The woodworking path leads O’Brian to make crosses

By | March 29, 2024

Mar. 29—LOUISA — Joey O’Brian was a wood wizard from an early age.

“My dad (Billy Joe O’Brian) told me, ‘Joey, you’re the only man I ever saw that I could ever teach and you got it,’” Joey O’Brian said from the living room of his house. which is tucked away on a side road in the Louisa area.

The road from the O’Brians residence is now called Two Mile Creek and was previously called Chicken Feather – hence the inspiration behind the name of Joey and Jene O’Brian’s cross-making business.

Since 2010, Joey O’Brian has made approximately 7,000 crosses.

The retired railroad conductor turned to a higher power 14 years ago to delve into a wood hobby. He was still working full time, having only joined the railroad six years ago (after a total of 42 years), but he was ready for a new, steady venture.

“Years ago I asked the good Lord, I’m decent with wood…if You find something for me to do, I’ll do it,” O’Brian said. “Well, my neighbor came over here and that was it.

“She came here with a plain cross and three big nails on it,” O’Brian recalled. “That was my inspiration.”

The emergence

“My father was a self-taught carpenter and he inspired me,” says 65-year-old Joey O’Brian. “I have since fallen in love with wood.”

Growing up “in the country” in the Fort Gay neighborhood of West Virginia, a young Joey watched his father bring in cedar shakes from a smokehouse.

“I had this wild idea to hang them on the wall in my bedroom,” O’Brian said with a chuckle. “I must have been twelve or fourteen years old.”

Billy Joe O’Brian worked on the railroad for 19 years before getting a job in Mansfield, Ohio. He then returned to the area and worked for a nickel mill in Burnaugh, Joey said.

“He did remodeling jobs, and he did all his own chores and construction, all that kind of stuff,” said Joey O’Brian, who inherited the natural talent.

Billy Joe died in 2020 and Joey’s mother died two years later. He is happy and honored to continue the legacy of carpentry.

Joey’s first construction job was for his uncle at the age of 16.

He made furniture, including many pieces in his home. He even ventures into jewelry, especially wooden earrings. He built houses, including his own. He, Jane and two children – Lynden and Turner – moved into the home in 2001.

The house takes on an old-fashioned atmosphere, which is immediately noticeable to a keen observer.

“Someone knocked on our door and asked, ‘Is this an old house that you renovated?’ That’s the best compliment we could have received,” said Jene O’Brian. “That’s exactly what we were going for.”

He has added many personal, creative touches to the house.

“We’re very sentimental, very nostalgic,” Jene O’Brian said.

On Joey’s 50th birthday, his wife and children gave him money to spend on building his workshop.

Immaculate for a woodworking space, the bright white building combines the look of a barn with a small country church.

A sign that reads “Poppaw’s Workshop” greets someone at the door. The O’Brians’ three grandchildren gave it to Poppaw for Christmas in 2023.

Joey O’Brian spends about four to five hours a day in the workshop.

“I used to spend eight to 10, but my back can’t take it anymore,” he said.

The gift

The O’Brians launched Chicken Feather Woods in 2012.

Numerous cross creations are on display throughout the O’Brians’ home.

“This is Alpha,” Joey O’Brian pointed to his first cross. “It’s the very first one I made. No pencil, nothing.”

Each cross has a scripture, a number and a handwritten description. Each of them falls within a themed series – of which there are 14.

A few examples are ‘Helping Hand Praising Hand’, which includes Psalm 121:2 – ‘God helps us. My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth – and ‘Humiliation’, which is found at James 4:10.

The largest cross is about 60 cm high and stands on the mantelpiece of the living room.

O’Brian can produce 20 to 30 crosses per week. They have become popular, treasured possessions to commemorate the memory of a loved one at funerals.

He uses two band saws in his workshop: one cuts a tree trunk into a workable piece of wood for a cross and the other makes more precise cuts for the finished product.

“Then I’ll bring it over here and start sanding it,” he said, nodding toward his sanding belt.

His favorite type of wood comes from fruit trees, especially the Bradford pear.

“They are easy to work with and the wood is not difficult to sand,” he said. “They have such a smooth texture.”

According to O’Brian, pine is the worst wood to work with.

He said he tries to grab a piece of wood “everywhere we go,” as Jene agreed with a smile.

O’Brain creates the cross based on the shape and condition of the wood.

‘If there is a knot, I try to save it at the bottom for a ‘rebirth’. Of course, that remains the bottom,” he said. “If there’s a bend in it, I just go with it.”

O’Brian uses a wide variety of finishes including paint, varnish and satin polyurethane. He also works with wax with a hand-rubbed or polished finish, but much of his work is left natural.

“No two (crosses) are the same,” he said.

One of his favorite crosses is made of walnut. It’s called “Old Rugged,” which reflects a new birth in Christ.

“You were lost and now you are saved,” he explained the meaning behind it.

Jene O’Brian keeps a log of every note associated with each sharp.

“That would be the first thing I grab if the house catches on fire,” Joey O’Brian said.

The calling’

Jene O’Brian said they “had no idea” the cross-making would grow into a thriving business.

“It’s just his calling,” she said. “I really think it’s his calling.”

O’Brian is a member of Kentucky Crafted and the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen.

His work can be seen in several places in Louisa, including Farmhouse Memories.

When they’re away from home, Joey and Jene may be able to visit family, but they’ll also have the freedom to travel more often. They recently purchased a permanent RV at Cherokee Lake in Tennessee and occasionally drive south to Florida.

“We love our 60s,” Jene said, adding that she chronicles many of their adventures on Instagram (chickenfeatherwoods).

Reach Chicken Feather Woods at (606) 225-6548 or Follow Chicken Feather Woods LLC on Facebook.

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