Brussels-area Man Values Quality in his Craft
BY DENNY SCOTT
In a disposable world, where goods that don’t last are often replaced instead of repaired, it’s not often a tradesman who specializes in the latter finds success but Leo Deitner says his woodworking business is doing better this year than it has most others.
Deitner, using simple tools, hand-split wood and a lot of effort, can make a replacement handle for pretty much any implement you would find around a home, shed or barn.
His workshop, a portion of his home garage on Cardiff Road, just a stone’s throw from his family farm, has become a place people go to when their trusty axe handle snaps, hammer-head slips off or the blade of a favourite knife becomes detached.
“I’ve made a lot of different things,” he said. “Handles for hammers, axes, hatchets and sledges and even some ladder rungs.”
Working with elm, ash, thornwood, hickory and, on occasion, ironwood, Deitner, using nothing more than a small hand-hatchet, a drawknife and a spokeshave that will take a three-foot piece of wood (hand-split or quarter cut only) and turn it into something smooth and beautiful.
Deitner said ironwood is typically the toughest, followed closely by thornwood, which comes from the hawthorn tree, but he said the secret isn’t the strength of the wood, but in observing the rules of making good tools.
“Thornwood and ironwood are tough to work with and they make great tools, but the grain is what is important,” he said. “If you use saw-cut wood, the grain is the wrong way and you’re more apt to have the wood snap in your hands or the head of an axe or hammer snap right off.”
Deitner tracks what he knows about making handles back to his father teaching him in Deitner’s formative years.
“It was sometime near when I was 11 or 13 years old and he had to make a handle, so he taught me how to do it,” he said.
It was a skill Deitner didn’t use, however, until 30 years ago when he found himself in the same position as his father.
“I needed some replacement handles around the farm and I figured I would try to make some handles the way my father had,” he said. “It had been a long time, but I tried it and it worked and I’ve been at it for the last 30 years.”
Back then, it was a way to keep the tools around his family farm a little longer before they needed to be replaced, however, since he retired several years ago, he has been selling what he has made.
“By my math, since I started selling and repairing things for people, I’ve had over 150 satisfied customers,” he said. “Some of them are repeat.”
While some people come back with other jobs, only one handle he has made has been replaced to his knowledge and that was because it was run over by a tractor. The amount of time and care that goes into the final product is what makes the handles he crafts last long, he said. For example, a full-sized axe or sledgehammer handle will take him four to seven days to craft.
Visitors to the shop shouldn’t bother looking for power tools to explain the quick turnaround either, though many do.
“People come in here, either to see what I do or order something, and they look for equipment, like power tools,” he said. “I don’t use them. They’re always surprised when I hand them the finished product.”
A true puritan to the craft of woodworking, Deitner doesn’t even use sandpaper, saying that, if you keep your blades sharp enough, you’ll end up with the smoothest wood available.
His wife Rita says Leo will sit there for days on end chipping away at a piece of wood until it has the right shape to be made into a handle.
“Then, he’ll draw out his pattern and, using the hatchet, just keep going until it’s about the right size,” he said.
From there, he shaves the wood down using the drawknife and the spokeshave, finishing the job with a wood sealant.
While handles for tools are what he started with, Deitner said that there have been plenty of other projects he has tackled.
“I’ve done knife handles and even did a butcher’s knife for my wife,” he said.
Replacement isn’t always what the customer needs either. He recently fixed an Australian dehorner that was used at the Brussels Livestock barn, however simply crafting a replacement part wouldn’t quite do the job there.
“The handles that were in there weren’t the original and people who would use them kept bashing their knuckles together,” he said. “At the end of the day, hitting your knuckles together that often would make them tender, so I made the replacements curve out a bit.”
Deitner said he received a call from one of the people who uses the dehorner often and was told his fix made a huge difference.
He has also started creating personalized gifts.
While he has had a practice of putting his initials on the handles he made, he recently started engraving the handles he has crafted at customer’s request.
He said he made an entire set of hammers for a family with each one bearing the name of the recipient.
One of Deitner’s fans, he said, is Ben Hiller, also of the Brussels area, has taken an interest in the trade.
Hiller, whose family is likely best known for playing music together, doesn’t have a lot of time to dedicate to woodworking, especially given that his family has its own farm to manage. However, Deitner said he sees the young man more in the winter and is happy to pass on the craft.
“You never know when you’re going to need to fix something and knowing how to fix it yourself helps,” he said.
Deitner himself still helps on the family farm, though a medical condition has limited what he can manage. He said that, when he first realized his time on the farm was coming to an end, he didn’t know what to do and that’s when he started fixing handles.
“At first, it was just something to do to keep me busy,” he said. “I never thought it would turn into what it has.”
To learn about Deitner’s craft, contact him at 519-887-6568.