Ex-Marine paints peace and love with words, pictures

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, June 2, 2010


“To reach out to something and bring out its beauty.” – Rob Brandt’s vision for woodworking

“The greatest good you can do for others is not just share your riches, but reveal to them their own.” These words by the nineteenth century British statesman and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli greet me every morning from the wall by my computer.

It’s a local artisan, however, who has helped me get a real handle on their meaning.

Water Valley coffee companion Rob Brandt is a gifted woodworker.

As a youth around the home Rob had the reputation for "fixing the most broken stuff." Now racing rapidly toward his retirement years, the lover of strolls in the Alberta foothills delights in liberating old sticks and tree roots from the wrath of the elements, and enabling their transformation into some of the most beautiful canes and staffs I've ever seen.

How I first met him is not unlike how he discovers a piece of poplar or spruce awaiting its day of celebration: I stumbled upon him while taking a walk.

In fact, I was exploring the archipelago of display tables scattered through the concourses of a Calgary shopping mall many years ago, when one table in particular caught my eye.

The display featured an arrangement of elegantly inlaid small wooden boxes. The lid of one was rich in the complex swirls of a myrtle burl. Layered bandings of basswood, walnut and black-dyed anigre embraced another box like ribbons around a gift longing to be opened.

It was a group of items standing next to the table, however, that took my breath away. A dozen or so walking sticks leaned against their rack like fashion models posing against a fence, their whorled grain and sensuous finish inviting admiration and a closer look.

There were canes made from tree roots, complete with hooked handles and brass tips, to serve those in physical need. There were night sticks, worked on a lathe till they were straight and true, and topped with ornamental knobs to assert their unique statements.

But my favourite were the hiking sticks, longer than the others (just the right height for resting your chin on while enjoying a mountain vista), and crafted to take best advantage of the natural curves, weight and balance of the forest's offering.

As I was taking these all in, Rob came over and introduced himself as the artisan behind the sticks. A coffee together resulted in an invitation to his shop, then in Calgary, where he shared with me his love affair with wood, and especially with the natural beauty of a good hiker's staff.

He showed me one staff made from a piece of chokecherry that he and his daughter Carly found while hiking Turtle Mountain in Manitoba. Another, his daughter's favourite, had intricate engravings – made by worms.

Then there was the stick with a graceful curve for a handgrip that took over a year to tell Rob just how to work with it. "I'd play with the stick off and on, till the shape revealed itself to me," he explained. "It takes time to find out what feels right in your hand, and what doesn't."

He had taken great pains to cut it at just the right point for comfort of balance and rhythm on the trail. He trimmed unwanted branches, sanding their stubs for hours, then finished it in oil.

I held the beautiful staff in my hand, and sensed renewed purpose in what had once seemed nothing more than useless deadwood, a derelict of the forest floor.

"What got you started in this?" I asked Rob.

"Ever since I was a teenager, I worked with wood around the family home," he reminisced. "Whenever I saw a disabled piece of furniture, I had to heal it."

There was his grandfather's old rocker, for example. It was in real bad shape. Rob took each piece apart, stripped the old finish, restored damaged areas, reassembled it, and finished it like new. This was how he got the reputation around home for "fixing the most broken stuff."

It also got him started on a road that eventually saw him taking up woodworking as a business. Rob Brandt Woodworking, located for a while in Cochrane, relocated to Water Valley some years ago.

Though Rob continues to be a master at fixing broken stuff – my dining room chairs can attest to his skill – it's the walking sticks that remain closest to his heart. And in the warmth and loyalty of their companionship along the trail, they pay fitting tribute to their artist friend's vision: "To reach out to something and bring out its beauty."

© 2010 Warren Harbeck

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