Secret Lives: Stephen Bowen

Ann Borden

Day Job

Dean, Oxford College

Secret Life: Woodworker

As a young boy, Oxford Dean Stephen Bowen would borrow tools from his father’s garage to experiment with woodworking. His earliest projects were little boats, propelled by tiny sails he carefully attached with thread nabbed from his mother’s sewing box, to her mild annoyance. 

Since then, Bowen has honed his skills and advanced to more ambitious projects, including wooden bowls, inlaid boxes, a full-size boat that’s a reproduction of an 1855 hybrid between a canoe and a kayak, and both period reproduction and contemporary furniture, such as beds for his children. He credits his hobby with his love of opera, developed during long, happy Saturday afternoons spent in his workshop listening to National Public Radio. 

Most recently, at the special request of Oxford College Chaplain Lyn Pace 02T 17T, Bowen crafted a table for the Oxford Chapel. The project was invested with layers of historic significance: His woodworking shop is located in a ground-floor “porch room” that was added in about 1850 to the President’s House, the traditional home of Oxford deans and several Emory College presidents, including founder Ignatius Few; the table itself was created from a part of a beam salvaged from Phi Gamma Hall, Emory’s oldest academic structure, which Bowen had been storing for a few years. He frequently salvages wood from fallen trees and building repairs. “Nearly everything I’ve made at Oxford came from something local that fell over,” he jokes.

The large Phi Gamma Hall beam that was used for the chapel table is of heart pine, and broad axe marks at regular intervals along each surface show that it was hewn by hand. Bowen chose a simple trestle design for the table, a style that would have been common in the
earliest days of the chapel’s use. It was
dedicated in a ceremony on September 2.

His Words

“There are always new techniques to learn, and wood is just a beautiful material with which to work. It is a process in which aesthetics and technical aspects of structure are often indistinguishable. Dovetails are a mechanically superior way to join two pieces, and in many contexts are pleasing to the eye, but in others may distract the eye and thus interrupt the flow of the form.

Wood feels and smells good to work with. The smooth action of a very sharp plane iron is very gratifying. For those with day jobs that involve mostly delayed gratification, making something from wood lets you see your progress minute by minute. 

Projects like woodworking demand continuous focus or you will make a mistake, so they provided a sometimes welcome distraction from other responsibilities.”—P.P.P.

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