© 2023 WXPR
Mirror of the Northwoods. Window on the World.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
In addition to the local news, WXPR Public Radio also likes to find stories that are outside the general news cycle... Listen below to stories about history, people, culture, art, and the environment in the Northwoods that go a little deeper than a traditional news story allows us to do. Here are all of the series we include in this podcast: Curious North, We Live Up Here, A Northwoods Moment in History, Field Notes, and Wildlife Matters.These features are also available as a podcast by searching "WXPR Local Features" wherever you get your podcasts.

The Language of Trees: Craftsman Ken Schels

Emily Bright


"When I grab my saw, I'm ready to carve," says Ken Schels.  "I'm hungry.  I wanna make some sawdust. I look forward to it."

Schels may not look like a poet when he’s hauling trees to his sawmill or wielding his chainsaw at a carving competition, but he thinks deeply about trees. Dressed in a plaid flannel and cap, Ken shows me around his Eagle River workshop, stopping at an 11 foot conference table he cut from a single tree from Conover. Trees, Ken says, will tell you a story.

“There was metal in every cut," he explains.  "I mean, a tree like this is probably 140 years old. Somebody hung a sign. You know, there was a party, you know, they hung a balloon on it."

A one-day party, a lifelong marker. Unique growth patterns in the wood are what Ken, like his late father, Carl Schels, loves the most.

“You know my folks been in the area. They were married in 1939 in the Eagle River area here with $10 on their pocket. They went out to the Nicolet National Forest at that time, squatted on government land and lived there for 8 years without water or electricity…And living mainly on deer meat. My dad was an outlaw beaver trapper, so they’d been pioneers, and I am very proud of where we come from because I think it makes you who you are.”

His family was living in back in Eagle River by the time Ken was born, but their living always came from nature. He remembers peeling popple, also called poplar trees, in the summers as a boy.

At the end of the day when we were out there, he would cut, like, limbs that were real crooked or grew back into the tree and we would go collect them and bring them out to the truck because he just enjoyed nature and wood and a little bit of that I guess rubbed off on me.

Those branches became door handles and decorations, just some of the artistry that would later be on display at Carl’s Wood Museum, which hosted more than 40,000 visitors before it closed in 1996 at his father’s death at age 90.

I ask, would you describe yourself as a craftsman or an artist or a logger…?

“I would probably describe myself more as a craftsman," Schels answers. " How about a craftsman with a big imagination."

Now it’s Ken’s turn to host visitors and clients in his shop, where he uses that same imaginative power to turn recycled metal into sculptures.

Credit Emily Bright / WXPR News
Ken Schels says the carver's job is to reveal the story in a piece of wood.

Like a dragon, welded from washers, that actually breathes fire over the shop door. Inside the tall, open workshop, there’s a clear progression: lumber on the left, finished products on the right. In the middle, several projects are in progress--most of them big and loud.  Ken’s nephew, Robert Schels, is welding old farm implements to make the face of a 3-foot metal frog.                                                                                                    

"About 815 washers are welded together to make up this frog," Ken Schels says.  "Its tongue is a scythe, and this scythe will tell you a story if you pay attention to it; it’s very wore down…”

Recycled metal art. Whimsical wooden hobbit houses sturdy enough to live in. Even a tricked-out motorcycle has a story built into it. The seat is a saddle emblazoned with the Celtic god of the forest.

“It’s got a sword on the back, and the sword’s got a chainsaw on it because we’re the carver, right?”

The whimsy around the shop is supported by a great deal of work and planning. That wood stacked on the left of the shop--two semi-loads of it—dries for at least 4 years before Ken carves or builds with it.

“That wood has a lot of power," he explains.  "The slower it dries, the least it’s gonna react, you know. you’re asking the cells to change very quickly…if you want to open the grain up, so you want to move slowly if you can."

Ken admits planning new projects will keep him up at night so that he and his two employees don’t waste a minute during the day. At age 60, he has no plans to stop, but admits the work is physically challenging. 

"A lotta stuff is hundreds and thousands of pounds, we don’t hardly do anything small," Schels says.  "So…it’s very demanding.  You know, I can tell the difference, you know when I was 10 years younger."

There’s always something waiting to be built, another tree or heap of metal ready to tell a story, if only you look close enough to see it. Because if there’s one thing Ken learned from his father, and from his own experience, it’s that the true craftsman is nature. He gestures to an end table whose hollow, gnarled base he’d been saving for 25 years, looking for the right project.

"I mean that is a good example of nature’s work there," he says. "I mean you can see all the wrinkles in and you know all of the design, that’s nature’s work. We cannot duplicate it with tools. It’s just," he sighs, " it's a beautiful piece of wood."

All the carver does, Ken says, is remove the parts he doesn’t want, so you can see the rest.

Related Content