Fit for a wooden ball

Carpenter fashions a southern belle dress out of wood

Posted: Thursday, January 29, 2004

Editor's note

• This is the first in a four-part series looking ahead to the Wearable Art show. If you or someone you know is entering and has an interesting story, contact the Empire's arts department at 586-3740 x268 or e-mail

If you attended one of the last two Wearable Art shows, then you remember David Walker's creations. A carpenter at University of Alaska Southeast, an artist in his free time and an inventor (in his Bonnie Brae garage) by necessity, his medium is wood. But his imagination is far from wooden.

In 2002, he straightened out hand-planer shavings and weaved them into a skirt, a top and a hat. That earned third place. In 2003, he built a pointy, wooden hoop skirt with a spiky top made out of cones and a large cone hat. The entire costume was painted red and white, and again, he finished third.

For this year's show - Rampaging Imagination: the Fourth Annual Wearable Art Extravaganza, 6:30 and 9:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 20, at the ANB Hall - he's constructing a southern belle dress (full gown, hoop skirt, corset top, puffy sleeves and parasol) out of wood veneer.

Walker finished the parasol in October and has been working on the dress since mid-December. He spent 40 hours on his first two costumes, and plans to spend 60 to 70 hours this time. He sketched concept drawings for the gown immediately after last year's show and began making test pieces in October to test the limits of his veneer strips.

"You go to the (Wearable Art show) and then you come out of it thinking, you have ideas right away," Walker said. "I just test myself, going that much further each time, pushing the limits a little bit farther and experimenting with things. Last time I went pretty wild. This time I'll do this regular kind of gown and dress and see how close I can get it to a regular dress, being totally wood."

Starting at the top, the corset for the dress is made from pieces of hemlock veneer. Walker made a cardboard model of the corset, took it apart and examined the way each piece bent to see how he would have to bend the veneer in a similar fashion. He steam-bent his veneer, soaking it in hot water to make it more forgiving. Then he taped and contact-cemented the pieces together, using Tyvek building paper (his secret ingredient) on the inside of the corset to hold the pieces together and give the corset more structure and durability.

"I had to find a way to glue two pieces of veneer together and make it flexible at that joint," Walker said. "I tested a couple other things, like Visqueen. The Tyvek is a real good product, because it's light and flexible and very strong. You can't rip it. The veneer doesn't crack or break, because the Tyvek is very strong."

The corset will tie in the front and the back. It has holes for arms, and short, puffy sleeves made out of yellow cedar planer shavings - 50 to a side - attached to the collar and arm ringlet.

Reportedly, the corset is rather comfortable for wood. Dawn Pisel-Davis, the sister of Walker's wife, Rene, will model the dress on the runway.

Walker took Pisel-Davis' measurements and has fit her for the dress twice. Pisel-Davis modeled Walker's first woven wood creation, which she said turned out to be "scratchy" and "not very flexible."

"This piece isn't actually abrasive, because he lined the corset with Tyvek," Pisel-Davis said. "I was surprised because the top is modeled after a corset, and corsets are not known for being that comfortable."

"It's amazing even though his work, in a way, is not very flexible," she said. "He's such an amazing craftsman that he knows how to put it together in a way that is easy to wear."

Walker abandoned his first model for the corset on Pisel-Davis' advice.

"He wanted it to be a bustier, so I told him he had to cut it lower, and I'd wear a push-up bra," she said.

Walker's hoop skirt consists of a oak belt, which slides apart into two pieces. The pieces eventually will attach with a set screw, a dowel and a hexnut. The pieces of the skirt - 70 long strips of hemlock veneer stained cherry - will slip, unglued, into a groove cut into the belt. Eventually, it will look like the skirt puffs up, then drops down. Walker expects the skirt to weigh six to seven pounds.

"It's easy to walk around in the way the skirt is designed," Pisel-Davis said. "It might be a little heavy, but anything for fashion."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

• The Wearable Art show, a Juneau Arts and Humanities Council fund-raiser, is open to artists of all media. Completed entry applications are due at 5 p.m. Friday, Feb. 6, and are available at or at the JAHC office, 206 N. Franklin St. The artist entry fee is $15. Tickets for the two runway shows are available at all local book stores and are expected to sell out quickly. Call 586-ARTS for more info.

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