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Plenty of lawyers in Washington, D.C., know how to build a case, but how many can build a bookcase? Or a china cabinet? Or a drop-leaf, gate-leg dining table? Barry Smoler can. “I am self-taught as a woodworker, as indeed most woodworkers are. I’ve learned it on my own — trial and error,” says the 61-year-old Smoler, who is of counsel at D.C.’s Spiegel & McDiarmid, where he focuses on hydroelectric regulation. This is the same type of law he practiced in the last 10 years of a 20-year career at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, from which he retired last September before joining his firm in November. Smoler may be self-taught, but it’s apparent that he was an excellent teacher. Visit his home in northwest Washington, D.C., and you’ll find that its most impressive pieces of furniture were produced in his basement workroom. Although Smoler did not embrace woodworking until he was an adult, as a child growing up in the Chicago area, he did show signs of being a budding artisan. “As a kid, I had an interest in art,” Smoler explains. “At least it became apparent to my parents that I was much better at drawing than at playing the piano. I took a few stray art classes, but not many. And then I had wood shop. It was common to teach boys wood shop in grammar school in that era.” Yet necessity is the mother of invention, and so despite his early inclinations, it was not until Smoler married and he and his wife bought a house that needed to be furnished that he pursued woodworking seriously. “I had some space in the basement that I could use for a workshop,” Smoler relates. “I could make things that we could not afford to buy.” His first projects were rather modest — a paper-towel rack and a letter holder. But he soon graduated to more ambitious works — a dresserlike piece for storing table linen and a dining room set in the 18th century Queen Anne style. Smoler was particularly enamored of a drop-leaf, gate-leg table that he found in a Colonial Williamsburg catalogue, a reproduction by the Kittinger Co. of a piece on display in the Williamsburg collection. When either of the table’s two drop leaves is placed in an upright position to increase the size of the table top, a hinged gate leg must be swung out to support its weight. The entry in the catalogue consisted of a photograph and a few diagrams showing how it was assembled. Smoler believed that he could reconstruct the table from the diagrams if he could obtain about 40 crucial measurements. So, he and his wife drove to the Williamsburg Craft House and located the floor model. Luckily, he says, it was the slow season and no salesmen were around. “I crawled around on my hands and knees under the table with a tape measure,” continues Smoler, “measuring different parts of the table and shouting out the measurements to my wife, who wrote them all down.” To make it easier to reproduce the parabolic curve of the table top, Smoler took out a piece of tracing paper and a charcoal marker and traced the curve. Outside, in the parking lot, Smoler studied his measurements. When he discovered that they didn’t quite add up, he returned to the showroom, tape measure in hand, and remeasured the questionable dimensions. Once home, he paid a visit to Colonial Hardwoods in Springfield, Va., to acquire enough lumber to reproduce the table. He has patronized other lumberyards, but Smoler prefers Colonial, he says, because it carries a fine variety of hardwoods. He has also developed a working relationship with its proprietor, Jiri Otmar. Smoler appreciates the fact that Otmar allows him to look at each board and pick out the most suitable piece of lumber for his project. Straightness and grain are two of the factors Smoler considers when sizing up lumber. “I never stain anything,” he says. “I like the natural color of the wood.” For his table, he chose walnut. He has also built furniture with maple, cherry, mahogany, poplar, and pine. Even though Smoler was working from plans, he did modify the design somewhat, choosing to endow the table’s legs with claw and ball feet. “I enjoy designing things on my own,” he admits. Smoler’s basement workshop contains a complement of power tools. “Most things you can do with hand tools can be done better with machines,” Smoler says. “I tended to buy woodworking machinery based on what I didn’t have and really needed for the thing I just finished. So at this point, it’s really well-equipped.” A table saw, a band saw, a drill press, and a portable lathe can all be found among Smoler’s woodworking accouterments. Smoler’s talent doesn’t end with furniture making. He has also taught himself to become a proficient woodcarver. This is painstaking work because so little of it can be accomplished with power tools. For example, it took him a full year to complete the 10 carvings that embellish the doors on matching sets of living room cabinets. It is his skill at woodcarving, however, that will eventually allow a greater audience to see his art than just those fortunate enough to garner an invitation to his home. He earned his first commission by carving the surface of a bishop’s robing table for a Russian Orthodox Church on Massachusetts Avenue. Into the table’s surface he carved a Russian Orthodox cross and an inscription in Cyrillic characters that can be roughly translated as “Hail to the Lord.” Last fall, Smoler wrote to an official at Maryland’s Glen Echo Park, the former amusement park and present-day arts center operated by the National Park Service. In his letter, Smoler volunteered his services as an artisan to help in the park’s continuing renovation. “I wanted to inveigle myself into the restoration of the carousel,” admits Smoler, referring to the park’s merry-go-round that sports creatures crafted by the renowned handcarver Gustave Dentzel. Instead, Smoler was invited to carve six plaques for the renovated Bumper Car Pavilion. The covered pavilion is now to be used as a venue for dances and concerts, but park officials wanted to commemorate the amusement as it appeared in its former glory. Smoler worked up a series of six sketches featuring bumper cars of various vintages and won the approval for his designs from Park Ranger Sam Swersky. Last month, Smoler delivered the first of his plaques to gleeful and appreciative Park Service representatives. Says Smoler: “I’m delighted to carve something that someone else will see that won’t be hanging in my basement.”

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