published Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

Woodworker gifts work to friends, celebrities

Woodworker Bige Newman has made more than 20,000 walking sticks. He sent President Bill Clinton one similar to the style at far right with different colors of dyed maples and a chrome handle.
Woodworker Bige Newman has made more than 20,000 walking sticks. He sent President Bill Clinton one similar to the style at far right with different colors of dyed maples and a chrome handle.
Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse.

BIGE NEWMAN

Occupation: Retired from Farmers Chemical and BASF.

Family: Wife Roberta, three children, seven grandchildren.

Unusual materials used: Snakewood, pink ivory.

People would be surprised to know: He has made 20,000 walking sticks over 20 years.

Forty years ago, Frank "Bige" Newman picked up a pocketknife and began whittling for a hobby. Starting with little hammers and whirligigs, he carved a path into more intricate pieces until he had his own shop to make household items and furniture.

Now every room in his home is filled with bowls, tables, candlesticks, vases, chests, dining tables, goblets and furnishings. His work spills over into two barns behind the house on his Harrison property, one of which also holds his shop.

But Newman's claim to fame is his walking sticks.

More than just functional staffs for support, these canes are intricately worked with spirals, beading or combinations of woods, before they're lacquered to a gleaming finish.

"I do a little woodworking myself at times. I'd describe his work as excellent," said Bob Reeves, who attends the same church as Newman.

Newman has gifted canes to friends locally and celebrities nationwide.

"In my Sunday school class, I give everybody a walking stick. I give stuff away all the time," said the Harrison resident.

Martha and Robert Miller each have one of Newman's walking sticks. Mr. Miller has used his for about 15 years.

"I didn't think I would ever need mine when he gave it to me. I sort of laughed and thought I wouldn't use it for a long time," said Mrs. Miller, a member of Newman's Sunday school class. "Then I had to have back surgery, and while I was having therapy I took my cane. Everyone loved my walking cane. It got more attention than I did!"

The craftsman talked about the cost of materials and celebrities to whom he was gifted his work.

Q: What types of woods do you choose?

A: Local woods such as oak, cherry, maple, ash. I've got one big cherry tree I've been making bowls out of. I belong to wood clubs and wood magazines; I've bought wood from all over the world.

Snakewood is a real high-priced wood; it's hard to get. I have a contact in Guyana for it. It can run $500 a walking stick for snakewood.

Q: What's the most you've paid for wood?

A: About $95 a board foot.

Q: Who has received your walking sticks?

A: Ronald and Nancy Reagan, both Bush presidents, Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton, Billy Graham and his wife. I sent one to Queen Elizabeth, but it was returned with a note saying she didn't accept gifts.

Q: Did you get responses from the Americans?

A: Yes, I have thank-you letters from all of them.

Q: What inspired you to send a walking stick to Bill Clinton?

A: When I was turned down for disability, my wife wrote Clinton a letter about being turned down. He got me my disability within a week or two later. This (the walking stick) was a thank-you.

I sent one to President Clinton when he had knee surgery. (Clinton had surgery in March 1997 to reattach a tendon that tore on his right kneecap after a fall on stairs.) He had his secretary call me and relay the message that he liked it better than any others he had tried because it fit his hand better.

He used it while he was in England meeting with Prime Minister Tony Blair (May 1997). It was pictured in papers and magazines of him. A photo from Time magazine showed him using it in the streets of England. The president's secretary sent me some pictures also.

Q: How was Clinton's walking stick designed?

A: The cane I sent him had a chrome handle with different colors of dyed maple. His cane had a triple row of beading spaced in stations the length of cane.

Q: Do you sell your work at shows or online?

A: No, word of mouth. I sell to individuals, but I've never advertised. We don't have anything online; we don't have time for that. I don't even own a computer.

about Susan Pierce...

Susan Palmer Pierce is a reporter and columnist in the Life department. She began her journalism career as a summer employee 1972 for the News Free Press, typing bridal announcements and photo captions. She became a full-time employee in 1980, working her way up to feature writer, then special sections editor, then Lifestyle editor in 1995 until the merge of the NFP and Times in 1999. She was honored with the 2007 Chattanooga Woman of ...

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