A river runs through artisan Donny Schaap’s work
By Lacey Thacker
After beginning his career as a production manager for Spalding, Donny Schaap and his brother-in-law decided to go into the construction business. While they primarily did remodeling jobs, they also occasionally built log homes. Later in life, Schapp went into the insurance business, and after twenty years he retired. It was then, he says, “My wife and I decided to build a cabin on the White River, so I got back into carpentry and woodworking.”
It was a hobby that took root in his childhood. Donny’s father did a lot of carpentry, including building a fishing boat and a few pieces of furniture for their house. That, Donny says, is where he developed the interest in wood-working as a young kid. His father-in-law was also an excellent carpenter, and Donny says he learned a lot from him as well.
After he and his wife finished the cabin, Donny continued building pieces as people requested them. Friends and family encouraged Donny to sell his work, so he contacted his friend Duane Hada of Rivertown Gallery, in Mountain Home. He and Duane have been friends since the 1990s, and it was Duane who taught Donny how to fly fish. Together they even started a club, the Fort Smith Fly Fishers, which still exists today. When Donny called, Duane was looking for a woodworker to feature in the shop; the timing was perfect.
Some of Donny’s favorite things to make are stools, tables and benches, because, he says, “I can be a little more creative with them.” But that’s not all he makes—he also crafts custom serving trays with an inlay that depicts the route of a particular creek or river.
“When you’re building with wood you have to let it dry for a long time, and most people don’t realize that,” he explains. After the wood dries for a year or more, he cuts a piece to fit the size and shape of the tray he has in mind. Then he runs it through a planer to smooth it out. Next comes what Donny describes as, “a lot of sanding—a lot of sanding.” He applies a single coat of food-safe butcher block oil before putting in the design of the river. “I have a map that I’ve had scaled down. I lay out my river with pencil, then I come back and route it in,” Donny says. Next he pours colored resin into the route. Every river he inlays is to scale—it shows every bend and every curve: exactly as it is on the map. Once the resin dries, he applies finish to the whole piece.
Donny also makes the feet the trays sit on. For a time he purchased pre-made feet, until one day, he says, he realized, “What am I doing? I’m a woodworker!” Donny’s daughter-in-law suggested he put “fancy” handles on the trays, and he says that’s added yet another layer of variety, which is what he so enjoys about custom woodworking—not only can a different handle change the whole look of a piece, so too can the finish, the style of the legs, and even the grain of the wood.
As for preferred species, Donny explains, “Oak is harder to work with than any of them. I really do enjoy walnut and cedar. For my other things, like stools, tables and benches, I use a lot of sassafras. The key is, if you’re making rustic furniture, two to three times a year you’ve got to be out in the woods cutting material you’re not going to use for another year or two.”
Donny and his family enjoy gathering at the cabin on the river, where his sons and daughter and their spouses, along with his grandchildren, can appreciate the outdoors. He says the garage there is full of non-motorized watercrafts, because, “We do a lot of kayaking and canoeing. We’re right there where all the rivers are, so we have our pick.”
When asked what he thinks goes into making a piece special, he tells a story: After seeing the king-sized bed he made from cedar logs for their cabin, his daughter-in-law requested a dining table. He and his wife were tearing down an old family barn, and he used that salvaged wood to make the dining table. Another woman emailed to ask if he could craft a tray made of walnut from her family land. “You just try to make things that are going to have memory and feelings and traditions in them,” he reflects.
Donny Schaap can be reached at email@example.com.