"I've always liked to work with my hands," Benusa confirms.
The 71-year-old Chetek retiree also lists cook and custom decorator as former careers. But for the last 11 years he's turned his attention to a more delicate craft. Benusa works with stained glass, making mostly wallhangings and figurines, but some windows as well.
"They're mostly Christmas presents for the kids," Benusa mentions, meaning his six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Benusa grew up in Buffalo County near Waumandee, where he later farmed. He picked up stained glass work when he and his wife of 51 years, Dolores, retired in Hot Springs, Ark. He says he's lucky to have learned from a talented stained glassman in Hot Springs. Benusa had heard about the man and simply showed up at his shop one day. For three weeks he racked the man's brains. The man essentially showed Benusa everything he knew about the craft, even letting him borrow some tools to get started.
"He never knew me from Adam," Benusa says in wonder.
Giving more rewarding than selling
There was a good market for stained glass in Hot Springs, Benusa recalls, but in northwest Wisconsin he finds himself giving away most of his work. He's not in it for the money anyway, he's just passing the time and hoping to bring a smile to someone's face.
"You don't get paid for your time," Benusa quips, noting that each project takes about 15-20 hours to complete. "It's just a hobby."
Benusa starts with a sheet of x-ray film. He owns a collection of pattern books, and cuts out the patterns from the x-ray film as a rough draft. The pieces of film help guide him in cutting the glass in the right shapes and sizes. He allows about an eighth of an inch between pieces for the lead, or came, that separates and holds the glass.
His stained glass work also involves some metal work. Benusa uses zinc, tin or lead to frame his work and make it sturdier. He ends up doing quite a bit of soldering to reinforce the frames.
Benusa built his own workshop when he and his wife moved to Ten Mile Lake five years ago. He's assembled a library of glass selections from which to form his art. Some of the colorful segments are not only dangerous to the touch, but to the pocketbook as well. Certain types of glass may cost $5.49 a square foot. Benusa owns several saws and grinders that cost hundreds of dollars as well.
"It's an expensive hobby," Benusa assures.
It's also frustrating when Benusa looks at the pile of leftovers when finished with a project. "You have to waste almost as much as you use," he frowns.
Cuts run deep
Just like you won't find a carpenter without a black fingernail, you'll rarely find a glassman without a nick on his hands.
"Every day I've got a different place that's bleeding," Benusa admits.
None of the cuts and scrapes hurt as bad as one tragic event in Benusa's life. In 1998, Benusa's son David passed away of complications from the HIV virus.
"I used to lay awake at night thinking about him," Benusa recalls. "So I finally decided to get up and start getting something done."
Benusa would head out to the shop in the middle of the night and get busy with his glass. "I used it as a stress reliever," he explains. "Now it gives me some peace of mind."
The Benusas moved back to Wisconsin in 2000 to be closer to their children. They have four children, Joseph II of Fall River, Cynthia of Waumandee, Thomas of Minneapolis, Minn., and Gerald of River Falls.
A typical grandfather, Joe enjoys creating special keepsakes for his grandkids, while at the same time passing the time with one of his passions.
"It's fun," Benusa concludes. "And it keeps me out of mischief."