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Meet Robert Mann: woodworker, aviator and mentor of craftsmanship. At his residence near Gothenburg, Robert and his two Brittany spaniels are eager to welcome visitors. His eyes gleam with pride as he addresses the work in his living room: an exquisite handmade rocking horse, ship’s wheel, canoes, hand carved carousel horses and an airplane. You read that correctly – an airplane in his living room. In between descriptions of how each piece was dreamed up and built, Robert shares snippets of his life’s journey and passion for craftsmanship.

“For most people, woodworking is just a hobby,” Robert explained. “But for me, it’s been my profession. I’ve been a woodworker all my life and these are some of the fun things I’ve built along the way.”

A pivotal moment

Raised in Erie, Pennsylvania, Robert recalled the advice a Catholic school nun gave to his parents: send him to tech school to learn to work with his hands. That moment marked the beginning of his lifelong commitment to craftsmanship.

His parents enrolled him in Erie Tech where he studied shop, drafting and art. Upon graduation, Robert served in the United States Navy from 1959-1963 as an aviation structural mechanic. He developed a deep appreciation for precision and attention to detail, qualities that would define his approach to woodworking in the years to come.

Combining a passion with mentorship

After his military service, Robert explored various vocations but found fulfillment in the art of woodworking. He chose to pursue a degree in teaching.

It became the cornerstone of Robert’s career. From Pennsylvania to Nebraska and Colorado, his classrooms became incubators of creativity and ingenuity. Students built chessboards, carousel horses, rocking chairs and dressers.

“My teaching philosophy was and still is the premise of vocational education, which is learn by doing,” Robert said.

Robert ventured into entrepreneurship, establishing his own woodworking business in Gothenburg for 12 years.

He later moved to Colorado and returned to his true calling: guiding and mentoring students and nurturing their skills in craftsmanship. Robert retired from teaching in Colorado and returned to Gothenburg.

“This is the best place I’ve ever lived,” he said. “It’s peaceful and close to the airport so I can easily fly my plane whenever I’d like to.”

From dreams to reality

Throughout the course of his career and beyond, Robert’s projects all started with a dream.

“I learned to work with my hands, but it takes more than hands. You have to have ideas, also. My problem is that I have too many ideas,” he explained with a chuckle. “When I see something that I want, I figure out how to make it. I don’t have any plans or instructions; I just look at pictures or drawings and then I go to bed at night thinking about how I’m going to do something. Then in the morning, I have an idea and I go with it.”

In 1972, Robert obtained his pilot’s license. But what good is a pilot’s license without your own airplane? He set to work to build his own using a set of plans written in French. A friend translated it for him but left the measurements in metric instead of the familiar imperial. That didn’t stop him, and Robert began building his plane in 1975 and test flew it in 1978.

After the plane was built, Robert was ready to dive into his next project. He built a sailboat, then a canoe and eventually a kayak.

His hands first sculpted a life-size carousel horse in 1983, followed by several others built in the 1990s. He also built another airplane.

Later, he was commissioned to build 16 carvings of Navy Aviator insignias.

“My art has traveled the oceans and all over the world because they hang those signs in the pilot’s ready rooms on Navy ships,” he said proudly.

In 2022, Robert wanted an airplane as a decoration for his front yard. He referenced a 1929 flying book, examined the images and built a replica to scale. That airplane was pulled through the Gothenburg Harvest Festival and now sits in his living room.

“I love to sit there and look at it,” he commented.

He recently completed a ship’s wheel, which also adorns his living room. Robert plans to make a figurehead for a ship soon.

Believe in yourself

For Robert, woodworking is more than just a craft—it’s a way of life. It’s about inspiring the next generation, embracing the timeless principles of craftsmanship and instilling in others a love for the art of creation.

“You have to love and believe in what you are doing,” Robert said. “If you’re in school and woodshop or drafting is offered, take it. There’s so much about woodworking that ties back into math and science.”

From intricately carved carousel horses to meticulously crafted airplanes, his creations bear testament to a life dedicated to the pursuit of craftsmanship and excellence.

As Robert looks towards the future, his hands poised to shape new dreams, one thing remains clear: his journey is far from over. With each project skillfully crafted, he continues to write the story of a life lived with purpose, passion and devotion to the art of craftsmanship.


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