He's been working on the railroad
Gene Baker has never encountered a building project he can't handle. Give him a piece of wood and he can make it into just about anything.
"I've always liked to tinker around making things," said the retired truck driver. "I like to build anything that's a challenge."
Baker has always enjoyed the creative outlet that woodworking has given him. He still has his first project - a wooden train car he built in his basement the winter he was 13. The results inspired him to build two more over the next two winters - all by hand with no power tools. He also built 285 feet of track in the yard to run the trains on.
"I was trying to fulfill my fantasy of having a backyard railroad," he said. "I was a railroad buff and I liked trains. When the folks would go to town, I went down and made friends with the railroad crews and rode switch engines in the freight yards."
That fascination with trains has stayed with him his entire life. Baker recently completed a train track that circles the shop in his back yard in Alexandria. His hand-crafted railroad now includes four cars, a track and a working engine. He even installed the electrical components in the train's engine.
But Baker's hobby has expanded far beyond trains. He also makes benches, tables, chairs, gun cabinets, shelves, sleds, birdhouses, doghouses, railroad cars, train tracks, decks, porches, bridges - and anything else that can be made out of wood.
"You don't want to be here 'til tomorrow, do you?" he questioned as he tried to list his numerous woodworking accomplishments.
He even built the building in which he builds all his projects - all the way from the concrete slab to the shingles, with help from his wife, Ruth. He also designed and built a "tramway" to transport the shingles to the roof, so he didn't have to carry them up a ladder.
Baker spends up to four hours a day in his wood shop, which is a testament to his attention to detail and organization. Almost every kind of wood imaginable, much of it salvaged from demolition and construction projects, is stacked in neat piles from floor to ceiling.
His latest creative endeavor is making round birdhouses and benches, using patterns he designed. On each item, he carves the date on which it was finished, numbers it sequentially and marks it on a calendar. To date, he has made 50 benches and about 1,500 birdhouses and birdfeeders.
"I never went to one minute of woodworking school," Baker said of how he learned to make such unique wood products. "This is all self-education through trial and error and imagination. They're all my own design, all off the top of my head."
But if you ask Baker what he's most proud of, he has a hard time coming up with an answer.
"I put a lot of work into it, but I won't admit to being proud of anything," he said. "I don't try and invite notoriety. This is just a hobby.
"I feel my life is very satisfying," he concluded. "This is something I've done all my life and I enjoy it."