John Werner likes wood that is old, gnarly, twisted, knotty or even dead.
A large piece of driftwood hangs on his front porch in Granite City as a decoration. He found it on the Mississippi River bank near Madison. It originally came from a hedge apple tree.
“It looks like a sea monster,” said John, 55, pointing. “See, here’s the tongue, the eye, the fins. I think it’s cool.”
John also makes practical items — tables and chairs, wine racks, canes, birdhouses, cat perches, headboards, plant stands, headboards, swings and mailboxes. He looks for wood with character.
In recent years, John has expanded to include parts of old tools and machinery and other metal. Two giant hay tongs form the base of a bird bath in his yard. The bowl is an aluminum vent cover he purposely rusted with iron oxide.
“I try to make things look old and crappy,” he said. “It’s not easy. It’s an art. I try to bring out the rustic aesthetic without overdeveloping it.”
John is a former carpenter and millwright who calls himself a “rustic artist.” He has sold pieces at high-end nurseries and gift shops, but now works mostly on commission.
A friend of FOX sportscaster Joe Buck and his family hired John to make them a log deer sculpture and a willow football. St. Louis Rams football player Chris Long has several of his whimsical grapevine balls.
Three years ago, John built a $15,000 arbor behind a mansion in Ladue, Mo.
“If I had to estimate it, I’d say it weighs at least 10 tons,” he said. “I cut 130 cedar trees for it, and I used 100 of them. I had to make five trips with my friend’s pickup truck.”
Several of John’s smaller pieces can be found at Kool Beanz Cafe in Granite City. Owner Victoria Arguelles likes that he recycles and repurposes. Employees rest coffee pots and coffee cups on John’s trivets, which are slices of tree trunks. Customers sit at his checkerboard table with cedar and sassafras chairs.
“They call sassafras ‘the poor man’s walnut,’” John said. “The outer bark and the inner heart wood looks like walnut.”
Perhaps his most unusual piece at the cafe is a floor lamp. He welded together links of a 3/4-inch steel chain and fashioned a shade out of an antique plow disc.
Hanging next to the counter is John’s giant willow wreath with corrugated-tin flowers and a coffee cup, patterned after the cafe’s logo.
“He is very interesting, and his art is very interesting,” Victoria said.
Midwest Industrial Supplies in Belleville also has some of John’s pieces, such as step stools, tables and shelving used to display safety products and tools.
A massive bench gives customers a place to sit while trying on boots or waiting. Employee Joe Duco, 33, helped carry it in.
“It’s really heavy,” he said. “It’s made out of an oak tree, and just the part you sit on weighs 600 pounds. That doesn’t include the back and the sides.”
John is a Granite City High School graduate. His parents operated Werner-Mick Funeral Home. Father Ed was a jokester who handed out business cards that read “Thank you for smoking.”
“Isn’t it a wonderful day to be above ground?” John asked a visitor recently. “That is one of my family’s funeral-directing sayings.”
John started his artistic journey building models and miniatures in his early 20s. People commissioned him to build an $8,000 dog house and a $2,000 purple martin house to match their homes.
John and his wife, Jennifer, used to travel around to craft shows and sell birdhouses when their three children were young.
“I love (his work),” said Jennifer, 55, a retired secretary at Christian Hospital in St. Louis. “I think he’s very talented.”
John uses all kinds of wood, including Osage orange (hedge apple), Eastern red cedar, cottonwood, green ash, corkscrew willow, sassafras, black walnut, red bud, locust and white birch.
His yard is full of wood and a hodgepodge of salvaged items, waiting to be turned into works of art.
“When the kids were younger, he kept it a little neater,” his wife said. “Now that they’ve grown up and moved out of the house, he’s kind of let it go out of control.”
John’s workshop is housed in a barn-like outbuilding. Rusty metal cabinets are filled with tools and supplies. Wood chips cover the floor. A lean-to protects his 32-inch, circa-1940 band saw. He also has a 300-pound vice.
In the winter, John uses scraps to fuel the wood-burning stove. He favors rock music or blues on the stereo, particularly Stevie Ray Vaughan.
A sign on his out building reads, “I bleed every day,” the same slogan that is on his chainsaw tattoo.
“I’ve got over 200 stitches,” John said. “I’ve got titanium in my elbow. I’ve got two missing fingertips. You’ve got to love this to do it.”
Prices for John’s pieces range from $15 to $20 for a cane, $150 to $300 for benches and $300 to $600 for glass-top tables. For more information, call him at 618-802-9065.