From backyard to barn: woodworking the old-fashioned way

It is often difficult to find goods made in the United States, much less made locally by hand. But in Rappahannock County, there are people who preserve old techniques that were developed generations before industrialization. These individuals are not just protecting the environment and helping the local economy; they are also preserving American art forms. This is the sixth in a series of articles about Rappahannock residents who are proud to carry on the work of artisans of bygone days by doing things “the old way.”

Ron Soldo poses with a bar chair and a table/cabinet he made for Joyce Harman’s studio. He said the curves of the wood grain reminded him of a battle between a witch and wizard. He imagined the story as he made it, but he never determined who won. He considers the table his masterpiece.Kay Beatty | Rappahannock News
Ron Soldo poses with a bar chair and a table/cabinet he made for Joyce Harman’s studio. He said the curves of the wood grain reminded him of a battle between a witch and wizard. He imagined the story as he made it, but he never determined who won. He considers the table his masterpiece.

Massies Corner resident Ron Soldo is living a dream that was honed in his backyard and continues in a barn.

Soldo’s dream is his business, Great Outdoors Woodworking, located on veterinarian Joyce Harman’s farm in Flint Hill.

“I work where I am surrounded by a natural landscape, which is very fitting for the type of work I do,” he said.

Using centuries-old methods of manipulating and finishing wood, Soldo, 51, has carved a specialty market that includes equestrian items, furniture and picture frames. He’s also accomplished in the art of furniture restoration.

“Furniture made by hand 200 years ago is simply better than most of what is produced today,” he said. “It was bent with hand and steam, and detailed by hand. It’s still around for a reason. I’m happy I’m able to breathe life into somebody’s work from years past, returning it to its former state of magnificence.”

Although he immensely enjoys restoring antiques, his greatest passion is using his imagination to create new wood items – furniture, picture frames, art, nearly anything – using the methods of yesteryear. Soldo credits his grandfather for the inspiration to become a traditional wood artist, as well as for the genes to be able to carry it through.

“When I was a child, I watched my grandfather work in his shop, thinking he did the coolest thing in the world,” Soldo said. His grandfather ran a machine shop for tugboats on the Erie Canal. Soldo grew up in Maryland, but often visited his grandparents in New York. To Soldo, the highlight of each visit was spending time in the machine shop.

“I was amazed at what he could make from scrap wood and metal, from tools he made from the same scraps,” he said. Soldo also frequently observed a much older man working in the adjoining wood shop.

“I’d watch the ‘oldtimer’ patiently sanding and working rough wood for hours, making it smooth and beautiful for the boats,” Soldo said. “Although it was obviously hard work, I wanted to do it, too.”

And he did, although his first finished piece was something a little less impressive than a boat.

“I made a cutting board for my mother,” Soldo said. “She used it almost every day. My sister still has what’s left of it.” Not long after he made the cutting board, he and a friend built an attractive and usable sleigh.

“I was thrilled to build things that people could enjoy and use,” he said. “I was happy that I, like my grandfather, had the talent to not only design things, but also carry the designs to fruition.”

Like his grandfather, the oldtimer and those who built things before electric tools came into the picture, Soldo, too, crafts largely by hand using his own tools, also handmade. The process is time-consuming and takes a lot more physical strength than conventional methods, but, to Soldo, the traditional way is worth it.

Beekeeper Ann Harman, Joyce’s mother, refers to Soldo as a “wow” cabinet maker.

“He’s a true artist whose medium is wood,” Harman said. “He gets excited about the colors, the grain, the imperfections…he uses them to create something magnificent. I’m pleased I can see his work every morning when I tend to the horses!”

Joyce Harman agrees with her mother.

“Ron’s work with wood is amazing,” she said. “He sees and feels what a piece of wood can be. He has taken raw, rough-cut boards and made them into fine furniture, and has restored pieces to their original glory. I enjoy giving my furniture a nice stroke as I walk by, the way I would pat a dog as I pass by.”

Although Soldo, like many artists, is much more critical of his work than his clients, he agrees that his work is art.

 “Every bend and board placement is not an accident, Soldo said. “I work with each board until I get exactly what I envision.”

