Historic Bell Tolls for Urban Wood Display

By Rich Christianson

It’s only appropriate that Jeff Perkis’ first commissioned custom woodworking project was made with urban wood salvaged from a vicious July 2012 storm that severely crippled nearly 200 old-growth trees in Reed Kepler Park of West Chicago, IL.

Perkis used red oak milled from one of the downed trees to create a display stand for a historic train bell. It will become a permanent exhibit at the West Chicago City Museum.

A graduate of the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), Perkis is an architect by trade but has taken up woodworking in a basement shop of his home in Wheaton. “The thing that happened at Reed Keppler Park and all of the trees that were storm damaged really kind of pulled me into urban wood and that’s become my woodworking niche,” Perkis said. “We were able to reclaim a lot of this urban wood for a higher purpose instead of seeing it turned into firewood or mulch.”

Perkis was commissioned by West Chicago to design and fabricate the stand for the brass bell owned by Lorenzo Coverarrulias, a long-time resident of West Chicago. Coverarrulias grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico near the Southern Pacific rail yard. The sound of train bells has always been like music to his ears. He purchased the 80-pound, 1-foot diameter bell from a Lombard salvage yard in in the early 1960s.

Trains and train bells also reserve a special place in West Chicago’s heritage. The town was once called Turner Junction among others and home to a large switching yard in serving as a major hub for freight trains that came in and out of Chicago.

Coverallulias’ bell has been displayed at West Chicago’s annual Railroad Days festival several times over the years. “In the past they either rented stands or just used makeshift 2x4s to display it,” Perkis said. “For a while they have wanted a stand built for it. Knowing that there was a log of wood available from the storm, it just seemed like a good idea that the stand be built from that wood and that the bell would be kept at the museum in West Chicago.”

Arts and Crafts’ Inspired
Perkis designed the 4-foot-wide by 4-foot-eight-inch-high stand in an arts and crafts style. “I tried to take some cues from some of the historical buildings of West Chicago. I also drew inspiration from the famous architect firm Greene & Green who were big in the arts and crafts movement around the turn of the last century.”

Perkis said red oak was a good match for the project. “Red oak is a beautiful, sturdy wood and is a favorite among furniture makers. It has a great smell when working with it,” he said. Perkis added black walnut accents to the stand. The display was expertly finished by Ken Wier, owner of i2i Design of Wood Dale. i2i specializes in the manufacture of custom furniture made with urban wood.

Both the red oak and black walnut lumber was milled by Perkis’ uncle Ron Meyers, owner of Meyers Woodworking & Lumber of Batavia. (Meyers Woodworks is among dozens of custom sawmills included in the Illinois Small Sawmill directory.)

Meyers also supplied lumber salvaged from the savage storm to the ITT Technology Architecture & Furniture course taught by Associate Professor Paul Pettigrew. Perkis, who helped instruct some of those classes, estimated that some 200 objects have been made from the reclaimed urban wood over the last three years.

“I grew up playing baseball, football and soccer at Reed Keppler Park,” Perkis said. “When I was working on the stand, I found myself wondering which tree exactly this wood may have come from. I felt and still do feel very proud that I was able to give this wood from such a devastating event a chance to continue to be enjoyed by the community. I hope this will help others see that there is an opportunity for a higher use of wood from our own backyards.”

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