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Best seat in the house: Parishioner crafts new pews for St. Luke’s –

by Terri Hogan

Senior Staff Writer

It was a labor of love when parishioner John McCleaf donated his time and talent to build 20 new pews for Luke’s Episcopal Church in Brookeville.

The Rev. Vikki Clayton, church rector, beams with pride as she talks about the enormous job, and the skill and generosity offered by McCleaf.

The old pews had a long history that is a little unclear.

Clayton said it is believed they came from St. John’s in Olney or St. Bartholomew’s in Laytonsville when St. Luke’s was built in 1870. The pews are estimated to be over 100 years old.

McCleaf, of Dayton Md., has been a parishioner at St. Luke’s, on Brighton Dam Road, for about 12 years.

Carpentry has always been one of his many hobbies.

“I have too many, but woodworking has always been my favorite,” he said.

It began in a junior high school shop class in the early 1960s.

“I’d stay after school each day working on projects,” he said. “I loved that.”

As an adult, he has built decks, garages, a porch, furniture and even his own house.

He is now retired from the U.S. Government Printing Office and has more time to devote to his hobby.

McCleaf said that when he and his wife Beverly began attending services at St. Luke’s, there was a problem with the church’s front door. It had warped over the years, causing a gap. There had been many attempts to fix it.

“I told them if they’d buy me a special router bit and the hardware, I’d build them new doors,” McCleaf said. “I built the doors and they loved them.”

Then came the organ: it has louvers that open and close, and bugs were getting in. McCleaf built a screen for it.

Knowing his talent and willingness to help, Clayton approached him about the pews, asking him if there was anything that could be done.

He told her that sanding off the polyurethane coating and stain would require months of hard work, so the only thing that could be done was to throw on a coat of paint.

“They were in sad, sad shape,” he said. “There were a tremendous amount of nail holes and there were rips in the wood.”

They looked into finding used pews online. The problem was that most church pews are 16- to 20-feet long. Because of the size of St. Luke’s, it can only accommodate 8-foot pews.

Clayton said weeks went by and she could see John giving the pews a once-over after each service.

After pondering the idea for a while, McCleaf decided to take on the task of building 20 new pews.

He presented his design plan and cost analysis at the next vestry meeting, which was approved. The labor would be his gift to the church.

The next step was to locate the raw wood, which could be purchased at a local hardware store. He purchased 6,000 pounds of red oak lumber from a mill in western Maryland and began working in October.

He had to build 20 seats, 20 backs, 40 end pieces and 60 H-shaped supports.

He had to prepare the wood, cut out the pieces according to a pattern he created, sand, apply the finish and then assemble the pews.

“It was fun and I really enjoyed it,” he said. “It was like putting a puzzle together and it gave me something to do all winter.”

His wife, Beverly, attested to his dedication to the project.

“He was driven,” she said. “He’d go into his workshop, I’d hear him sawing away, he’d come in for lunch, and then he’d go back and work until dinnertime.”

The weather presented some challenges. Some of the work needed to be done outside because of the dust it created. And the temperature affected the application of the stain and seal.

Another issue was workspace. He cleared out his garage and also set up a tent in his yard.

While he was wrapping up his project, the old pews were removed. The church got new carpeting and a fresh coat of paint.

While McCleaf had been busy in his woodshop, Beverly had been busy creating a quilt to look like a stained glass window. It was hung on a blank wall in the back of the church.

In May, the new pews were installed.

“The new pews are a work of art,” Clayton said. “The craftsmanship is phenomenal and they are more comfortable. The interior of our church is small. They are not overpowering, but they really do catch your eye.”

Clayton said she and the church’s parishioners are amazed he offered to do this, as it was a huge feat.

“Being a small parish, people give their time and talent and contribute in many different ways,” she said. “St. Luke’s has a history of being supportive of the arts. This is just another facet.”

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