ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
Eldon Knak’s woodworking adventure began 10 years ago when the retired machinist decided to build a child’s table-and-chair set for each of his three young granddaughters.
With 24 handmade table-and-chair sets completed to date, Knak has found a way to share his talents and his generosity with others.
For the past six years, during the Christmas season, he has donated a child’s table and two chairs each to the Et Cetera Shop in Hillsboro and the “Giving Tree” at Hillsboro State Bank.
“They’re donated to the Et Cetera Shop and they sell them,” Knak said. “We took one set over there at about 10:30 in the morning the first part of November, and within two hours it was gone. Whatever money they get out of it, it’s theirs.”
Inspired by the Toy Run donations to the “Giving Tree,” Knak decided he wanted to donate something to that cause also.
“I thought I’d just bring that over after they got all of their stuff over there,” Knak said.
The children just love it, said Shelly Rooker, administrative assistant at the bank.
And now the folks at the bank are looking for it, Knak said.
“They asked me one time ‘Are you going to be having a table and chairs here again?’ And I said, ‘Oh, yeah.'”
He also made a child’s table-and-chair set for the Mennonite Central Committee relief sale in Hutchinson last year.
“I donated it to the church, and the church gave it to the MCC sale, and they auctioned it off,” Knak said.
Born in Hillsboro, Knak claims to be “a ’22 model,” making him 79 years old.
“I’ve lived in Hillsboro all my life,” Knak said.
Cresswell School, at one time located five miles south of Hillsboro, was where he and his future wife, Hilda, attended school.
“When I went to high school, I took manual training which was woodworking,” Knak said.
Eldon and Hilda were married March 12, 1946. They celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary last March.
The Knak family has since grown to eight children, 14 grandchildren, 19 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.”
After 181/2 years employed as a machinist with Hesston Corp., Knak retired in March 1985.
“I started fiddling around with the woodworking shortly after I retired,” he said. “At that time, we lived out a mile south of town. We had other interests then too, so I didn’t devote too much time to it, really.”
Nine years ago, the Knaks moved to their present home on South Lincoln Street.
“That’s when I kind of got more deeply involved in it.”
The house provided an ample kitchen for Hilda to enjoy baking, and a garage and basement for Eldon to work on his woodworking projects.
“I started out making toy trucks and stuff like that for the grandkids, and then I made a (toy) school bus,” Knak said. “The kids outgrew the toys-and-truck’s stage. So I got to working with these tables and chairs, and I’ve been refining them and retooling them.”
The garage serves as Knak’s workshop during the mornings. A converted bedroom in the basement of his home provides an area to work in the summer when it gets too hot outside or the winter when it gets too cold in the garage. He also uses the basement room for most of his finish carpentry.
“In the summer, the car sleeps outside under the carport,” Knak said.
The workshop bursts with hand tools, saws, wood and a variety of items used to create his small-size table and chairs.
“I got the radial-arm saw, table saw, miter saw, ban saw, planer/joiner/sander, drill press and mortising tool,” Knak said.
All the parts first are cut out, then pre-sanded and assembled. Most of his table-and-chair sets are made of pine, but he has made two sets of oak.
“I’ve made a couple of special-order ones for my grandkids out of oak, but I don’t do too many of them,” he said. “That’s high-dollar stuff. I really like to work with oak because it finishes up prettier than pine does, and it’s a much harder wood.”
Some of his solid-wood tables have a polyurethane finish and others, made with formica table tops, are painted. Tables with formica tops are typically edged in bright blue paint, and the tiny chairs are painted in bold red.
“Did you ever see a kid who didn’t like a red chair?” he said.
For his formica-topped tables, Knak garnered his formica supply from a shop in Durham.
“Sure-Wood cabinet shop in Durham, he had a bunch of scrap formica left over off of a job,” Knak said. “And (the owner) said: ‘If you can use it, I’ll give it to you. It’s just scrap to me, and I’ll have to eventually throw it out.'”
Knak has been using the supply of donated formica for three years.
“I’ve still got a couple more years to go (to use it all) if I stay at it that long,” he said. “If I can, I will. After all, I’m almost 80 years old, and things kind of taper off after that.”
Knak works at his own comfortable pace when completing a project.
“Well, I made a series of six chairs once,” he said. “By the time I got them all cut out, assembled, planed down and finished, it took me about a week to 10 days to make those.”
Knak has five table and chair sets in various stages of completion in his basement workroom.
One all-wood set is promised to a granddaughter. A second solid-pine set and three with formica tops are for sale.
If urged to come up with retail prices, Knak said he charges anywhere from $30 for formica-topped sets to $55 for all-wood sets. Extra chairs are $7.50 each.
Knak has steady customer sales, but he’s not interested in increasing production, he said.
“What it amounts to is if I build four tables and can sell two, that gives me enough money to buy the material to build four more tables,” Knak said. “As far as getting paid for my time, at my age, who cares.”
The twilight years are a defining factor in Knak’s future plans, he said.
“At my age, I’m not going to branch out and do much anymore,” he said. “I know in a couple of years I’m going to have to sell all my equipment and say, ‘That’s enough.'”
Plans for next year include making two more table-and-chair sets each for the Et Cetera Shop and the “Giving Tree.”
“One year I got a letter that was sent over to the state bank, and they forwarded it on to me,” Knak said. “It was a letter a mother had written from her 3-year-old daughter. It said, ‘Dear Santa, I like my table and chairs. Thank you. I want to be a Santa when I grow up.’
“Something like that makes me feel good,” Knak said.