Marquee: The artisans of WaterDrop WorkShop work to create one-of-a-kind furniture.

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In a patch of sunlight spilling into his garage studio, Waterdrop Workshop owner Zac Merten gently hammers a threaded insert into a prototype piece for a "rhizome rocker" chair on display at Willow. Tuesday, August 3, 2010

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Balancing their 16-month old son Graysen Merten in one arm, Erin Griffen balances a Rhizome Rocker in the other as her partner Zac Merten drills holes for stoppers. Tuesday, August 3, 2010

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Rich, warm wood tones complement the chrome and teal-blue metal drawers and accent pieces on a coffe table called "Coldspot," made by Zac Merten. Tuesday, August 3, 2010

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Framed by circular cutouts on his Rhizome Rocker, Zac Merten works out the final placement of stoppers on the legs before the opening of a show at Willow Gallery. Tuesday, Augsut 3, 2010

Zac Merten's mission is about as opposite from the story of Pinocchio as one can get.

The puppet carved by Geppetto in the timeless fairy tale can't wait to be freed from his herky-jerky body of wood.

Merten, on the other hand, patiently creates new life from old wood otherwise destined to be trash or ash. With an assortment of tools and a plethora of vision, the artist embraces his medium's subtle imperfections and character. He is assisted not by the Blue Fairy, but by his business and life partner, Erin Griffen.

The two founded WaterDrop WorkShop -- specializing in artisan furniture and sculpture -- upon coming to Walla Walla about two years ago. Merten and Griffen have fallen in love with the community and the opportunities offered here, they said.

Since beginning their Walla Walla life, the couple have welcomed their own real boy, Graysen Thomas Merten, into their world. It's a small universe they've deliberately crafted to be family-centric and tailored to their needs. Daddy might work 16 hours on some days, but he's just a few feet into the back yard in his shop, Griffen explained. "Our true intention is to see our family. It's a struggle, and it's risky, but at this point, it's totally worth it."

Following their hearts seems to be the natural course for the family. It's how Merten's love affair began with wood, he explained. When Evergreen State College canceled its architect program, he saw little choice but to veer into the school's furniture design program. And that, as they say, was that. "I fell in love with woodshop, with the smell of wood," he said.

"Some of your interest was in me," recalled Griffen, who was also taking woodworking courses at the time.

"That's true," Merten replied with a grin.

He fell in love with her, but became obsessed with making custom furniture, bringing in salvage material and building something "sacred," he said. "These trees served us all these years ... we get to honor that."

And honor he does, sometimes in collaboration with other artists and local metal manufacturers, finding the ideal way to work with whatever the tree presents.

In the case of the "Blue Crane" dining table, which is supported by a steel frame the color of a June sky, the lacquer-coated black walnut top has been allowed to keep its notched-out side where perhaps a burl was once harbored. There's no chance of a knock-off copy of this table. "One thing I hope people sense is just the uniqueness. I like to have something people have literally never seen before ... pieces that bring beauty to their space."

Merten works closely with Walla Walla arborist Andy Asmus in collecting local wood. After two years of drying, the fallen tree soldiers of the 2008 wind storm are finally ready for new furniture lives.

Repurposing such product helps WaterDrop WorkShop produce heirloom quality results, Griffen explained. "It's going to last 100 years," Merten agreed.

As well, Merten and Griffen are eager to delve into some commercial propositions that have come their way, such as helping create a custom tasting room environment. "It's very exciting, it's a big deal for us," Griffen said.

She and Merten try to keep sources for their product line as local as possible, although that bubble gets stretched across the Northwest on occasion.

And it's definitely not limited to wood. Merten's recent creation, the "Coldspot" coffee table, highlights the artist's unusual use of materials. Under the black walnut top, between the maple legs, two refrigerator drawers of the turquoise appliance vintage slide in and out of their slots, all padded with recycled sweater material. The classic silvery "Coldspot" logo is affixed to the table just above the drawers.

Not many people get to know where their coffee table was born and raised, the couple said.

He loves this piece, Merten conceded. "The hard part is having to let it go. And it's going to go."

He hopes the same for other pieces he has ensconced at a show, which will be up through October at Willow's Loft Gallery on the corner of Rose Street and Second Avenue. Merten looks almost like a kid at Christmas as he beholds his works, emanating a joyous energy.

Take, for example, the coffee table made with cedar beams, blow torched and shined to an obsidian-like surface. And the "Piper Lamp," a multi-bulbed reading floor light, created using airplane -- from a dismantled Piper Aircraft -- hydraulic tubes as conduits. Running up the length of a piece of wood, the slender, stainless-steel rods erupt in high-end, special light bulbs. At the bottom end, they merge on base made from a highly-polished electrical cover rescued from a salvage yard.

Not every design goes as planned, of course, but it's all "part of the dance." As he seeks to uncover the art inside his material, it takes tremendous effort, he explained. "To stay focused. To work with a winding path. Every mistake is an opportunity."

For more information on WaterDrop WorkShop, go to waterdropworkshop.com or call 509-876-4260.

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