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Wood You Believe This Surgeon Is an Expert Craftsman

Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014

Building a ukulele from scratch "seems pretty cool" to Douglas Nadel, MD. It’s going to be a challenge, but this physician craftsman is up for it.

There are definite similarities between Douglas Nadel, MD's profession and his hobby. The surgeon enjoys woodworking for many of the same reasons he got into medicine.

"I like the challenges and learning new skills and, of course, seeing the finished project," says Dr. Nadel.

Dr. Nadel always wanted to be a surgeon. He eventually found otolaryngology (ear, nose and throat or ENT) to be the most interesting. For more than 15 years he's been performing tonsillectomies and ear tube and sinus surgeries on adults and children at Doylestown Hospital.

As a child, Dr. Nadel built model planes and dioramas. More recently, his wife, Fran Nadel, a Pediatric Emergency Physician at CHOP, bought him a table saw when they moved into their new home. At first Dr. Nadel tackled bookcases, armed with knowledge about woodworking he had learned from magazines and books and by watching You Tube videos.

When his wife wanted a secretary desk, Dr. Nadel ordered plans from famed American woodworker Al Hudson. A bit daunted, he thought, "there was no way I could possibly build this." Dr. Nadel filled an entire notebook with plans and drawings. It took him a year and a half to complete. "It's the kind of thing where you learn from your mistakes," he says. The end result is an exquisite mahogany desk that boasts a French polish finish.

The next big project was building a harpsichord, yes, from scratch. It took him about a year and a half to build and about a year after that to tune and adjust. The harpsichord is a plywood case, veneered with tiger-stripe maple, walnut, and padauk. The keys are maple and ebony. Dr. Nadel shot a video of his daughter Charlotte's piano teacher playing the instrument for the first time. He sometimes "fools around on it" with improvisations of "Light My Fire" by the Doors.

Between big projects, Dr. Nadel creates pieces of "Tramp Art," a style that originated in the 1800’s when tramps and hobos used discarded wood from cigar boxes or crates to carve ornate layered pieces into frames, jewelry boxes, etc. At first, he tried to whittle the boxes by hand, but realized, "Tramps and hobos must have had a lot more free time than I do." So he experimented using a router and different woods like cedar, cherry, rosewood and maple. Each box is different. He "now has the technique down," so much so that he's written a book about how to make Tramp Art with a router.

These days, Dr. Nadel is getting a head start on some holiday projects. "The most fun is to make something and give it away." He's turned a bowl from the wood of a fallen cherry tree and is working on a walnut tea chest for his mother's 75th birthday. He gets most of his wood from a local supplier, but sometimes uses wood from his own backyard. This winter he lost a pear tree and an ash that he's drying out for future use.

For the planned ukulele, Dr. Nadel is considering using African Limba for the body and Port Orford cedar for the soundboard. He'll probably get a book on how to play the instrument. Chances are he'll pick up on it quickly, as he has before, building upon his knowledge and skills. "It's nice having figured something out, then you can use it for the next time," he says.

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