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Sticking with it: Tobacco sticks become furniture and other items

January 15, 2008|BRENDA S. EDWARDS

GRAVEL SWITCH - Ed Lanham of Logan Road has found a fairly inexpensive hobby to keep him busy when he's not working as agricultural agent at the Marion County Cooperative Extension Service in Lebanon.

He uses tobacco sticks to make furniture, cutting boards, signs and an assortment of other items such as picture frames and lollipop trees.

The wood is pieced together like a puzzle to show the different-colored wood and even the worm holes and knots.

"I always wanted to do woodwork, but never took the time or had the proper equipment," Lanham said.

He actually wanted to work with a higher-quality wood, but furniture-grade lumber was too expensive.

"I couldn't afford the lumber, and I didn't want to spend money just to practice."

He also wanted a creative hobby to keep him busy during the winter months when days are shorter and nights are longer.

After much thought, Lanham realized there were tobacco sticks stacked in four barns on family farms that were no longer needed since the family does not raise tobacco any longer.

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"Everybody said the sticks were too rough and ugly to be of any benefit."

He began to appreciate the sticks when he planed them. He learned the sticks were many different types and colors of wood, many he could not identify.

Lanham sent the sticks to the University of Kentucky to have the wood identified. The sticks, some more than 100 years old, were made from 22 different types of wood, including black gum, sweet gum, hickory, black cherry and several different kinds of maple native to Kentucky.

He's also found a few sticks of pine. He thinks they were purchased in the south when sawmills here had a shortage of wood.

"It became fun to see what each stick was made of," said the woodworker. "The hardest work is making the sticks smooth with the plane."

He takes a 13/4-inch stick and planes it to about 1 inch.

He uses the thin sticks to make dining room tables and benches, using barn square and round-tier rails from tobacco barns for legs. Most tables get glass tops to make them functional.

"I can do any kind of design," Lanham said.

He's also making frames for pictures and prints to put in his office at the new Marion County extension service building that soon will be ready for occupancy.

Miniature barns

His most recent items have been miniature barns for kids.

"One woman wanted a miniature barn for her children because they are more durable than plastic ones," said Lanham. "Another person wanted a barn made with tobacco sticks from her great-grandfather's farm."

Lanham also got the most interesting and wide assortment of tobacco sticks from barns on the property of his late grandfather, Isaac Ellis.

"I get so intrigued seeing the old wood and knowing I'm preserving it. Where can you go to find wood this old and the assortment? It's a little treasure itself."

The tobacco sticks are free and several people have given sticks to Lanham after hearing about his hobby.

"The most expensive thing is the plane blades that only last through 200 sticks before they need to be sharpened," he said.

Lanham likes to create his own design and is excited that people with porches and log houses like the rustic look the sticks make.

The 45-year-old Lanham has exhibited his work at the Forkland Festival and Marion County Farm and Garden Show last year. Besides showing off his handiwork, he has samples of tobacco sticks to educate people on the types of wood in tobacco sticks and how to identify trees.

He said the first tobacco sticks were made from sassafras trees when sawmills began to produce the sticks more than 100 years ago.

Lanham hasn't found many black walnut sticks but has learned hickory sticks are the hardest wood.

"Anything I can do with wood, I can do with tobacco sticks," he said, adding that when he retires, he will have something to keep him busy.

His family gets most of his handiwork.

"I don't have a single piece made for myself. All my stuff goes to other people."

He made Christmas gifts last year because most people like personal items tailored to their homes. His sister got an entertainment center that took 30 hours of work, Lanham said.

"It's major work, but it's fun," Lanham said. He added using tobacco sticks in his hobby is his way of recycling.

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