PHILIPSBURG — Though Christmas is long past, the space of the Philipsburg Borough garage looks something like Santa’s Workshop these days, as gifts to the people of Philipsburg are being made.
The borough crew, led by Borough Manager Joel Watson, has been keeping busy between plowing days by giving ancient, local trees a second purpose.
“I’ve been here seven years, and we’ve thrown away huge logs that end up over the bank,” said Watson. “A lot of people say, ‘You can take them to the sawmill,’ but a sawmill won’t touch town trees, because normally they have nails or hardware in them from an old fence or whatever, and they’re not going to risk a sawblade on that.”
The borough team has salvaged giant logs — one slab measured 9 feet long and 31 inches wide — from around town and is using a mix of old and new technology to make benches and tables that showcase the aged wood’s majesty.
“These 400-year-old trees, they don’t go forever,” Watson said. “Instead of just falling down and rotting, they can be put to use, and they go through another couple hundred years.”
The furniture contains virtually no hardware — just a set of finish screws to secure the tables in transit. The borough crew designed patterns by hand to create identical pins, joints, and so forth that fit together perfectly like Lincoln Logs. They then employ modern mechanization to speed-up the process.
Watson says the crew plans to make about a dozen table and bench sets, depending on what time allows.
“Once they have a pattern for it, they can just go,” Watson said.
The borough has maintained a few old-fashioned elements that would have been in use when the now-ancient trees were mere saplings.
“Back in the day, everything would have been done by hand, obviously, so we tried to see what was more efficient and do things with power tools,” Watson said. “We do use some old tools. We still use an old draw knife — you can shave with that.”
Under Watson’s leadership, the Philipsburg Borough crew has earned a reputation for being resourceful — making a habit of saving the townspeople money by doing things in-house and by repurposing antique materials when possible.
The team has developed a diverse set of skills the men use to stay busy during slower periods. Last winter, for example, the crew designed and made metal trashcans and benches for the borough at a fraction of the cost of buying them commercially.
The huge stone posts erected at Cold Stream Dam are former curb stones the borough rescued from downtown and repurposed as fence pillars. They’ve also saved decorative shrubs destined for the dump and replanted them at the town parks.
“A lot of the work we’ve been doing is a lost art — being able to split stones into fence posts, or the mortise and tenon and wooden pegs — people just don’t know how to do that anymore,” said Watson. “Someday, that’s going to be gone, and it’s still functional, obviously, and we’re using all this scrap material, which is another plus. That stuff would have just been left over the bank; now it’s a piece of furniture.”
People will be able to enjoy these historic pieces of preserved wood at public places in Philipsburg. Watson says he also hopes to install some pavilions and gazebos at the parks and playing fields. Someone may even be lucky enough to possess one of the useful masterpieces in his or her own home, as the borough has plans to donate a few of the furniture sets to local nonprofit organizations, who could raffle them off.
“This was a tough year for all the nonprofits, so they could sell chances on them,” said Watson.
Teresa Mull is a correspondent for the Centre County Gazette.