After creating an item, he applies one or more natural naturally derived finishing products, a rarity in the modern day where time is limited and much cheaper petroleum-based varnishes, stains and polyurethanes are available.

“I use natural finishes because I prefer the look,” he said. “They simply don’t change the wood’s appearance like petroleum-based products do. Instead they bring out the exquisite qualities intrinsic to the wood. In other words, they simply enhance the details that are already there.” Soldo noted that there’s another important reason he goes the natural route.

 “I simply would not sell parents a cradle or a table covered in a toxic petroleum stain,” he said. “Children like to gnaw on things. A child could safely chew on a bar of natural beeswax or get into anything else I use.”

Some of the other products he uses for finishing are citrus solvents, tung and other oils, tree resins, waxes and mineral dyes.

“I take care in choosing what I use,” he said. A business major who worked in management and sales for decades, Soldo has the expertise to find finishes made from honest companies that are also earth-friendly.

“Many so-called natural products on the market contain tung oil, but they’re not pure or good quality. I do the research and buy the best.” One of his favorite companies is Earthpaint (earthpaint.net), a company that prides itself in the sustainable manufacture of nontoxic paints and finishes.

“It’s important for me to choose environmentally friendly companies, as well as utilize sustainable methods in my own business,” he said. “After all, I’m very attached to the earth and the trees on it.”

 In fact, Soldo doesn’t remember a time when he wasn’t drawn to the outdoors, especially to fallen wood.

“I’ve always looked at a cross-section or strip of wood and saw patterns and shapes, just like most people gaze at the clouds in the sky and see horses, rabbits or other shapes,” he said. “I visualize stories in the wood, and use them to determine the style of whatever I’m making.”

But making things was something he had to do in his spare time, until six years ago, when his family moved to Flint Hill.

“My family and I moved to a house next to Sandy Hook Stables,” he said. “Of course the first thing I wanted to do was set up my shop, but there was no room. So I worked in the backyard.”

Being exposed to the elements, and to passersby, turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

“It wasn’t long before the ladies who frequented the stables started peering over the fence, looking at my work scattered around the yard,” he said. They’d ask a lot of questions such as, ‘What are you working on now?’ or ‘How did you make that?’ And they talked to my wife, who is also a rider.” It wasn’t long until requests came in for saddle racks, furniture and other items for tack rooms and homes. Some would also ask him to restore their antiques. News quickly spread throughout the equestrian community and beyond. Soldo found himself with so many orders that he was able to leave his career in sales to concentrate on his coveted profession.

But the fact remained that he had no shop.

“I was getting a lot of orders, but rain and heat often hindered production,” he said. Vet Joyce Harman, who often serviced Sandy Hook Stables, noticed his problem and offered her barn in Flint Hill as a shop – and her studio as remodeling job.

“Everything just fell into place,” he said. Soldo refers to Harman as one of his favorite people because of her generosity and appreciation of nature.

“Her farm is very inspirational,” Soldo said. “I’m surrounded by incredible trees to enjoy, I have a roof over my head, and Joyce gives me interesting antique restoration projects, such as refinishing a 100-plus-year-old bathtub in her studio. Plus I frame photographs for her exhibitions at Old Rag Gallery [in Sperryville].” Soldo hopes to transition to framing exclusively when he’s an “oldtimer,” since manipulating large pieces of wood and finishing them using natural products is physically difficult.

 “I simply love what I do, and I plan on doing it for the rest of my life,” he said, “What can be better than crafting wood, with its intricate patterns and grains, as a painter puts brushstrokes to a canvas?” he said. “And I’m doing it for a living. I couldn’t ask for more!”

But Soldo is getting more. His 11-year-old grandson, Dylan, shares his talent for wood artistry.

“Every time Dylan visits he spends time with me in my shop, just as I hung out with my grandfather in his shop,” Soldo said. “We work together, side by side.”

Soldo thinks his grandson will also become a wood artist by trade, perhaps working with his grandpa for a while before setting out on his own.

“My dream is that someday my business will be renamed, Papa Soldo and Grandson. After all, we both have the talent, the drive and the same slogan, ‘It’s all good when it’s made with wood.’ We live by our words!”

For more information about Great Outdoors Woodworking, call Ron Soldo at 540-522-4525.

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