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A cut above the rest: After years of military service, Navy veteran turns to woodworking

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By Deborah Swearingen

Wood shavings fly through the air at Ben Blakeley’s woodworking shop, illuminated by the glowing beams of evening sun that peep through the open door.

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“Speed is your friend,” Blakeley said, while shavings from his nearly finished wine stopper fell from his whirling lathe and piled on the floor.

At least three days a week, the Littleton woodworker visits his spot at the Chatfield Mini-Shops. Often, there are tunes playing; and sometimes, he’s joined by his 4-year-old son, Tobin, for whom his newly opened shop was named.

Blakeley was medically discharged from the military after nearly a decade of service in the Navy, where he worked primarily in search and seizure on the Navy’s anti-piracy team but also as a prison guard at Guantanamo Bay. After returning to Colorado, he bounced around, trying the construction management program at Arapahoe Community College and the advanced remodeling and carpentry program at Red Rocks Community College. Ultimately, he landed in the woodworking program at Red Rocks and fell in love.

One day, his mom asked for a handmade cutting board, and the rest is history. Nearly two years into his woodworking career and six months after opening his shop — Tobins Woodworking — Blakeley remains modest about his woodworking ability. His mother, on the other hand, has no problem celebrating her son’s success.

“He’s a go-getter,” said Blakeley’s mother, Mary Surrena. “He puts his heart and soul into whatever he does.

“It wasn’t a surprise,” she added. “Some of the work he’s turned out has been a surprise ’cause it’s just stunning.”

Skill and style develop over time, but woodworking remains a process. Blakeley takes time with each piece, allowing the wood to tell its own story.

“I love turning, but you can’t force a piece of wood to do something it doesn’t want to do,” he said.

When it comes to wood, Blakeley, who also works as an independent contractor for Lowe’s hardware store, enjoys experimentation. Some days, he works with flame box elder to create a wine stopper. On other days, he uses traditional walnut to make a bowl. On yet another day, Blakeley might find himself crafting a wand using epoxy resin and dye to add color.

But despite this, he recognizes there is always more to master.

“There’s still a ton to learn,” he said. “It’s not really something you stop learning your entire life. There’s always a trick or tip you can get from somebody.

“There’s so much to woodworking. You have to find your niche, find what you like and try different things,” Blakeley added.

Mostly, though, woodworking is a lot of fun. Blakeley appreciates the fact that he can make work out of fun and involve his son along the way. Tobin helps with oiling, sanding and pouring epoxy, and Blakeley hopes he’s teaching his son a trade and providing him with a skillset he can use in the future.

For Surrena, this is the best of part of her son’s business, too. She loves watching her son and grandson work together in the shop and said it “punches my heart more than anything” to know Blakeley is able to share the art with Tobin.

“It’s just a good thing … you know, to see him being able to involve his son and also find something that he’s passionate about,” she said.

Contact reporter Deborah Swearingen at dswearingen@evergreenco.com or 303-350-1042. Follow her on Twitter @djswearingen.