Dale Dufer’s lifelong career as an artist took nearly as many twists and turns as the bush honeysuckle wood he now harvests to make his idiosyncratic, organic tables. Although he’s been a woodworker all his life, he’s found new energy in working with an atypical hardwood whose beauty revealed itself to him only in its destruction.
When Dufer hacked away at the invasive bush honeysuckle thickets that filled the backyard of his then-new home on the border of Franz Park and Dogtown, he stacked the cleared branches, intending to use them as pickets for a rustic fence. Upon closer inspection, he noticed the special characteristics of the wood.
Beauty and danger • “One of the key things I’ve learned in making these tables is what nature has taught me. The joinery within bush honeysuckle’s branch structure can’t be beat. I realized the branches could be made into a stable table without carpentry skills. In fact, in this case, previous experience can be a hindrance,” he says.
The process Dufer follows to create with the gnarly wood isn’t based on sketches, but on an understanding of balance and an eye for what nature provides. The plant’s sturdy branches split off in multiples, with angled forks and deep crotches. They kink, curve and bend with natural grace. Slender or chunky, these organic forms can be cut to make a sometimes Byzantine base strong and sturdy enough to support a tabletop.
His exploration of this readily available free material from a destructive plant ignited his imagination. He decided to teach people to build tables. “Tables are universal. Everyone understands them and their function,” he says. “I saw teaching as a way to raise awareness of the dangers of bush honeysuckle.”
Spreading the word • The fact that he had never taught before didn’t stop Dufer from pursuing his idea. His career hasn’t followed a straight path. He worked on the creative Fortune Cabinet team at Mark Twain Bancshares for a time, but soon went out on his own as a cabinet-maker using skills he had honed for years.
Dufer’s native curiosity and his adventurous wife and group friends soon led him down new artistic paths. He expanded his professional work to include theatrical and lighting design, photography, fine furniture restoration and community art projects. “I ask myself, ‘Can you do this?’ If it’s interesting, the answer is, ‘I’ll figure it out.’”
Woodworking for all • In 2015, Dufer had his first gallery show of bush honeysuckle tables, shelves and sculptures at the Stone Spiral Gallery in Maplewood. Soon after, he began teaching Think About Tables workshop classes in the fall and in the spring at Shaw Nature Reserve. At the end of the workshop, participants leave with a table base and with a sub-base to attach a top. “All we use is a handsaw, a drill and some clamps. You don’t have to have experience in woodworking to attend,” Dufer says.
“My youngest student was about 2½, a toddler, when she took my classes. I’ve learned she still has the little table she made sitting on her dresser still today, three years later. My oldest student is in her 80s. She’s come to the classes three times now with four or five friends and family members several times,” he says.
As for the student work, Dufer is sure of one thing. “Nobody’s table is going to look like anybody else’s,” he says.
Dale Dufer Studios and Woodworms
Artist • Dale Dufer
Age • 67
Family • Wife, Jean Ponzi
Home • Franz Park neighborhood in St. Louis
What he does • Dufer, a woodworker, custom furniture maker, photographer, artist and environmental activist has focused his current work to build and to teach others to build tables. He uses bush honeysuckle wood, an invasive, aggressive species that destroys native ecosystems, as stable bases and as a tool to educate people about this harmful plant.
Where to buy • Dufer’s work is available at the Olive Street location of Launch and at selected craft shows throughout the region.
How much • $200 to $1,300 for tables. For information about classes, go to woodworms.net. Fall classes are full. The next available classes will be held Feb. 8 and March 14.