Woodworker goes against the grain

New materials aren't necessary for Phil Neubig. When a live oak fell near his home in Port Royal, the craftsman turned it into his latest medium.

May 29, 2011 

When a tree falls in a neighborhood, most people don't think much of it unless it cuts their power, blocks their traffic or lands in their yard.

Phil Neubig didn't live close to the tree that fell March 9 at the Beaulieu Guest House on Paris Avenue in Port Royal. But when he saw a photo of the felled live oak the next day in the newspaper, he saw opportunity.

He tracked down the disposal business that hauled it away and convinced them to dump it in his front yard.

And he got to work.

THE CONCEPT of wanting a downed tree in his yard actually made a lot of sense for Neubig. He's an amateur woodworker, blacksmith, carpenter and whatever other craftsman-like title you can bestow on him. He's worked with wood since his childhood. He's built his own house out of four other demolished buildings. The 82-year-old man has gotten used to repurposing the old into the new.

Neubig lives with his wife, Marianne, in a 10,500-square-foot house done in the style of the plantation homes he grew up in around Louisiana. The wraparound porches give a view of his tree-lined neighborhood and, from the back, Battery Creek.

The house was 19 years in the making. He bought the property in 1981, bush hogging the lot himself. He built a large barn in 1986 and lived in the loft while they built the house.

He didn't want it to look "store bought," he said. So the house was raised from the razing of four other buildings, which were either abandoned or scheduled to be torn down. The majority of the lumber came from an 1871 mansion in Kentucky, a former dry goods store, a grade school and a tenement house in Louisiana. The home became a blend of different lumbers from different times, giving life again to wood that normally would have been disposed.

Neubig, along with his four sons and dozens of off-duty Marines, built the house himself, aided by the blueprint drawn up by a friend. The more technical applications, such as electricity, were done by hired help. But otherwise, he had a hand in directly planning or building the entire house, right down to the steel brackets he melded in his blacksmith shop, consisting of 100-year-old equipment that works about as well as the day it was made, Neubig says.

His education in craftsmanship started with his father, who was also quite the woodworker. In fact, he traces his hobby back to age 11 when he planted a cypress sapling in his yard. About 68 years later, the cypress, now with a 42-inch base, threatened to fall on the family home. So he uprooted it, brought it to Beaufort and made cypress tables. He now jokes it took him "68 years to make those tables."

Neubig became a fighter pilot in the Marines then flew planes for United Airlines for 34 years. As he'd fly from place to place, he'd stop at auctions and yard sales, collecting antique hammers and axes; cart hitches; cabinets and chests; and Amish-made tools for cutting and shaving wood. The collection is a veritable museum of woodworking that now lines the walls and floor of his attic.

Just like how he came across the buildings that now make his home, he found the right places to look for the pieces in his collection. It's a matter of keeping your eyes open, because you never know how something could come of use.

"You have to be roamer," he said.

Nearly a month after the Paris Avenue tree came into his yard, some of it has become tables and chairs. With some hired workers, he had cut the tree into 1- to 3-inch slabs. In his blacksmith shop he made legs out of rebar. The felled tree is now an oyster table or a three-piece porch set. He's considering selling the pieces, but first has to determine a price.

Neubig's well into his golden years, but he's not ready to retire. There's always another project, another batch of lumber or steel that needs to be shaped. He's found plenty of uses for old houses, trees, wood that some say is past its prime but he says has plenty of more use. He figures he can get a few more years out of himself, as well.

Out behind his house, he has several long, covered sheds. It's where he keeps his firewood.

"I should have enough wood to last me until I'm 100," he said.

And, with little doubt, if he needs wood at that point, he'll be more than willing to pick up an ax and chop it himself.

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