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Santa's secret workshop

  • Santa's workshop
    Santa's workshop
Published December 24. 2010 05:00PM

ike a busy elf, Joan Lech buzzes around the workshop nestled in the cellar of her Franklin Township bi-level home.

There, on Robrucel Drive, Joan designs and creates fanciful gifts that lift the spirits of grateful friends and relatives. Her dazzling creations brighten the lives of all who revel in the magic of nature and the colors of Christmas.

Joan isn't a typical elf. She doesn't actually take direction from Santa.

Instead, she's completely self-sufficient in her hobby. On some days, she's a lumberjack, harvesting just the right branches and tree trunks gathered from nearby woods. And with those most basic raw materials, she brings Santa's secret workshop to life.

She saws, cuts and carves. She files, gouges and sands. She paints, lacquers and polishes. And ultimately, produces things of whimsy and beauty.

For Joan, an art education grad of Penn State, inspiration is supplied by nature itself.

How does she know what to create from each limb or twig? It's easy, she says.

"The wood speaks to me. Sometimes I put it away for a while and then it hits me."

If Joan has a special relationship with trees and forests, it likely comes from an unusual childhood.

The former Joan Salata, Joan was born in Lattimer Mines, and grew up a self-described tomboy in the hard coal region of northeastern Pennsylvania.

She wasn't into doilies, tea parties and petticoats. Instead, she chose fishing, hiking, whittling and carving.

"I had cap guns and baseball bats rather than dolls," she says. "I was one of the guys."

"My dad would take me into the woods, our backyard was the woods. And we'd go to Hickory Run State Park. We'd hunt and fish. I always wanted to be outside. I'd take a pocket knife and then skin branches," says Joan, a 1970 graduate of Hazleton High School.

While at Penn State, she met husband Joe. Joe Lech, a Coaldale native, was studying film and TV production. The two began dating, eventually marrying. They've been together 31 years and are the proud 'parents' of Simon, an adopted cockatiel.

Today, Joe works in the drafting department of PPL. As for Joan, her career took many twists and turns. She spent time in accounting and also served as a substitute art teacher in the Tamaqua, Lehighton and Hazleton school districts.

In 1988, she enrolled in a wood carving course at Lehigh Carbon Community College after Joe noticed an ad for the course in the daily newspaper.

That seminar pointed her in the right direction and Joan never looked back.

"I started with carving birds, usually on bass wood. Wood is so pretty. You never know what you're going to find under the bark," she explains.

But soon Joan expanded her repertoire and began carving all kinds of subject matter on all kinds of woods, such as cypress and walnut.

In fact, she carves things most would consider uncarvable, including wooden pallets, spoons, golf balls, spools, clothes pins, driftwood, factory bobbins - you name it.

She then paints the carved pieces using acrylics, oils or whatever works best. Sometimes she uses nothing at all, recognizing beauty in the grain itself.

"Some wood is just natural."

She also does wood turning using a lathe, along with wood-burning, and has become an expert on various types of woods and their characteristics.

"Southern pine is too hard. Butternut is pretty and nice. Chestnut I use for turning. Tupelo and bass wood I use for birds, and bass wood for just about anything else."

The past-time also required Joan to venture into the field of industrial arts.

While many other housewives were busy learning how to put a layer of perfect frosting on a Dutch Chocolate cake, Joan was rolling up her sleeves and honing her technique on industrial and shop equipment.

She is skilled on a band saw and table saw, drills, sanders, files, gouges and carving knives.

She teaches some of her skills at the Northeast Woodcarvers Roundup at Cherry Ridge, near Honesdale, and is active with the Lehigh Valley Chippers, a group that meets at the Woodcraft Store, Allentown.

She hasn't entered shows or fairs with her finished pieces nor does she accept commissions to produce work. Just like Santa, she normally gives away the items as gifts.

For Joan, the art of woodcarving is therapeutic even though it can be time consuming.

For instance, it can take 4-1/2 hours for Joan to produce a Santa face on a golf ball.

But that's okay. Woodcarving is her passion and a way to deal with life's routine stressors. You might say that Santa's workshop is Joan's escape.

"I'll come down here for maybe an hour and before I know it, it's four or six hours later. I just love it so much. It takes me away from the rest of the world," Joan confesses.

And that's how it goes for most of us.

So many times throughout the busy year, we find a need for peace and quiet.

We yearn for a break from life's hubbub, a respite from the trials, struggles and disappointments of daily living.

Or maybe we just want to sneak away to be with ourselves, maybe to bask in the feeling of success and accomplishment, or maybe to express gratitude when things are going right.

We all need our little escape.

And for Joan Lech, there's simply no better retreat than Santa's secret workshop, where all things merry are brought to life.

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