Chattanooga physician uses skills to make furniture

Chattanooga physician uses skills to make furniture

May 5th, 2012 by Clint Cooper in Life Entertainment

Dr. Del Ashcraft Jr. stands by the bed he made for his son at his home on Crest Road in Chattanooga. Ashcraft, an OB-GYN, makes furniture out of wood as a hobby.

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

By day, he operates on patients with a state-of-the-art robotic da Vinci surgical system. By night, he uses relatively primitive hand tools to craft furniture, bowls and an 18-foot sea kayak that is his current project.

Del Ashcraft Jr., an obstetrics/gynecology doctor with Chattanooga Women's Specialists, says he doesn't play golf.

So instead of investing in irons, woods, putters and golf club memberships, he invests in his 112-year-old Missionary Ridge home.

The Classic Revival home, one of four houses on the ridge built by Peerless Woolen Mills founder John L. Hutcheson, was the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera Guild Designer Show House several years ago and was one of five homes on the Historic Missionary Ridge Home & Garden Tour last weekend.

Ashcraft, 46, has filled the comfortable home with antique pieces from the jewelry store his family began in Corinth, Miss., in 1865, and with furniture he began to perfect almost a decade ago after taking a class at Highland Woodworking in Atlanta.

"If it sounds fun," he said, "I'll try" to build it.

Nearly anywhere Ashcraft turns, there's something he has lovingly turned on a lathe or carved with a draw knife.

Here's an oak bench, there's a cherry dining table, over here's a pine buffet, there's a guitar.

Upstairs, in the room of Ashcraft's college-age son Bo, are a chest, dresser, mirror and desk the doctor built from maple wood. The matching bunk bed he crafted, now outgrown by his son, is in another room. Ashcraft also made the new bed, which is a more rough-hewn maple but is no less expertly made.

Suspended from the ceiling in the room is the balsa wood P-38 fighter plane he built while he was in medical school in Jackson, Miss.

In the 700-square-foot apartment,

Ashcraft said, there was little room for bigger wood projects.

Down the hall, in his college-age daughter Jordan's room, is an elaborately papered wooden trunk he made for her American Girl doll collection.

Ashcraft is perhaps most proud of the bow-back Windsor chairs he crafted largely with hand tools.

Among them are an oak continuous arm rocker, an oak fan-back chair, a sack-back chair and a high chair.

With the hours of carving, the steam bending of the arms and back pieces, and the layers of milk-paint and oil on the finished piece, Ashcraft said he probably has 60 to 70 hours in each one.

"It's like artwork," he said.

Ashcraft is crafting his sea kayak, which he hopes to bring in at less than 40 pounds, in his garage. His tools -- from a Knapp combination saw-planer-joiner from Austria to a decades-old spokeshave -- often keep him at work until 2 a.m., according to mom Betty, who was visiting recently from Corinth.

"You can," admitted Ashcraft, "acquire a tool fetish."

The kayak, handcrafted from a kit but custom-designed by the builder, is soundly watertight, holds 450 pounds and was a birthday present to himself.

Outside, as inside, the doctor's handiwork is evident. In front of the stately home, he cut up the two oak trees that damaged the portico, porch and fence during the storms of April 27, 2011, and helped find a retired sheet metalworker who could properly replace the century-old metal molding on the portico.

On one side of his home is a fountain he and his father put in. Behind the house are Adirondack chairs he made. Parked in the rear is a 1978 Toyota FJ Cruiser he restored. In the garden are corn, beans, tomatoes and okra he planted. Beyond a century-old stone wall are usable trunk pieces he cut from a pecan tree that fell across his swimming pool during the 2011 storms.

Ashcraft said his varied abilities -- he also has an electrical engineering degree -- can be blamed on his father, Del, who had an inviting home shop when he was young.

"I tinkered there until dark," he said.

"And he couldn't wait until the science fair," his mom said.

But while Ashcraft still tinkers at home, he works with bigger tools at the hospital, having done 600 surgeries in 38 months on the robotic da Vinci system.

"It's the ultimate power tool," he said. "It's surgery to the nth degree."