Shaker Inspired: Ed Wooten's Oval Boxes

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Ed Wooten handles one of his Shaker oval boxes.
One thing I’m learning about Cannon County is that almost every nook and cranny of Short Mountain has an artist of some kind living there. It’s a special place, rising some 800 feet above the surrounding plane.

Recently I visited with Ed Wooten and his wife Janet who bought land there in the late 90s (shortly after their friend Tom Fuhrman) and made the move from Indiana in 2003 in search of a peaceful retirement.

Janet laughs at that and notes how her husband has retired about three or four times. And she’s right. After each job he tells me he retired from, another follows. His dedication to hard work is evident. Even in retirement Wooten continues to stay busy, only this time his focus is on making art.

Wooten has always played with glass as a hobby starting with a pair of stained glass lamp kits Janet gave him in the 1970s. Janet points to a later style lamp on a sofa table in their living room. Wooten now makes fused glass pendants, and this summer will explore faceted glass.

But it was his Shaker oval boxes that recently caught my eye at the Arts Center of Cannon County where he also serves as a board member. Their functional design and 19th century construction were unmistakably Shaker inspired.

Janet shows me the first set of nested Shaker oval boxes one of their sons made a few years ago. After I noted how they seemed a little too good for a first time, Wooten told me his son was an expert cabinet maker.

Wooten and his wife were exposed to Shaker culture when they lived briefly in Kentucky. Wooten remembers an article on Shaker oval box made by John Wilson in Fine Woodworking Magazine in the 1990s. Shortly after moving to Short Mountain, Wooten took one of Wilson’s last classes on Shaker oval box making offered at Shaker Village in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky. It was an arduous three day class, but it was enough to keep Wooten making them ever since.

Wooten tells me he knows enough about the Shakers to guess why people didn’t always take to the communal way of life. “It’s tough work,” he says with a smile as he told me what he learned about their way of life.

Wooten shows me his shop and the materials he buys from Wilson and his business partner Eric Pintar’s shop in Charlotte, MI. He shows me the numbering system used (0 – 5) for his nested set and why zeroes are the hardest to make.

“See that curve right there,” he points to the sharp turn on the smallest oval box. “It’s difficult to get the wood to keep that curve without it splintering.”

Wooten shows me a box of scrap veneers his sons send him and how he uses some of the unique grains on box tops. For most of the sides, Wooten uses maple or cherry. The bottoms are most often “lace wood,” or Sycamore.

Wooten tells me the boxes are held together with nothing more than tiny copper nails and wooden pegs for top and bottom. When you hold one of these in your hands it’s hard to believe how sturdy they are.

Shakers used oval boxes in pantries and to hold everyday items like nails, buttons, and sewing kits. Like most folk art, the items are used less out of necessity and more appreciated for their fine craftsmanship.

Next month, I’ll visit Wooten at his Short Mountain shop as he shows me how he puts his Shaker oval boxes together. Here are more photos from my trip.

Visit The Stones River Co. for additional information

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