, except the triangles, he said. If you take out all the shapes except for the pentagons, you get a dodecahedron globe -- he makes those too.

There are globes of many sizes to take home, the largest being 30 inches across, so practically speaking, a customer can get it through their front door.

Also in the front of the store, on the other side, is his version of a working grandfather clock, which he gave Barbie for their anniversary.

There's more magic in a small museum they have created in a backroom in the store.

In glass cases are Jones' hand-carved wood sculptures. There is a life-size playable wooden tuba. There is a playable French horn, which is his first wooden instrument carving.

There is a pair of carved wooden high-heeled boots and a carved gun.

On a cabinet is displayed a video of Javi Villanueva playing taps on a carved wooden replica Jones made, of the bugle used to play 'Taps" at President John Kennedy's funeral. Villanueva, a master bugler, trumpet soloist, conductor and former adjunct music professor, commissioned the bugle from Jones.

Among other things, Villanueva was instrumental in getting the original bugle played at JFK's funeral, a Bach Stradivarius bugle in the key of B-flat, moved from the Smithsonian to an exhibit at Arlington Cemetery, where it remains today. He provided Jones with photographs of that bugle, as well as a similar bugle for a model. Villanueva even travelled to Camden to pick up the bugle Jones made, and to play it.

Along the wall, there is a framed storyboard of Jones creative work over the years. Out in the nearby hallway, there is another framed series that shows how Wooden Alchemy's products are made.

Jones grew up on High Street in Lincolnville, and what he wanted to do was draw. He drew all the time when he was a child.

About 20 years ago, his father gave him a wood carving tool for Christmas. At the time he was doing photorealism illustration and experimenting with woodworking.

He began carving seashells out of wood, with the thought this was something tourists would buy. He didn’t have money to buy wood, so he went to the Camden-Rockport dump and picked over scrap wood craftsmen left there. He sold his sea shells at the Island Institute store in Rockland, and bought a band saw and a disk sander.

A suggestion from a friend that he carve a whole lobster came together with some curly maple another friend accidentally cut for firewood. Jones traded enough firewood to fill a Honda Civic hatchback for the curly maple, and carved a "highly-articulated," 30- inch lobster, "as a personal challenge." Someone else told him he should enter it in a carving competition.

At that first competition, he was nervous when he put the lobster down on a table.

"I won People’s Choice and Best of Show, great big ribbons. How can you not be addicted after that?" he said.

When he showed the lobster to Joyce, the owner of Ducktrap Trading Co. in Camden, she offered to sell it for him. It eventually sold for $8,000.

At one competition, a man walked up to him, locked eyes, and told him he had to visit the Warther Train Museum in Dover, Ohio. Jones made it out there and said the experience of seeing this museum, where one man had "carved the history of the steam engine in ebony and ivory, with hand tools" changed his life.

Ernest Warther never sold a train, but took the collection on tour around the country, and the museum remains his legacy to his family to this day, Jones said. He wanted to do something similar to take care of his family.

Jones turned to carving wooden instruments. His first was a French Horn. He rented a instrument from the Camden music store Northern Kingdom. Little did he know, it was a student model, the Huffy bicycle of musical instruments, he said. It cost $60 a month to rent the instrument so he rushed to get it done. After Harvey Curtis who worked there at the time saw what he carved, Jones could borrow any instrument he wanted for free.

From his first wood carving competition onward, everything he entered, the French horn, the boots, gun, a large mouth bass, won People's Choice and Best of Show.

In one year he went from never carving before to being listed as a master-level carver and getting invited to be a speaker at competitions. He was surrounded by old-timers in the woodworking world, using traditional tools, but he would use any tool, he said. "Whatever removes wood the fastest."

Looking back, Jones sees he has always been fueled by peoples' reactions to what he creates, and for a long time, figuring out how to create art as his full-time job.

"It’s been a long haul having day jobs and doing my art on the side, to now opening a store, and being able to provide jobs," he said. "I’m having a lot of fun with what I’m doing now."

For more information about Wooden Alchemy, go to woodenalchemy79@gmail.com, or call 975-5125.

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