Sawdust is really man-glitter – Key Wester’s hobby grows locally

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Doug Helliesen knows about wood and especially likes his new shorts.

Doug Helliesen was born into woodworking. With a long line of shipbuilders in his history, he was drawn to pieces of wood on the side of the road or things people were throwing away when he would be on his walks home in Key West at 8 years old. 

His dad, who retired from submarine service, would bring him home bowling pins to spin on the wood lathe. “There’s only so much you can do with a bowling pin,” he said.

By 10, he had already built boats out of found materials that the local kids would sail with “borrowed” sheets from the local Conch lady’s hanging laundry. Sailing competitions were a common sight on the salt ponds behind where Key West High School sits now.

After a couple of close calls on his Sears Radial Arm Saw, he said he’s lucky he still has fingers. He joined the Coast Guard, was stationed in Key West, off Key West on boats, and in Islamorada. “I was a lucky guy, because I don’t think I could have handled the cold,” he said. In his spare time, he would build boats, and learned how to work with fiberglass. But his heart was always in woodworking. 

When he retired from service, he started renovating old Conch houses in the ’70s. “You name it, I’ve probably built it,” he said.

Today, he is known for his local wood knowledge. From salvaged wood, he’s created thousands of projects from more than 2,000 downed Key West trees. His workshop is filled with chunks of wood he has project ideas for, like Jamaican Dogwood, his current favorite. “Poinciana has to be the worst,” he said. “Termites love it.” 

Tropical almond, tamarind, rosewood (there are only about five of those in Key West), Key lime, Spanish lime, palms, blue and green mahoes, pigeon plum, Jamaican caper: the list of wood he’s worked is everlasting.

Helliesen made his wife Carrie a wooden pen, which she used everywhere. “Someone loved it and she just kept needing more and more,” he said. He’s made in the range of 500 bowls and more than 1,000 pens. He’s made tables, jewelry boxes, and urns, but one of his most special wood workings is for the Army Special Forces on Fleming Key, where he makes the memorial plaques for the Hall of Heroes. He also has made hat boxes for Coast Guard initiation services, where he adds special drawers for challenge coins. 

Two of Doug Helliesen’s works of art used 10 different locally sourced woods, some of which came from Irma-felled trees.

It takes, at least, eight hours for a simple pen, which Carrie sells at local artisan markets from $125 to $200. Attached to the pen she has a little piece of paper which tells about the wood it’s made with. “I could make them quicker if I wanted,” said Doug, “but, then it would be a job.”

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