El Jebel woodworker carves out a place in the valley
December 27, 2011
EL JEBEL – There are businesses in the Roaring Fork Valley that not even a recession can drag down.
Master woodworker Samuel Gonzalez has remained busy throughout the recession and its hangover, relying mainly on word-of-mouth. In his shop in El Jebel, the immigrant from Tepatitlan, Mexico, is creating some of the finest staircase rails, entry doors, gun cases and mantelpieces in the mansions of Aspen.
The soft-spoken man believes his unique style and attention to detail in wood carving has kept him busy. He has practiced his craft for 47 years, from the age of 6. He is a third-generation woodworker and spent 15 years working as an apprentice for a Spanish carver who trained him in classic Old World styles.
Gonzalez said he learned that to be a truly good woodworker and furniture maker requires more than craftsmanship.
“It has to come from you,” he said. “We do it because we have this calling to work with wood. We see figures in wood like other people see figures in the clouds.”
Gonzalez first came to the Roaring Fork Valley in the late 1980s, visiting two brothers-in-law who were chefs in Aspen. He had never seen snow before. He and his wife, Esther, loved the area and relocated to the Roaring Fork Valley in 1989.
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Gonzalez worked for a cabinetmaker and millwork shop but didn’t feel his skills were fully utilized. He rented space for a workshop from the Crawford family in El Jebel in 1992 and established a business called The Gonzalez Tradition.
His calling card is an architectural motif using the natural flora and fauna from the Colorado mountains. His work features trout, elk, pines, a variety of wildlife in the area and even insects that are found along the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers.
Lots of people like log furniture, Gonzalez said, but he takes it a step further by incorporating Colorado-style design. On one recent day, he was working on newel posts to be used for a staircase rail. Into each post he carved the flora typical of Colorado. He carved a different insect into each one to make it unique. Looking at a dragonfly on one of the posts, it is difficult to imagine how someone can carve something so intricate.
Gonzalez said a lot of his clients are Texans who are second-home owners and want to feature the qualities they like about the Colorado outdoors in their decor, be they scenes connected to hunting, fishing or simply the outdoors. He likes working with Texans, he said, because they are so direct.
“They have a certain budget, and they let you know up front, ‘This is what we’ve got. What can you do?'” Gonzalez said.
All his pieces are personalized and authentic.
“We don’t duplicate anything,” he said. If he is particularly pleased with a piece, he will include his signature cut and mix in a drop or two of his blood. His DNA will be there in case there is ever a question, he said.
The process is the key to good work. If there is poor design, there will be a poor product regardless of the quality of craftsmanship, he said. He starts with a rough sketch and then develops the concept. The elk he carves are proportionately correct to live, full-size animals.
He enjoys the work because it mixes drafting, architecture, upholstery, cabinet making, furniture making, gold gilding, stone working and other skills. He considers himself an “ebeniste” – or someone with limitless skills from the Old World furniture-making tradition. Gonzalez said he is always pushing himself and always learning. He likes working with mahogany, dark walnut, Spanish cedar and exotic woods.
“Every wood has got its own personality,” he said.
He is among the success stories of Latino immigrants to the Roaring Fork Valley. His work has allowed him to put three sons through college for training in various professions: Sam, 26, is a dentist; Diego, 25, is a doctor; and Gustavo, 22, is an architect. Another son, Fabian, 16, is a student at Basalt High School. All the boys are also skilled in woodworking, Samuel said. The family lost Esther this year after a fight with breast cancer.
Gonzalez finds a degree of solace in wood carving. There is satisfaction in seeing a concept brought to reality, he said.
“I’m one of the lucky persons who enjoys his work and gets paid for it,” Gonzalez said.