Shortly after graduating from Whitewater High School in 1958, a young Lenny Staller was taught a lesson he never expected to learn as a trade school student in Fort Atkinson.
He learned he was wasting his time.
“My father taught me more,” Staller said.
In a small garage on his family’s farm, Staller—proprietor of Lenny’s Canes—studied at the hip of his father, who also made cabinets on the side. The Stallers became well known in the Fort Atkinson area for their woodworking skills, and young Lenny’s time with his father—along with knowledge gained from a high school industrial arts class—set him on a course toward his own career.
More than 60 years later, Staller runs his own shop offering a wide selection of standard and custom canes, hiking sticks and wooden toys. For those who desire personal touches, there are custom cane toppers, logos and emblems.
Personally, Staller was married to his wife, Renee, for 25 years. The couple had five children: Josh, 47; Laura, 45; Nick, 43; Joe, 39, and Noah, 36. He also has 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
To learn more about Staller and his woodcrafts, visit his store at 4815 Highway 14 just outside Janesville, call 608-563-1498 or visit LennysCanes.com.
1. What is it specifically about canes that intrigued you enough to go into business creating them? While making toys and going to shows as a vendor in Rockville, Indiana’s Covered Bridge Fest, there was a vendor selling a whisk broom with a multi-dyed handle I liked. I got some veneer and made 20 canes that I sold at the next two shows I found out there. Folks told me, “Lenny, if I have to use a cane, I want a unique cane.” Even people ages 24 to 95 use canes.
2. There are many types of wood that are ideal for making canes. But if you were making one for yourself, which type would you choose and why? I use 30 different types of wood: walnut, oak, maple, hickory, ash, bibina, zebra, chestnut, purple heart, blood wood, merbau from Cambodia. I even have some wood I acquired from the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893 from a house built there from wood brought over by Columbus. It’s a really hard wood similar in color to dark walnut. For myself, I like a natural hickory sapling with a wine wrap grown into the shaft. Really cool.
3. At the grocery store, what item always goes in your cart whether you need it or not? Snickers candy bars. When I was 40 or so, I could not pass the checkout aisle without getting one. That lasted for many years, and now my children always get some for Christmas.
4. What was your first car? My first car was a 1954 Nash Metro. It was a really fun car to drive. Gas was 16 cents a gallon, and the car held 20 gallons, so I could drive it for a week or more. That was until my little brother rolled it over. That ended that.
5. When purchasing a cane, what is the most important thing to consider? When someone wants a cane, it’s important to get the correct length. I ask what is to the person’s liking. I kind of ask many questions and then show them options. If I can’t find one, I will custom-make one usually within a week or less ... unless it has a hand-carved handle. May folks want their canes to make a statement about them.
6. You make other wood items besides canes. What are they, and do sales of these items compete with cane sales? I have been a woodworker for 63 years, and I’m still learning now. I have been making farm wood toys and trucks, designing them myself from memory. Also birdhouses, and I make wood bowls on my lathe. Sales are mostly canes, but toys pick up around Christmas.
7. You have nine brothers and sisters. What were the benefits and drawbacks to being part of such a large family? I have four sisters, and each one of them has seven brothers. We all had our things to do, and we learned how to help out with everything that had to get done. Also, when it was time to play games, there were enough of us to even play volleyball or softball.
8. Your family has a backstory as it pertains to what is now Spacesaver in Fort Atkinson. Can you share that story? My father, Maurice Staller, started Staller Cabinets on a farm in rural Whitewater. He left the farm in 1960 and moved to a larger place in Fort Atkinson to expand. We made our first mobile shelving unit in a school in Delavan, and that’s how (what became) Spacesaver got its foot in the door in the mobile shelving business. I sold my share of the business in 1970, and I’m not sorry I did. I love my woodworking cane business and working with people. Money is not what counts in life. My father would talk and listen to anyone who wanted to share their story, and I am the same way. I worked for Home Lumber in Whitewater for a few years and started making canes in about 1995 in Germantown. Then I opened a brick-and-mortar store in Janesville in 2010. In 2016, I moved to a new permanent location at 4815 W. Highway 14 in Janesville. I have a new 30-foot-by-50-foot building with a 16-foot-by-20-foot showroom.
9. Have you ever had someone bring in something with great sentimental value and ask to have a cane or other wooden item made from it? Yes. Quite a few people bring their own items and have me create canes for them. One man sent me a broken cane from his father’s farm and had me rework it. He was so pleased, he ordered a special one. I get orders from almost every state and even from Jamaica.
10. Where do you get the wood that you use for your creations? My exotic wood comes from a wonderful man in Monroe at Deppeler Wood Shop. I also go to auctions and find good wood for good value, and I keep my eyes open when I travel along the road for a good stick I can turn into a unique cane or walking stick.
11. If you could learn to do anything, what would it be? Maybe learn how to do more detailed carvings, but I am satisfied with my knowledge.
12. What was your favorite childhood toy? It was a little metal dozer wind-up with real rubber tracks. It was a lot of fun.
13. Name a food you simply will not eat. Oysters on the half shell. I like to taste my food and would not like the slimy feeling going down. And maybe raw sushi.
14. How do you market your products? Do most of your sales come through orders or by in-shop purchasing? About half of my orders come from the website and others from in-store. A lot of orders come from satisfied customers.
15. Aside from woodworking, what other hobbies do you have? I liked to go dancing to old-time polka music played by bands such as Verne Meisner. He’s now gone, but his son, Steve, still plays at Turner Hall in Monroe. I like to travel, go to Staller Estate Winery in Delavan, go out to eat and mow the lawn.
16. How many canes do you think you’ve made since you opened your shop, and is there one that stands out in particular because of its cost or intricacy? I would say about 2,000, including about a third sold on the website. I’ve sold a lot at shows and county fairs, and the Wisconsin State Fair in Milwaukee was a good place for years. The one cane that is special—called the Grampa Cane—is made from upwards of 200 pieces of wood and takes about five hours to make. My father made some, and after he passed, I found a bucket full of parts, so I used the parts up and now I make my own. It’s really a cool cane with all the types of wood I have in stock.
17. How long does it take you to make a standard cane? What are some of the things that can add time to the process? The average cane takes about one hour, from selecting the wood to tip and finish. I can also add special engraving. Just bring your ideas, and I most likely can make it for you.
18. In your experience, do most people purchase canes for health reasons, for hiking or for fashion purposes? Most folks need a cane for health issues. Picking out a cane is not always an easy thing to do. Most times, it will take 15 minutes or more of looking at inventory ... which is upwards of 2,000 canes. Some will look at one, put it back and 15 minutes later go back and choose the first one. Others will ask another person, “Do you like this one?” But it’s about what you like.
19. Do you start a project knowing what you are going to create, or do you allow the wood to dictate the direction you go with it? Most of the time, I will look at the piece and make it to be one-of-a-kind. No two will look alike. That’s the beauty of cane-making.
20. Can you offer a piece of helpful advice for any amateur woodworkers out there? My best advice is to use your intuition. If you see some item you like, look at it closely. Don’t spend a lot of money on new tools. Buy used because they won’t be used a lot. I have acquired 45 different tools and spent very little over 25 years. Buy what you need to do the job. I have the ability and vision to make some of my own specialty tools, and I learned a lot from my father. When you have the opportunity to learn, go for it.
Editor’s Note: Kicks presents 20Q, a feature that introduces readers to people involved in the area’s arts and entertainment community. Compiled by kicks Editor Greg Little, each piece will include a short bio, photo and answers to questions that provide insight into not only that person’s artistic interests but also his or her unique personality.