Brunswick's Historical Woodworker Retired Dean's Demonstrations Lend Awareness of Importance of His Craft

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BRUNSWICK -- The craftsmanship that went into Morgan Stapleton's tall grandfather clock dates beyond his 63 years.

"It's a copy of a 1770 Philadelphia tall case clock," Stapleton said.

It is based on what other woodworkers have measured and put into plans -- plans that Stapleton simplified to fit his abilities.

"I'm not much of a carver," he said.

The humble Stapleton is a respected wood-carver in the Brunswick area who feels so strongly about his craft and its historical connections that he does woodworking demonstrations to make people aware of its importance.

The retired college dean can point out carved edges that don't exactly flow, miters that aren't quite square and dovetail joints that aren't snug enough. But given the tools and technology to make things better, Stapleton puts them aside seemingly relishing the barely noticeable flaws that make the work his.

"It's not perfect by any means. I think it's pretty good for a pure amateur. People cherish old handmade furniture because of the flaws. It's character," he said.

A good example is the four mahogany quarter columns on the front of the clock.

After machining grooves into the top two quarter columns, Stapleton used a hand gouge to do the bottom pair.

"That looked too mechanical," he said of the top ones. And of the bottom ones, "That looked too amateurish."

And then there is the individuality of each piece of wood, the direction of grain, spots that seemingly glow and the rich smell.

Stapleton didn't earn a living with his hands. He retired in 1997 as academic dean of Coastal Georgia Community College and took a job as a part-time ranger at Fort Frederica National Monument on St. Simons Island.

Part of his job is simply minding the store, taking admission and answering questions from visitors. But he also does living history demonstrations on building techniques used when the 18th century fortified town of Frederica was built.

That is when Stapleton does his roughest work using a broadax to square logs into beams. Other tools include an old wood auger, framing chisel, a mallet and a maul.

The construction techniques came from Roy Underhill's books on the building of historic Williamsburg, Va.

Ken Akins, superintendent at Fort King George Historic Site in Darien, said people such as Stapleton are rare and greatly appreciated. The park has several events each year in which re-enactors demonstrate how people lived in colonial days. Military re-enactors are more plentiful than historic craftsmen, Akins said.

"He works up a sweat. Nobody wants to do the hard work anymore," Akins said.

Akins said he has spent years trying to build up a company of troops who would drill and fire muskets and cannons on the site's grounds and others who would show just how hard it was to build a house in colonial times.

Although the blast and smoke of the muskets and cannons draw crowds, Stapleton can hold children's attention, Akins said.

"He has done demonstrations for school kids. He was among the most popular," he said. The children left carrying pieces of cedar that flew from Stapleton's ax, Akins said.

Mike Tennent, superintendent at Fort Frederica, agreed that people like Stapleton are uncommon. …