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Tales from an Old School Woodworker

Tales from an Old School Woodworker
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Sonny Sweat and his daughter Rhoda Sweatt on the porch of their Craftsbury, VT workshop amid their creations
Photo/Art by Julia Shipley
Sonny Sweatt and his daughter Rhoda Sweatt on the porch of their Craftsbury, Vermont, workshop amid the Busy Beaver and other creations.

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.

Sunny calls this creature a "clam eater" because of the crazy tail he gave it-- great for digging clams
Photo/Art by Julia Shipley
Sunny calls this creature a “clam eater” because of the crazy tail he gave it–great for digging clams.

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.

One of a Sunny and Rhoda Sweatt's owls
Photo/Art by Julia Shipley
One of  Sunny and Rhoda Sweatt’s owls.


The hollowed out stump is a special cabinet with painted turtle hinges and a woodcock for a doorknob
Photo/Art by Julia Shipley
The hollowed out stump is a special cabinet with painted turtle hinges and a woodcock for a doorknob



Here's what's inside the stump. Sorry puggy, nothing for dogs.
Photo/Art by Julia Shipley
Here’s what’s inside the stump. Sorry puggy, nothing for dogs.

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.

Inside the workshop-- some of Rhoda and Sunny Sweatt's birds in progress
Photo/Art by Julia Shipley
Inside the workshop– some of Rhoda and Sunny Sweatt’s birds in progress


Inside the Craftsbury workshop
Photo/Art by Julia Shipley
Inside the Craftsbury workshop

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.


Julia Shipley


Julia Shipley


Contributing editor, Julia Shipley's stories celebrate New Englanders' enduring connection to place. She digs up facts and stats for each issue's "By The Numbers" feature; she's also the author of Yankee's "Vermont Rural Life" blog, as well the Yankee Plus column, "The Farmer's Life." An award winning poet, her long-form lyric essay, Adam's Mark was selected as one of the Boston Globe's Best New England Books of 2014.
Updated Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

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4 Responses to Tales from an Old School Woodworker

  1. Andrea Emmons August 15, 2014 at 5:05 am #

    This is an awesome write up Julia Shipley. I am glad you touched on the humor, as well as the craftsmanship. My Dad and Rhoda know how to make work fun!

  2. Julia August 15, 2014 at 3:38 pm #


    Thank you so much. I just can’t seem to mind my own business, can I? Luckily Sunny and Rhoda liked my pug alright, so they humored my bazillion questions (Sunny says he likes to work with butternut, basswood and pine the best). Lucky you for already knowing all this already. Thanks for the thumbs up from a true insider.

  3. Kate Bernhard August 15, 2014 at 5:44 pm #

    My husband and I were one of those pesky people that stopped in. We have a summer place nearby and are very familiar with their spot. Anyway, we bought one of the lovely fish and he hangs in a window at our house in Long Island!

  4. Julia August 16, 2014 at 9:30 am #


    That’s wonderful– you have an example of Sunny and Rhoda’s colorful craftsmanship to admire and remind you of your home in the north. And Isn’t it amazing how the hanging trout and char seem to be swimming through the air itself? I bet it casts beautiful shadows, too.

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