Red Bluff Woodworker Mike Shaffer
By Melissa Mendonca
Crafting GreatnessFebruary 2015
By Melissa Mendonca
Photos: Michelle Hickok
The trained eye of a true craftsman woodworker sees the grain of a board that may have been discarded to the elements and now appears warped and weathered. Through careful refinement, those rough edges can be smoothed over to reveal a warm glow that highlights the essence of what was once a wondrous tree.
That essence then becomes shaped into something beautiful, perhaps a table, chair or bowl. But first the craftsman must be able to see the potential, to look beyond the wrecked facade and know that the time-consuming effort to uncover layers of devastation will result in something remarkable.
Red Bluff 's Mike Shaffer has had a long history of creating functional pieces of beauty from all sorts of wood. From high-end homes and businesses in Beverly Hills to wineries in the Napa Valley to homes around Tehama County and the North State, he's left his mark with cabinets, bars and tables. “Our specialty became wineries,” he says of the business he took over from his father in 1992. “That was our bread and butter for many years."
As time wore on, Shaffer started scaling back his business, paying attention to the toll years of work had taken on his back. It wasn't long, however, before Tehama County Chief Probation Officer Richard Muench came calling, asking him to work with his alternative custody offenders in a woodworking program that would teach tangible job skills using funds from the AB109 Community Corrections Partnership.
Shaffer signed on, turning the eye that can see the beauty of a weathered piece of wood to some of the county's most weathered individuals. He did so with gusto, assembling a team to set about creating a show-stopping concession stand for the historic State Theatre in Red Bluff.
The State Theatre is in many ways the pride of the county and its cultural home base. With its newly restored neon blade aglow, it provides an iconic welcome to the downtown area, hosting concerts, movies, dance performances, comedy nights and even graduations.
To contribute to the restoration efforts of its lobby, then, is no average task. “We all tried to come up with something that was going to be overwhelmingly beautiful,” Shaff er says of his team. “Everyone brought in their ideas. Everybody. It was not uncommon for me to have four guys looking at the plans.”
The secret to Shaffer's success is an ability to play to each student's strengths. “I know everybody's ability level — each one of them,” he says of his students, who oft en show up with little to no work experience and long lists of barriers they've had to overcome, from addiction to years lost to prison. “I try to fit each one of them to a position where their best skills are utilized.”
Shaffer started out with a simple Shaker design for the concession stand, but over time, it morphed into a highly detailed piece with “intense usage of moldings.” Rosettes were assembled from multiple pieces of wood, and a staggering number of mitered pieces complement a finished product that is 10 feet deep, 14 feet across and about 4 feet tall.
“These guys — they put their heart and soul into it,” says Shaffer of the stand that was installed in early November. “They were very enthusiastic, very creative.” Th e concession stand boasts a copper countertop and cabinet doors, all of which were hand hammered by the team.
The project was particularly sweet for Bill Cornelius, who rounded out his tenure as board president for the State Theatre for the arts with this project. Cornelius is a retired Tehama County Chief Probation Officer and bit on early to the idea of alternative custody offenders doing work on the theater. “This magnificent new concession,” he says, "would only be a distant dream” if not for the contribution of the work crew. Their labor was offered free of charge to the nonprofit organization.
“Perhaps even more important was the work ethic and level of professionalism shown by program participants that will only enhance their chance to succeed in the future,” he adds.
The new concession stand certainly generates talk by those who first step into the
theater. The copper shines and the moldings invite a closer inspection of detail. The best
stories, though, are those of the people who made it — those who came in rough around
the edges and weathered by life but who found the pure grain of their potential through support and guidance to create something stunning for their community.