Bauermeister's Washington, Whiskey, Walnut

The wood from a 150-year-old walnut tree that was growing next to George Washington's whiskey distillery at his Mount Vernon Estate in Virginia is now in the workshop of Augusta wood sculptor Michael Bauermeister.

It arrived last fall in the form of two boards, each 2 inches thick and about 5 feet long.

Bauermeister was asked by Historical Woods of America, a company that takes historic trees that have fallen naturally or are being removed for construction and has them turned into works of art, to create something from the Mount Vernon walnut.

The tree, which was 36 inches at chest height, had to be removed in order to rebuild Washington's distillery on its original foundation. The tree's exact age isn't known, Historical Woods notes, but it surely was not planted in Washington's time.

Still, the historic significance of the tree isn't lost on Bauermeister.

"The fact that it was on the property to me carries a lot of historical weight," he said.

Bauermeister didn't know much about Historical Woods when the company contacted him about a year ago. They had seen his artwork and were interested in having him create an art piece from the Mount Vernon walnut.

The company works with a variety of artists to create pieces - everything from furniture and artwork to flooring, architectural moldings and raw lumber - from historic woods.

Current projects include a horse chestnut tree Washington planted in downtown Fredericksburg, Va.; a Cedar of Lebanon tree from James Madison's Montpelier Estate which came down during an ice storm in 1995; and a tulip poplar tree from Thomas Jefferson's Monticello Estate, which had stood hollow for many years and had to be removed for safety concerns.

Bauermeister, who is most well-known for his tall vessel pieces, was eager to accept the offer from Historical Woods.

Although he regularly works with walnut, he waited to start planning what type of piece he would make until the wood arrived at his shop.

After about a month of rolling the words "Washington, whiskey and walnut" around in his head and discarding several ideas, Bauermeister got to work.

"My idea was to make a barrel-like form, which relates to the whiskey distillery, and to make it exactly George Washington's height - 6 foot, 2 inches - so it's like a portrait of Washington in a way," said Bauermeister.

"I may still add some steel bands around it to make it look even more like a barrel," he said. "And I may put a hole in it like a barrel."

The piece, which is just about finished, resembles Bauermeister's signature tall vessels. It is made the same way - by cutting the wood into layers, which are glued together, then shaped and carved in a way that makes the appearance of the layers fade.

"If I would start with a solid block of wood, it would be impossible for it to be dried and cured, so then it would crack," Bauermeister explained back in 2009 when The Missourian did a feature story on his artwork. "Here, I'm starting with wood that has already been dried."

He uses a variety of turning techniques, "some conventional and some that I've come up with myself that involve very low lathe speeds combined with power tools to do the cutting," he told the Collectors of Wood Art Newsletter back in May 2006.

"I also use a lot of different tools to carve pieces off the lathe, some traditional and some power."

The Mount Vernon walnut piece, like all of the tall vessels Bauermeister creates, is hollow inside. It weighs about 70 pounds.

When Bauermeister spoke with The Missourian earlier this month, a few more coats of laquer were all that were needed to finish the piece. Next he would need to build a crate to transport it.

The piece will either be shipped or Bauermeister may hand deliver it when he goes to New York next month for a show.

The piece, which he is calling "Washington, Whiskey, Walnut" will be part of an art exhibit that will tour the country, being displayed at various museums. After the tour ends, the piece will be offered for sale.

If it sells, Bauermeister - who will set the price - will receive 50 percent.

Over the last several months as he worked on the project, Bauermeister also did some research on George Washington and was surprised by some of the things he learned.

Although friends joked with him about the popular stories of Washington's wooden teeth or telling his father he could not tell a lie, he did in fact chopped down a cherry tree - neither of which are true, Bauermeister notes - he said one thing that impressed him about the first president was that he didn't really want to be president.

"After the war was won . . .

he was ready to go back to farming, and I thought that was great."