Career twist: Semi-retired dancer carves out a new career in woodworking


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More than a decade ago, professional dancer Christopher Bandy helped his parents clear trees to make room for a vineyard on some land they owned in Vienna, W.Va. He didn't realize he also was clearing the way for what would become his second career -- woodworking.

"The trees were just going to become firewood," said Mr. Bandy, 34, of North Point Breeze. "I did some research and convinced my dad to spring for a basic model sawmill."

They taught themselves how to mill and dry the lumber from the downed trees. "That's how we do things in our family. We just dive into it."

Former ballet dancer carves out a new career

Christopher Bandy has transitioned from his career as a dancer for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre into a new role as woodcarver. (Video by Nate Guidry; 5/5/2013)

In the midst of a four-year career with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, followed by a stint with the now-defunct Dance Alloy Theater, Mr. Bandy continued to teach himself how to turn salvaged woods first into building block sets and other playthings. Later, he graduated to cutting boards, furniture and cabinets.

Now semi-retired from dancing, he has made woodworking his full-time job.

"My hobby became my job, and my job became my hobby," he said.

He started the transition by making toys, including a maple baby rattle, a six-level "stack-a-roo" and a star maple-flavored teether with natural, nontoxic beeswax and finished with jojoba oil.

"I had a very young daughter and another on the way. I wanted to make things for them to play with," he said, partly as a way for the family to save some money.

Once he got the hang of it, he decided to make dozens of toys and sell them online at www.etsy.com and at local craft events, with his first one in February 2011. He's maintained a regular spot at the Farmer's Market Cooperative of East Liberty since last May. He makes his designs out of salvaged wood, believing that is friendlier to the environment than cutting down trees.

In time, Bandy Woodworks started to catch on, eventually gaining interest from people who wondered what else he could make. A neighbor asked him to make radiator covers, followed by custom furniture requests.

"If I make a couple pieces of furniture, that will pay the bills, where you have to sell 50 toys to make rent for the month," he said. "It was sort of a no-brainer."

His largest commission to date was a 12-person dining table with six two-person bench seats made out of salvaged maple that ran about $4,000.

"We had been looking online at large dining room tables at places like Restoration Hardware, Pottery Barn and Crate & Barrel," said Lisa Bernard, 46, of Regent Square. She learned about Mr. Bandy's work through his wife, Mollie, and later encountered him at an event promoting his work.

After swapping emails and links to photos of tables on Pinterest that Ms. Bernard liked, Mr. Bandy stopped by her home to see the dining room space and share sketches with her and her husband.

"We talked about wood and color and finish and things like that," she said. "We wanted something that was very weighty but very natural-looking and welcoming and warm."

It took about 14 months, Ms. Bernard said, from the time she first approached Mr. Bandy with the idea. It took about nine months just for the wood to dry.

"The wait was difficult for me, but we would totally do it again," she said. "He was really good about keeping us informed and sending us pictures. ... It was just really neat to see the process."

Up until about a year-and-a-half ago, Mr. Bandy did his woodworking at home.

"I had a close call that required a few stitches, but I kept all my limbs, and my wife kicked me out of the house," he said.

She encouraged him to move into a shop. He ended up securing space in Homewood. One of the people he shares it with is Jason Boone, owner of the Urban Tree. Mr. Boone has become a mentor to Mr. Bandy, helping him refine his technique.

When dancers retire from PBT, they are eligible for scholarships from the Dancers Trust Fund, which provides financial and other support to prepare them for the next chapter of their careers. Mr. Bandy began an apprenticeship with Mr. Boone.

"He's been picking up ways to become more efficient," Mr. Boone said. "Everyone seems excited about what we're doing and really likes the story that comes along with what they get, rather than buying a more mass-produced piece that comes from overseas or wherever."

In between constructing pieces for clients, Mr. Bandy remains an active member of the Pittsburgh dance scene, performing last month in Texture Contemporary Ballet's "There's Something About Fontina" at the New Hazlett Theater. He also helps teach a professional dance training program at the Oglebay Institute School of Dance in Wheeling, W.Va., and serves as ballet master of the Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance, a summer dance company in Asheville, N.C.

"It's kind of a strange transition [from] being covered in sawdust to teaching students," he said. But dance and woodworking have more in common than some might think.

"I spent every day of my life just trying to be the best dancer I can be, make my body do all the moves just right," Mr. Bandy said. "There's a very high level of excellence that's expected. Just out of habit, I guess, I've taken that same sort of attention to detail [in woodworking]. I'm just not happy until what I'm working on is perfect."

theater - mobilehome - lifestyle

Sara Bauknecht: sbauknecht@post-gazette.com or on Twitter @SaraB_PG. First Published May 5, 2013 4:00 AM


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