Who & Ware

Beauty in the woodturned birdhouse

CorrespondentApril 7, 2012 

Robert Shuping, 53, turns his wood birdhouses on a lathe using about 10 different woods at his Chapel Hill home. He has been making the items for 10 years.

COREY LOWENSTEIN — clowenst@newsobserver.com

  • Who: Bob Shuping

    Ware: Turned wood birdhouses, kitchen and gift items

    Location: Chapel Hill

    Contact: 919-929-3685, www.rsswoodworks.com

    Price: Birdhouses $120 to $225, platters and bowls $15 to $165, toys and ornaments $20

    Where to buy: Through April 8 at Carolina Inn, Chapel Hill, carolinainn.com. Through the artist, at rsswoodworks.com.

  • A little birdie reminded us that April 13 is the date that entries will be accepted for the 12th Annual Birdhouse Competition at the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh.

    This year’s theme is Imaginations Run Wild – Birds Take Flight. Whether you’re an adult or a child, or you prefer functional or fanciful birdie abodes, you’d better get busy.

    Get all the details and a schedule of events here or call 919-513-7005.

After Hurricane Fran blew through the Triangle in 1996, Bob Shuping heard from a friend in Alamance County.

“He told me he’d lost a bunch of walnut trees in the storm and wondered where he could sell the wood,” recalled Shuping, a longtime general contractor in Chapel Hill. “Suddenly, I owned all this premium walnut.”

While “woodworking” was new for Shuping, working with wood was not.

“When I started doing construction in the 1970s, I learned from all the old-timers, using hammers and nails. We did a little bit of everything, including cabinets and decks. Fancy decks are like woodworking.”

Shuping took the four large trees to a sawmill to be cut.

“I was able to work with the guy there and found out how they cut boards to the grain. That was just fascinating.”

From there, his passion grew. Since then Shuping, 53, has created dozens of items from not only walnut, but holly, dogwood, cherry, and other local and American hardwoods.

Shuping constructs beautifully patterned bowls and platters, but birdhouses have become his niche, partly because of his ongoing involvement in the annual Birdhouses on Parade at the Carolina Inn. This year’s show, which ends Sunday, features about 80 houses from 10 regional artisans.

“It’s a really neat show,” Shuping said. “They put all the birdhouses up in the lobby and you pick up a brochure and browse around.”

Shuping’s are the only houses in the show made on a lathe through the process of woodturning, which allows for intricate shapes and designs. His hang from a tree or overhang, and are crested and anchored with spires and spindles.

Shuping built his first dozen birdhouses a decade ago to give as Christmas gifts to his immediate and extended family.

“We like feeding birds, so it seemed like something everyone would appreciate,” herecalled. Shuping and his wife, Connie, a longtime area real estate agent, were thrilled when the birdhouse he’d made for her soon attracted boarders.

“We got chickadees, and we were so excited. We’d just sit and watch them go back and forth. I still have pictures from then that I use. The birdhouse is a little embarrassing, but it’s nice to see the birds using it.”

Over the years, Shuping has changed the dimensions of the dwelling to create the perfect home for songbirds, including sparrows, wrens and finches, though chickadees have remained the most common.

Chapel Hill resident Lili Engelhardt can vouch for their effectiveness. She got to know Shuping when he built a screened porch and finished an attic for her and her family. As a photographer and an admirer of his birdhouses, she volunteered to take photographs for his website.

“He brought over five or six and literally within five minutes, birds were circling. At one, two pairs of birds were fighting for the house. It was like they were apartment hunting in Manhattan.”

Because Shuping’s houses are so refined and can cost up to $225, some buyers opt to display them indoors.

“I encourage people to put them outside,” Shuping said. “If they’re under eaves or even branches, they’ll keep better.”

Although woodturned birdhouses aren’t as commonplace as others, “I can tell you there’s nothing new in woodturning in hundreds of years,” he said with a laugh. The artistry is in highlighting the beauty of the wood, said Shuping, who taught himself through books, videos and plenty of practice.

“It was extremely frustrating at first,” he said. “But once I figured out how to position and sharpen the gouges and get the tools at the right angle, it’s like turning pottery. When you see the grain appear on a rough board, it’s just great. That goes hand in hand with getting a pretty log and seeing where the grain will be and whittling it down to get those parts.”

He makes the house by gluing segments together, like a barrel, and then he custom fits the tops and bottoms.

“I figured out how to make the grain run all the way around the board horizontally so it lines up around the whole house and looks like one piece.” Shuping and his wife are moving this summer from their traditional home to a mid-century modern house, where he hopes to add a showroom.

“One of the things that sold us was the big patio with 12-foot sliding glass doors and tons and tons of birds. We saw bluebirds, chickadees and nuthatches going back and forth to this huge holly.”

Sounds like Shuping soon will have a lot more guests to put up.

Send suggestions to diane@bydianedaniel.com.

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