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Sanding at the altar
Rural churches turn to Ed Wieberg for his traditional Gothic woodwork

by Jim McCarty

By day, Ed Wieberg is a mechanic repairing bucket trucks for Consolidated Electric Co-op. In his spare time, however, he crafts magnificent church art like this altar he built for St. Joseph Catholic Church in Martinsburg.

By day, Ed Wieberg maintains trucks for Consolidated Electric Cooperative. But when the day ends, he cleans the grease from his hands and heads home to Martinsburg and his woodworking shop.

Not long after Ed married his wife, Lisa, he began teaching himself the woodworker’s craft, starting with simple projects such as plant stands and shelves. As his skills improved, he made cabinets and kitchen islands for friends.

“I made useful things, but I kept pushing the limits,” Ed says. “I wanted to continue to learn.”

This learning process culminated in Ed being selected to build new altars for two Catholic churches, his home parish of St. Joseph in Martinsburg and the namesake church in St. Clement. His skills as a problem solver, honed from working as a mechanic since age 13, allowed him to master the art of Gothic woodworking.

The term Gothic refers to an architectural style that began in 12th-century France. It was intended to appeal to the emotions, with extensive use of interlocking arches and ornate columns.

Ed learned new techniques to make the accents on this altar stand out in high relief. These Gothic arches were carved into a single piece of wood. This detail is from the St. Clement Catholic Church altar. Photo courtesy Bruce Boyes.

The first time Ed applied the technique to his work, he really didn’t recognize the style. The project was a display cabinet he was asked to build in 2002 to house an Italian marble nativity set donated to St. Joseph Church.

Ed crafted an oak cabinet with diamond pattern trim that hangs just inside the church. “I didn’t know that was Gothic,” Ed says. “I just knew it did fit in with the rest of the church.”

When St. Joseph’s priest decided the church needed remodeling, Ed was the logical choice to serve on the renovation committee. He was also called on to design and build a new altar and pulpit, a task he was at first reluctant to accept.

The previous altar at St. Joseph had been built by Ed’s friend, the late Arnold Fennewald. “It was a well-built altar, but it was dated,” Ed recalls. “When it was built, it was stylish and looked good. But styles change.”

Encouraged by his friend’s wife, Ed accepted the challenge. He worked closely with restoration expert Tom Sater, who has helped dozens of historic Missouri churches with renovation projects.

in addition to the altar, Ed also designed and built a new pulpit for St. Joseph Catholic Church in Martinsburg.

Ed studied books on Gothic architecture. He borrowed antique woodworking pieces from other churches to use for patterns. He also went on a tour of churches, where he gathered new ideas.

“As a mechanic, you figure out problems,” Ed says. “It’s the same thing with woodworking. I like to design things without regard to how to do it or how long it will take. Then I go back and figure out how to do it. It’s an ongoing figuring process.”

The altar Ed finally built for St. Joseph Church is made from oak. Its focal point is a quatrefoil also from oak. Two side panels feature double Gothic arches while dozens of smaller arches line up in a row across the top and sides. Heavy, spiral columns anchor the corners and little touches abound.

A stickler for details, Ed put as much detail on the back as the front. He builds so the wood can move without cracking due to changes in temperature and humidity. “When you spend this much time on something, you want it to last,” he says.

Before this job was complete, he also built pedestals for the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph statues, a matching stand for the Easter candle, four poles used in processions and a new pulpit.

Ed followed up the St. Joseph project with a bar he built for the Martinsburg Knights of Columbus. Never shying away from a challenge, he built the bar with compound angles and even created the Knight’s logo in colored metal.

As beautiful as the St. Joseph altar and other furnishings are, Ed pulled out all the stops for the work he did for St. Clement. That church, built in 1968, is of contemporary design. But the parishioners who donated the new altar wanted it made in the traditional Gothic style.

This detail is from the St. Clement Catholic Church altar. Photo courtesy Bruce Boyes.

This time Ed experimented with adding depth to the interlocking arches. Using a router attached to what is essentially a milling machine, he carved layers into thick oak boards that make the details stand out in high relief.

To add to this sense of depth, he gave each piece a coat of boiled linseed oil, applied different color stains and followed with several coats of lacquer. Before the finish, Ed spends countless hours sanding, even bringing parts along on vacation. “My wife says I spend more time sanding than most people do building,” Ed says.

The St. Clement altar rivals anything the old masters of Gothic woodworking created. Ed counted more than 140 arches, 64 pillars and four big columns on the altar.

Plans call for a matching pulpit, but first Ed has some remodeling work to do at home. And he has no intention of letting these projects take too much time away from the boat he sails on Mark Twain Lake.

“It’s been a great privilege to build for these churches and the Knights of Columbus, too,” Ed says. “I definitely have a lot of respect for the church. I try to do my best work and add some extras to make it more useful.”

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