73-year-old Radisson, Sask., man carving out passion through woodwork

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WATCH: For over 60 years, John Hessell has been creating wooden works of wonder in both Saskatchewan, and England. Now retired, he is still devoting his time to the craft. Brenden Purdy has the details – Mar 26, 2021

John Hessell’s first ornate woodworking creation came to life decades ago as a young man in London, England.

“I think it was a sewing box for my wife,” Hessell said.

His love for the craft, however, began long before that.

“As a kid I did some, but usually wrecking my dad’s tools,” he chuckled. “But then, I just always did some woodwork.”

Read more: At 82, Saskatoon woodworker spends 8 hours a day raising money for charity

Hessell’s heart may have been in woodwork, but he made a career as a mechanic, allowing his passion to fill his evenings and weekends.

It was a passion that only continued to grow, when in the late 1970’s he began restoring and reproducing antique furniture.

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“In 1978, I think, a woman gave me a bookcase to repair and I’ve always done a little bit on weekends and as people wanted them done,” he said.

His creations have largely been sold throughout the Prairies, but some have made it as far as Vancouver, and even Australia.

But make no mistake, Hessell has an equal many home projects as he does commissions, and establishing the completion order can sometimes prove to be a daunting task.

“Well, it depends how long my wife’s been nagging me,” he laughed. “But I mean, a guy earns a couple of bucks doing other people’s work, so that’s the incentive there. But, I like to share it out, doing some for the home, and some for other people.”

Regardless of the enjoyment he gets from creating the projects, he says it’s nothing compared to the reactions of a customer following a job well done — something his neighbouring shop knows about all too well.

Read more: Saskatchewan woodworking artist wins national award

Hessell’s workspace is shared with the Sesula Mineral and Gem Museum, run by the Tyremans, who commissioned Hessell to restore an ornate bed that’s over 170 years old.

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“I’d like to say I’m getting used to it, but I’m not,” Chris Tyreman explained. “We’ll come in here and he’ll be carving something; someway, somehow, or he’ll be putting something together and I’m boggled.”

“I mean there’s an awful lot of satisfaction in taking an old piece of furniture and turning into a working piece of furniture,” Hessell said. “Say, if it’s a chest of drawers, make it look good so the person you’ve done it for thinks it’s alright.”

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Showcasing medieval instruments at Saskatchewan Woodworkers Guild – May 24, 2019

The master woodsmith’s preferred method of woodworking is by hand, giving the finished product a more natural and original look.

“I think with these modern laser cutters could be a lot neater than what I can do by hand,” he explained. “But, I suppose, to some extent, that’s the beauty of hand work, that there’s always a variety, whereas (with) a laser, the cut is exactly the same.”

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The 73-year-old has been officially retired for two years, meaning he spends a minimum of five hours a days in the shop, something that he doesn’t plan to change doing.

“Well, I’m going to keep working, yeah, ’cause the alternative is not so good, is it?” he chuckled.

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