Neal Callsen cannot identify the species of birds that come to his feeder on a cold December morning. What really interests Callsen is the construction details of the bird feeder itself.
Callsen is a woodworker and furniture restorer who recently began building replicas of Routt County's architectural landmarks in the form of bird feeders.
"I enjoy doing these because they are buildings of Steamboat that everyone recognizes," Callsen said.
Callsen's business, Creative Wood of Steamboat, is devoted primarily to building custom furniture, restoring historic pieces and doing custom trim work in private homes. He works out of a sun-filled shop installed in a garage in Steamboat's historic Old Town.
Callsen grew up outside Lodi, Calif., in the San Joaquin Valley, where he learned wooden boat building at the side of his father, Fred. The demands of building tightly constructed boats turned Neal into a detail-oriented woodworker. It also was Fred Callsen who encouraged Neal to build replica bird houses.
"My dad has been building them forever," Callsen said.
The first Steamboat birdhouse that Callsen undertook was a neighbor's house that was visible out the window of his shop. It's a modest rectangle, but the house, circa 1913, is emblematic of many of Old Town's older homes. It's unknown if his neighbor's house is one of those moved to Steamboat from the vanished coal mining town of Mount Harris, or if it was constructed on site. Callsen has given his birdhouse a new name -- with tongue in cheek, he calls it "The 'Burbs."
The house gave Callsen a template that is easy to modify and relatively easy to knock out in batches of 10. That allows him to get the price down to $55. which people can afford. His next model, based on a similar design, will be the Mesa Schoolhouse, complete with the cupola designed to hold the school bell. The actual little red one-room schoolhouse sits on the side of U.S. Highway 40 near the base of Rabbit Ears Pass.
An example of a landmark that has disappeared from the scene is the Western false front that graced Lockhart Auction and Realty for 32 years. Callsen heard the property had been purchased by the library district and surmised that it might not stand on the banks of Soda Creek much longer.
"I went and sketched it, but I didn't photograph it," Callsen said. A few weeks later, the unoccupied building was torn down, but Callsen had made enough of a record to allow him to re-create the building. His miniature rendering is complete with the structure's twin doors and hitching posts, and the name of the businesses burned into the false front.
Callsen also has mastered the historic More Barn. His replica is priced at $110.
The birdhouses have removable roofs designed to allow their owners to refill them. However, they are held tightly in place against Routt County winters with a system of bungee cords and rubber flanges made from a material Callsen formerly used in boat building. Every birdhouse is finished with an expensive weatherproofing stain that ensures they can stand up to a harsh winter climate.
"Some people tell me, 'Oh, these are too nice to leave outside,'" Callsen said. "But they're meant to be used."
Callsen has begun experimenting with a prototype of the historic tow house at the Howelsen Hill Ski Area. He has found a way to replicate its log construction by running pine planks for several passes through a power tool called a shaper. A scalloped bit sculpts the surface of the planks to look like half-rounds. But the steeply angled roof of the old lift shack and its flying gables are proving to be a challenge.
If anyone can transform the design of one of Steamboat's most recognizable historic structures into a birdhouse, it's Callsen.
"When I was growing up building boats, everything was very detail-oriented," Callsen said. "I have a hard time compromising when I'm building a new piece because I get so far into the details. I like working alone, because it's my name that is on every piece."
Callsen invites interested parties to call 846-5387 to get directions to his wood shop in the alley behind Spruce Street, or look for the bird feeders at Artisans Market, 626 Lincoln Ave.
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