Craftsman gives church his devotion: Kennewick woodworker created cross from tree

KENNEWICK -- The old maple tree growing outside Kennewick First Presbyterian Church had to be cut down to make way for an expansion but the stately tree found new life inside the church, thanks to Richland's Gary Miller.

Miller's skills as a woodworker helped transform the tree into an object of worship, a 14-foot high cross made of four wood sections joined by a metal ring.

"The idea was to take something from the old to make into something new," said Miller, explaining the significance of using the maple tree. "This tree was in perfect health," he said, adding the grain on it was so beautiful that it made it hard to decide which way to cut the boards.

The cross mounted high on the wall inside the new sanctuary inspires a sense of awe and beauty, said Carol Adamek, administrative assistant at the church.

"Everybody gets blown away by the (beauty of) the cross," she said.

Miller, 80, has been a member of the church's congregation for about 15 years and a hobbyist woodworker all his life.

"I felt very honored when they asked me to make the cross. They took a chance on me," said Miller who also made a miniature replica of the cross for the face of a lectern in the sanctuary. It's made from the same maple, which had to be cut down to accommodate the church's recent expansion.

The cross is 130 board-feet and weighs about 350 pounds, and Miller had to use about two gallons of glue to build it.

He was chosen for the project because of his skills as a woodworker, Adamek said. He's always helped to fix things, and he also makes beautiful wooden objects to raise money at church auctions, she said. Miller's very generous with his time and skills, she said.

After the tree was cut in January 2007, Miller began curing the wood, which took about 11/2 years. Later, he cut the boards, glued and smoothed them, and laminated them to form separate sections with grooves to hold tubelights, Miller said.

The cross was designed by the architect who put together the building plans, he said.

The building contractor added the ring and brackets to mount the cross before the new building opened in November.

Moving the heavy boards in his small shop at home proved challenging, but Miller said he enjoyed working on the 80-hour project.

When Miller was diagnosed with esophageal cancer about five years ago, he said he got a lot of support from the church. He's also been part of the church's work crews that travels every summer to Alaska to work on projects at a Presbyterian youth camp.

He also restores wood furniture and loves experimenting with different kinds of wood to make a variety of objects: quilt racks, birdhouses that look like churches, tables, lazy Susan turntables, jewelry boxes and toy banks. The challenge and pleasure of woodworking lies in "figuring out" the project, Miller said.

He gives away most of the items to his family and friends and the church, he said. His handiwork is hard to miss at Kennewick First Presbyterian.

In the prayer room adjacent to the sanctuary, there's a toy bank Miller made that features an old post office box door with a tiny glass window and a combination lock in the front. It serves as a donation box and a receptacle for prayer requests from members. He also built a lectern with wheels.

His craft helps him show his appreciation for the church, he said.

* Pratik Joshi: 509-582-1541; pjoshi@tricityherald.com.