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CRAFTS : Taking Up a Little Furniture Making : After Accident Results in Partial Paralysis, Retiree Lets Hobby Chip Away at Boredom

June 17, 1993|ZAN DUBIN | Zan Dubin covers the arts for The Times Orange County Edition.

Jake Thomas has always had a positive attitude, not the kind of guy to mope. After a 1991 accident left him paralyzed from the chest down, the retired naval refrigeration engineer taught himself a craft that has kept him busy ever since.

His hand-carved dollhouse furniture has made lots of little kids happy too.

"You have to have something to do," said Thomas, 69, who broke his back when he fell from a back-yard ladder. "I wasn't going to sit around and worry about my condition."

He started out with a simple pocketknife but now uses specialized X-Acto knives.

The Santa Ana resident advises beginners to start by carving soap, or to simply jump in with both feet.

"Just take a pocketknife and a piece of wood and start out on something," said Thomas, who assembled model airplanes as a kid. "Have patience and don't get discouraged and don't be afraid to ask questions."

How did he figure out what to do without the benefit of a single book?

"By gosh and by golly," he explained, "by trial and error."

Thomas creates his pint-size furnishings from bass-wood strips he buys at hobby shops, and his output has been prodigious. Last Christmas, for instance, instead of mailing cards, he made 53 miniature dining-table chairs and gave them to friends. He also creates dining tables, rocking chairs, buffets and back-yard swings--that actually swing--and carves animals out of hand soap as well.

After making his first dining-room chair--modeled after one in his kitchen--he made a template so all future chairs would be uniform.

For all projects, he makes batches of individual components, staining each component after carving it out of the light-colored wood, then goes to work on assembly.

To start one of his three-inch-tall dining table chairs, he glues together three thin strips for a seat with an authentic two-tone look.

Next, he uses a small, hand-operated pin vice drill to pierce five holes at the back of the seat into which he will fit slats made of toothpicks to form the chair's back.

After gluing a square supporting frame under the seat, he makes the chair's slightly curved back legs, placing over a small mound in a special template two wood pieces he has moistened and allowed to dry for pliability.

He then glues the seat to the back legs, glues on front legs and brushes on an acrylic lacquer for a polished finish.

This year, Thomas will display his furniture and soap carvings at the Orange County Fair (July 9 to 25), and he has donated work for charitable auctions. But he hasn't sold anything yet, reluctant to "take the hobby out of it."

"It's relaxing and it's therapy," he said, because it helps maintain arm and hand articulation, "and there's the pure enjoyment of accomplishing something."

Thomas also gives soap-carving demonstrations to other paraplegics at area hospitals. Many of the youths he visits at Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center in Downey have been injured by gunfire, he said.

"So many paraplegics wind up doing nothing. They just vegetate. I let them know there's another world beyond the fall or gunshot."

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