Woodworker Paul Bauhs takes the road less traveled
By Sara Friedl-Putnam • Photos by Kyrl Henderson
Originally published in the Winter 2012-13 Inspire(d)
Paul Bauhs lives barely 10 miles past Decorah’s city limits, yet his house (and adjacent workshop) feels much more remote. So off-the-beaten-path is Bauhs, in fact, that many first-time visitors get at least a little lost; bears are not unheard-of neighbors; and, yes, even MapQuest doesn’t get the route quite right.
It was the secluded nature of this breathtaking piece of land along the Upper Iowa River that first lured this talented woodworker to Decorah three decades ago – and it’s also one of the main reasons he can’t ever envision leaving. This homestead is where he has, quite literally, carved out a niche for himself in Northeast Iowa’s rich artisan community.
“I love Decorah,” says Bauhs. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else.” Nor can he imagine making a living any way else. A native of Waverly, Iowa, Bauhs has always, as he puts it, “been good with my hands.” And he’s always been fascinated by wood. As a child, he would spend hours at a time at the local lumberyard. “It was my favorite place to hang,” he says. “I thought the guys who worked there had the coolest jobs in the world.”
By his early teens, he had graduated from admiring wood to working with it. His first piece? A rustic aquarium cabinet. “It looked pretty good and didn’t fall down,” he says with a laugh. “That was a time when experimentation was its own reward.”
Bauhs would go on to graduate from Wartburg College, a small liberal arts college in his hometown, with a degree in psychology and plenty of studio art classes on his transcript. Though he considered a career in art education – and took classes at both Wartburg and, later, the University of Iowa in that discipline – it was during a three-year apprenticeship working alongside the master craftsmen at the famed Amana (Iowa) Furniture Shop that he found his life’s calling. He learned how to choose just the right piece of wood for a given project, how to set up machinery (and set it up right), and how to work with tools like a planer to size the thickness of boards and a drill press to make holes in those boards.
“I had no professional skills to speak of when I started there and had to learn the ‘language’ of woodworking,” says Bauhs. “Even though there wasn’t much creativity involved, the repetition of making the same furniture designs over and over made it a great place to learn.”
By the early 80s, Bauhs was yearning for “a different way of life” than a city could provide – a place where he could work as vegetable grower (also a longtime passion), pursue interests like woodworking and canoeing, and help raise a family. Determined to find just the right spot, he spent years looking at property throughout Northeast Iowa before finally landing on the 33 acres where he still resides and where he raised his two sons, Aaron and Logan. “When we came down through the woods, I just knew,” he says. “The house was in pretty rough shape, but that wasn’t really a consideration – you can always change the house, but you can’t change the land.”
Today that house – a circa 1865 log cabin with a much newer wood-frame addition – is equal part home and showroom, a testament to Bauhs’s prodigious woodworking talent. Crafted over the course of a 20-year home-renovation process, his handiwork enlivens every room – from the live-edge honey locust stair rail to the live-edge elm mantel (his favorite piece) that decorates a living room so full of his visually commanding furniture that, upon entering the room, it’s difficult to decide where to look first. “I’m a very visual person,” he says of finding inspiration. “That’s a big reason why I enjoy woodworking so much.”
As his home might suggest, while Bauhs is skilled in working with all kinds of wood, he particularly enjoys the challenge of transforming live-edge wood – or wood that retains its natural edges, knots, and wild-grain patterns – into furniture and cabinetry that both function well and look great. “It takes some creativity to figure out what to do with the natural character of a piece of wood, but I like that challenge,” he says, adding, “I think people are yearning for more nature in their homes, and that’s why this type of woodwork resonates with so many folks.”
Having turned avocation into vocation over the last three decades, Bauhs has crafted cabinetry and furniture (both more traditional and live edge) that can be found in homes, offices, and kitchens throughout the region, as well as St. Ben’s Catholic Church and First United Methodist Church in Decorah. Still, Bauhs is quick to point out he is just one in the large (and growing) community of skilled artisans this area boasts. “There’s an amazing artisan presence here,” he says, citing Chris Wasta of Wild Rose Timberworks as having a particularly strong influence on his work. “I can’t imagine working with better people – I’m always learning from them.”
And they, no doubt, from him. Watching Bauhs don his protective gear, pull out his miter saw, and start to work on a walnut table – he likes most local wood species, but walnut is his favorite – it’s clear he’s carved out a place for himself in the Driftless Region – and it’s exactly where he was meant to be, doing exactly what he was meant to do.
“I always try to strike a balance between functional needs and appearance,” he says, pausing thoughtfully. “I tend to think a lot of what I do is sculpture with a purpose.”
Sara Friedl-Putnam admits to getting a bit lost on her way to interview Paul Bauhs but fully enjoyed the off-the-beaten path adventure nonetheless.