Woodworking therapy adds backyard beauty

Staff writer

Hidden behind a modest home on Falcon Road southwest of Hillsboro is an intriguing backyard with split-level brick and wood slat patios.

Wood-backed displays made from windmill blades, old barbecue grills, wheelbarrows, and wagons treat the eye. Beautiful flowering begonias, luscious hostas, and a wide variety of hyacinths surround mansion-like bird feeders, birdhouses, and birdbaths.

Sprinkled along wooden walkways are conveniently placed handcrafted picnic tables, benches, and chairs. A gurgling water wheel adds ambiance to the green oasis that sets in the middle of what is otherwise dry, dusty, typical rural Kansas farm land.

“I’ve always enjoyed working with wood,” said backyard artist Jack Byrd. “I don’t like finish work, so I make stuff you can have outside. I like to take junk and make it into something useful.”

Byrd, who created every piece of art in the yard, moved to the area with his wife, Brenda, in the 1970s from Fort Worth, Texas. He had served seven years as an Air Force bomb expert during the Vietnam era, with two tours of duty in Guam. He knew he wanted to raise his family in the quiet and peace of central Kansas, and worked hard to finish their home near a tree-lined creek along a rural country road.

“We had a contractor frame it up, but Jack did all the electrical, plumbing, and interior work,” Brenda Byrd said.

The couple still displays Jack’s first woodworking project, a rough-hewn coffee table with collections of colored rocks, flowers, and grasses in sections under glass.

“All I had to work with was a circular saw on that one,” Jack Byrd said.

Through the years, Byrd added to his tool collection, but mostly relied on his mind to create plans and patterns for the many woodworking projects that followed.

“I never had directions to follow,” he said. “If I saw something I liked, I figured out how to make it.”

Byrd said he did learn to make patterns of his first prototype of any project, so if he wanted to repeat it later, he had dimensions to follow.

“There was a time, after I retired early, that I was making a lot of dog houses and aquarium stands to sell to make money,” he said. “But now, I just do it for therapy. I love to work outdoors; I am not much of a television watcher. I’m out in the shop four or five hours each day.”

Before retirement, Byrd worked as an electronic technician for more than 15 years and in mobile home manufacturing for more than 30 years.

“Sometimes I put in more than 60 to 80 hours a week, so to unwind when I came home, I worked in my wood shop,” Byrd said.

Now time has no hold on Byrd, and he can be found in the wood shop turning ideas into art sometimes as early as 2, 3, or 4 o’clock in the morning.

“Since I’m retired I do what I want, when I want to do it,” he said. “As long as I’m having fun, I’ll do it. If not, I just walk away and try something else.”

His faithful dog, Ruby, an American Keeshond, often accompanies Byrd. She has a special-built luxury dog-suite by canine standards, with a small gate that opens into Byrd’s woodshop.

“The grandkids helped me set her all up,” Byrd said. “They sometimes help with my projects.”

Byrd enjoys teaching his grandchildren woodworking skills and together they have created split-rail fences, furniture items, and garden areas.

In addition to creating the woodwork centerpieces in his backyard, Byrd keeps everything green and growing with an extensive watering system. He has several tanks with water lilies and water hyacinths that the local frog population enjoys.

“We have a lot of birds and frogs to watch,” he said. “Haven’t really noticed much of a drought around here, but the water company sends me a big thank-you every month.”

Byrd grows tomatoes in a 4 feet by 8 feet water-fed, glass-paned, wood box.

“I saw a water-fed pot once and figured I could do that on a larger scale,” he said. “There is a water tank underneath the box, then layers of heavy duty wire and screens that actually rest on the water. The tomatoes on top draw up the water they need continually through the dirt.”

Byrd, his family, and friends enjoyed a bountiful production of tomatoes this year. He planted in February and harvested the red fruit from May until now. The plants are still loaded with green tomatoes and could produce all the way through October.

“I have an electric heater in there, and can put in and remove the sliding glass panes as needed,” he said.

Byrd’s genius building mind is rarely at rest, though he admits he is slowing down some.

“I want to make rocks and pots,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about that for years and I finally come up with the right mix.”

Byrd said he plans to mix concrete, peat moss, pearlite, and natural color together to create decorative boulders.

“I like the colors of nature, so I’m thinking a mix of gray, red, and brown could be nice,” he said. “I just like to make things that people will look at and say, ‘Now how the hell did he do that?’”

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