Tales from an Old School Woodworker
When it’s beautiful, Sunny Sweatt and his daughter, Rhoda can be found on their Craftsbury workshop porch, even though by Sunny’s estimate, it takes three times as long to accomplish anything due to all the impromptu visitors. Recently, I was one of their waylayers. When I stopped by, I found the pair sitting together–Sunny’s accomplished hands rested in his lap and Rhoda perched beside him, drawing feathers onto a new owl. Owls have become their next big thing, and by summer’s end it looks like they’ll have a tree full of them. Sunny uses a band saw to cut their bodies out of chunks of pine and then sands their form. Then Rhoda takes over using paint and permanent inks to give them distinct features.
Hanging above them on the porch are another specie they are infamous for–their vividly painted fish. Rainbows, Lakers, Arctic Char—Sunny and Rhoda have made and painted a whole school of these fisherman’s wildest- dream- trouts. Unlike the life-sized owls, these dangling beauties turning in the wind are far bigger than what might be reeled out of Lake Elmore or Memphremagog. However Sunny does have a model for a pike he made by slapping his friend’s freshly caught trophy onto a piece of paper and sketching around it.
The burgeoning menagerie is a playful addition to all the other projects. The son of a blacksmith, Sunny came by his woodworking skills through curiosity and then training—he went to a high school in Boston that specialized in furniture making. Since then, he’s made a living building big things—barns and houses. And taking big things down—barns and houses (although he admits his sad dislike for breaking things apart). And moving things—he’s had a hand in moving at least five structures right here in town.
But it’s the smaller projects like the dangling Brookies and the perching Bard Owl and the candy hutch stump that draw new visitors to their workshop porch. Rhoda says they keep this hollowed stump they polished into a cabinet stocked with candy for neighbor children.
Personally, I’m pretty smitten with their Beaver—the creature that launched their series of sculptures. He began as a joke about eight years ago—“Wouldn’t it be funny if the neighbors came back to find a beaver on their dock?” Rhoda teased her father as they finished up a building project on Big Hosmer Pond. The idea caught Sunny’s fancy and one day he took a pine chunk and began to fashion it into that famously industrious animal. He chopped open a spray-paint can and extracted its two marbles for eyes. The teeth he shaped from a piece of PVC pipe. The great paddle tail is detachable so they can transport him easily, which they have. Sunny shows me an album of the Beaver’s adventures: Here he is riding an inner tube upon a vernal pool, holding a fishing rod. Here he is clutching a pumpkin for Halloween and dressed like a bandit (complete with purple mouth scarf); here he is gussied up for hunting season (with rifle and Elmer Fudd cap). Merry Christmas, here’s the beaver beside some balsam with a snow beaver beside him.
Of course one good (fun) beaver deserves another, so over time Sunny’s made a colony of beavers. The most recent replica took a truck ride down to the UPS store in Stowe to get mailed off to a customer.
“What’s in here?” the clerk asked.
“A Beaver,” Sunny replied, smiling delightedly.
Sunny Sweatt’s workshop is at the intersection of Mill Village Road and the North Craftsbury Road right across the street from Mill Village Pottery in Craftsbury, Vermont. His phone number is (802) 586-2838.