The Sassafras Digger
by Bill Weaver
photo by Bill Weaver
“I started this while teaching,” says Bill Robertson outside his shop, The Sassafras Digger, in Nashville’s Antique Alley on a hot summer’s day. “Then I really got into it and started going to craft shows and then opened this shop up—two full years ago this August.”
Born and raised on Jackson Branch along Nashville’s western edge, Robertson taught Phys-Ed for 33 years at Brown County Junior High School, “My specialty was lunch room duty,” he laughs. “I coached everything but swimming.
“Then I started carving a little bit and joined the carving club in Columbus and spent a couple of years talking with the fellers there. They would spend a month on something and it looked fantastic but I can’t fiddle around that long,” he admits. “So I turned to power carving more so than with knives and chisels.”
Sassafras trees just naturally spark his imagination. “All the limbs are crooked and not straight like other trees,” he says. “Sassafras with a stretch of fence growing in it creates bulges because the wood gets out of its normal growing shape. Virginia creeper and honeysuckle squeeze tight enough that the tree has to grow up around it.
“My ideas come by seeing something out growing. Something just comes to you. Not long ago my son dug up a stick shaped exactly like a deer’s head. So I carved a couple of eyes in it. That’s all I did. You can make a pretty natural looking owl out of diseased sassafras without a whole lot of carving but you have to see it there to start. With a little dab of carving you can improve on what Mother Nature has done.
“Sassafras is a medium grade wood. It’s a little stouter than pine but not real tight like walnut, oak, ash, cherry. In most cases the sassafras tap root will make a 90 degree turn rather than go straight down like a normal tree. That’s why they grow down the fence rows. I make canes out of them, you get nice handles where it turns there. I make walking sticks at the same time. You can polish the bark up and it looks real nice. That bark will range anywhere from a brown to orange to dark red depending on how far you go down into the pulp bark.”
Helping him is son Josh, who watches the store during the week. “My son does about all the digging and cutting for me,” he says. “In the wintertime we look for the twisted trees, where the vines are. There are about 15 or 20 places that I cut from depending on what size I’m looking for.
“I use anything from a chainsaw to a pocketknife in the workshop,” he continues. “Radial arm saw, table saw, bandsaw, and belt sander. That’s the big equipment, plus drills, grinders, carvers. It’s not all carving. A lot of it is putting things together. We do custom orders also. Bring in a drawing and I’ll go home and make it up.
“I have the shade here in front of the shop and I set up my work bench and do carving—spirit faces out of driftwood, morels out of deer antler—I don’t know how many hundred of those I’ve carved. The great big ones I put on a walking stick. The very tiny ones on keychains and necklaces and on the very tip I usually do a spirit face.”
Examples of the imagination fill the Sassafras Digger from the four foot tall “Beeracuda” to the bird houses made from remaindered cowboy boots. “I can’t tell you how many of those things I have made,” he laughs. “I had two lab pups and a new pair of boots that they chewed the toe out of. I put the boots in the basement and I’d walk by them once a week for years. One day I just flashed—I can make a birdhouse out of that!”
Eileen Robertson makes the popular sassafras candles for his shop, as well as any painting that needs doing. “Flowers I make out of maple because they come out real white. My wife uses leather stain to come up with the variety of colors for the flowers. She also makes a lot of the crosses.”
Since retiring he’s found working 12 hour days not unusual, barely keeping up during the season and spending each winter getting ahead for next season. “They can say I’m old and set in my ways but I don’t care,” he laughs. “Hand made and old fashioned go together.”
The Sassafras Digger is open in Antique Alley 11:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. every day except Wednesday. Bill welcomes anyone who can’t visit during those times to call (812)603-0342 for an appointment.