A plywood Chapel with a Twist

Posted by | September 19, 2013

Please welcome guest author Kevin McGuire. McGuire’s website Playful Plans is an extension of his thirty-five-year career as a woodworker and twenty years authoring woodworking project titles. He designs innovative vintage-inspired playthings for young people. His books have been recognized by reviewers, educators, and craftsmen and are currently included in over one thousand library collections in the United States and in many international collections from Iceland to South Africa to Australia. When not in the workshop Kevin can be found tending his vegetable garden, flyfishing the mountain streams or seeking additions to his vintage wooden toys collection.


Cruising yard sales, estate sales, flea markets and antique malls for vintage wooden objects can be an exhilarating process.

The search is all about discovery: plugging holes in our collections, upgrading something we have with a better example or simply being taken aback by the beauty or singularity of a discovered object and taking it home with us.

Romantic Asheville  http://www.romanticasheville.com/index.html

Photo courtesy Romantic Asheville http://www.romanticasheville.com

The prowlers among us pity those who limit their searches to online auctions. Yes, I search for (and sometimes snipe) vintage playthings on eBay and many other sources. The search itself can be an education if listings are studied carefully (and swallowed with a mighty grain of salt) before bidding. But it’s no substitute—emotionally—-for crawling roadside tables and those stuffy indoor malls.

A favorite haunt of mine here in Western North Carolina is the Antique Tobacco Barn, a long, tin-topped structure perched a few yards north of the Swannanoa River. Until a few years ago the barn was one of Asheville’s last remaining tobacco auction houses; every Fall after the ‘baccer bales had been sold and carted away, the space was reincarnated for the antiques and collectibles trade for a few months until the tobacco was cured and ready for market once again.

The Swannanoa floods periodically. In 2004, the Barn floor went six feet under for a day or two; employees shoveled and broomed the mud and sand out and in time the trading started once again. Weather forecasting has always been an art rather than a science here in the shadow of the Blue Ridge.

plywood chapel 1

On a blissful autumn day a few years ago I felt the restless call and found myself wandering the familiar aisles once again. For me, circumnavigating the Barn is about a ninety-minute process and could be much longer; the place is immense and it can swallow you whole if you let it, so I try to keep an eye on the time. I’ve learned (I hope) what booths not to investigate at any length, and my wish list is not as broad in scope as some. If you’re hunting something larger than your average toy- say, a horse with tack, complete- grab a vintage steel-wheeled ‘backer cart for browsing.

I was nearly done with my circuit when an odd wooden object caught my eye. It was a church model in a vaguely gothic style, roughly-made and forlorn in the dim light. The fir plywood parts were ½” thickness rather than modern nominal dimensions and a drippy orange varnish coated everything. The builder had used bits of various solid woods for details- the steeple, entry door casings and other trims- and its construction was nothing to shout about.

plywood church 2

Still it had a compelling quality. The chapel’s raw character and dynamic presence belied its size, measuring just 18″ tall, minus a spire that used to cap the steeple. (In this photo the steam-powered tin table saw figure is 4″ tall, about right for the 5-1/2″- tall chapel entrance). It dawned on me that this was more than just a model or a plaything. The steeple was removable and there was a mysterious sliding floor set into grooves in the side walls.  I took it home for twenty bucks and set it on a shelf.

So, what is it?

plywood church 3

If you guessed church collection box, I think we’re both right! Congregants dropped their tithes into the steeple, and the sliding floor section made accessing the collection later on a snap. Not a toy, but it certainly could be! My best guess is that it turned up in one of the DIY magazines in the Sixties… or perhaps it was just designed and built by a clever church member with a small shop at home.

I wonder if these guys take plastic…


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