Heather visits: Sleeping Bear Woodworks

By Heather Gibson

HURLEYVILLE — When world famous guitar maker Ervin Somogyi was asked about the difference between machine precision and human touch, he replied, “The factory way to eliminate human error and fluctuation is to eliminate, or at least limit as much as possible, the human. The handmaker’s way to eliminate human error is to increase skill and mindfulness.” Leslie “Les” Witherel, master wood craftsman, has passed up a few lucrative opportunities to manufacture his woodwork on a larger scale. The invitation, while flattering, simply does not appeal to Les. He literally falls in love with a piece of wood. He sees what we don’t see. And then he whittles it away, with great respect to the grain, and creates a masterpiece. For him, there’s only one way to respect this craft, and that is by doing it with his bare hands.

Les Witherel poses with two of his many custom woodworking creations. PHOTO BY HEATHER GIBSON

If Les’ hands could speak to us, they would tell us about the many snakes he picked up along the railroad tracks and how he threw them all in a bungalow next to his childhood home on Center Street. His hands would recall his very first wood project, and the 2 x 10 and hand saw he stole from his dad. He cut his thumb making that birdhouse which hung in a pine tree behind Main Street for decades. His hands would be familiar with the making of the Kachina doll, the corner shelf, roll top breadboxes, bowls, cutting boards, rolling pins, furniture, and most impressive his beautiful home; which took him three long sleepless years to build.

Les’ “better half,” Bonnie Makofsky, beams with pride when she speaks of the successful construction business he created, and how they came to form Sleeping Bear Woodworks. She’s also proud of how he fixed a washing machine with Harley Davidson parts. Long before they began attending craft fairs together, Les and Bonnie were just two kids growing up in Hurleyville. She recalls walking all the way to Fallsburg Track & Riding Academy as a girl. It was there that Les’ dad would allow her to ride horses. They lost touch when she attended college in Oswego. After school, she found herself exploring the world and taking on different jobs. She caught up with Les again when he was building an addition on her brother’s home. She’d go there, watch him work, prepare lunch and tea, and soon after their affection for one another grew.

In 2008 Les designed a lot of rolling pins. His design was capturing people’s attention – the woman with arthritis in her hands or the seasoned pastry chef. Bonnie was actually using a pin while baking with her Mom, when the phone rang. It was Better Homes & Gardens saying that they wanted to feature Les’ pins in their upcoming Christmas cookie issue. That is the very moment when their “fifteen minutes of fame” began. They were featured in Paula Deen’s 2009 Holiday Baking edition and then in 2010, Deen Brothers asked Les to make a pizza peel. For many months this publicity kept them busy. Family illness and other life commitments, such as Bonnie’s career as a nurse, made it hard for them to fill orders. So, they were forced to slow down a bit.

A sampling of the many custom products crafted by Les Witherel of Sleeping Bear Woodworks. PHOTO BY HEATHER GIBSON

Currently, Les has some pieces featured in the Hurleyville Market, and people still call him with special requests. Recently, someone called him and said that she just lost her son, and was looking to see if he could create a handcrafted urn. He knew right away that this was a special request. He remembered a piece he created just two months prior. It was an acorn with a lid. At the time, he wasn’t sure what made him create this acorn. He showed it to her and she couldn’t believe her eyes. Apparently, the acorn is a significant symbol in her family history, and she thought it perfect. Les returned home pleased, “I did create that piece for someone special. I just didn’t know it until today.”

Bonnie stated, “People are pleasantly surprised when they call us. They appreciate the personal service, and they get to speak directly to the person who makes the product. I guess people don’t expect that anymore.” Sometimes someone will say a piece is expensive, but when you learn more about buying wood, and the labor and love that goes into it, you aren’t just getting a product, you are receiving an heirloom. Like a rolling pin! Think of all the memories you can create with your family while rolling out cookie dough!

Les is another “Old Hurleyville Boy.” He knows every inch of our town. If you’re looking to sit down and reminisce about time gone by, he’s your guy. I visited with Les for three hours and loved every minute of it. He says, “When things get bad, it’s time to go in the shop.” He taught me a thing or two about not letting a hobby get away from you. Do what you love, love what you do. Work with your hands. Look at a ledge of stone in the woods and see not just a rock, but a sleeping bear. Look at a piece of old firewood, and create a coffee table. Maybe you aren’t a woodworker, but there’s a craft inside you; something from childhood that you haven’t tended to in many decades. Get back to it. Because it’s amazing how it will give back to you!

You can contact Sleeping Bear Woodworks by e-mailing Les@sleepingbearwoodworks.com or by calling 845-434-3085.