Chris NothnagleIn middle school in 1966, a shop teacher showed interest in three students out of a class of 20. Chris Nothnagle, along with the two other classmates, sat at their own table, continually working with what he called “the utmost encouragement.”

After that class Nothnagle said he envisioned that he would one day have his own shop. The vision stayed with him through high school and college until he could afford tools a little bit at a time. Nothnagle has been doing woodworking for 50 years.

The first pieces he designed were after college when he started working and had a basic two-room flat. One room functioned as the shop and the other room was his bedroom. He started by reading woodworking magazines and following diagrams and procedures to build projects from plans given. With experience, he was able to make his own plans to build what he saw or visualized.

“The length of time to finish a piece depends on how many times I have built one,” Nothnagle said. “For any new project I start with the prototype, then I make adjustments until I am pleased with the result. After three constructions I can go into mass production. If it is a special piece I may work on it for a month or more. My longest project was an oriental desk set that had Asian motifs.”

Nothnagle’s work is amazingly intricate. The painstaking attention to detail is obvious in the execution of his designs. Known for his checkerboard cutting boards, pepper mills, tables and even wooden cell phone holders, Nothnagle not only produces beautiful work but keeps function in mind.

“Currently I am making three dimensional-looking cutting boards that are a challenge to meet the precise cutting arrangements,” he said. Some of Nothnagle’s favorite challenges have been Queen Anne antiques with cabriole legs. But for Nothnagle, designing and building something unique is not just a hobby but therapy. “Woodworking is therapeutically beneficial to my nerves as I relax and am in a world far away from the daily tensions,” Nothnagle said. He has started a woodworking club at Fork Union Military Academy where he said he “instills the bug into his students to make cool stuff people will like.” He also has the advantage of sharing his enthusiasm with the next generation of woodworkers.

“My favorite woods are mahogany and walnut,” he said. “They make beautiful constructions. But now I use woods from around the world. As a member of the International Wood Collectors Society (IWCS), I have friends that are able to send me wood from each continent.” He joined IWCS in 1984. He’s been to Australia to the world meeting and has learned from some of the best craftsmen in the world how they do operations.

One 2005 IWCS world meeting led to an exciting opportunity. Nothnagle learned that scientists had discovered wood from under Antarctica polar ice, he said. He contacted the excavation team and offered to create a display to include the find.
“They discovered ancient stumps and brought samples back to the U.S.,” he said. The team “sent me a sample that they photographed and weighed and asked for it to be returned intact to the nearest gram.”
Nothnagle built near-bulletproof boxes with glass fronts to show this exciting find and said the show was a hit, with many onlookers showing interest and asking lots of questions.

One scientist was so gratified by the display that he sent Nothnagle a slice of stump after he returned the wood samples. “The World Treaty concerning Antarctica states that nothing can be taken off the continent by anyone except scientists and educators,” he said. “The IWCS is a nonprofit educational institution that shares information on wood and woodworking with its members. I have been an educator for 42 years. I show off the sample to anyone interested in seeing it at woodworking meetings around the U.S. I consider it an honor to even possess it.”

Nothnagle’s journey with wood has engaged his passion in so many ways, from creating one-of-a-kind pieces to learning about exotic and prehistoric woods. No doubt the journey will continue in more challenging and exciting ways.