This interview with Helluvawreck is from the January 2012 issue of our LJ eMag.
1. How did you first get started working with wood?
From the time that I was born, in 1950, until I was ten years old my family lived in an old two story house that my grandmother owned. In the cellar, where the heating system was, there was an old work table and on the walls were a few simple hand tools. They were apparently forgotten years before by someone in the past because they didn’t belong to my father nor did my father work with tools much anyways. As near as I can remember there was a claw hammer, a carpenter’s hatchet, a handsaw, a bit brace with a few bits, an old egg beater drill, a few screw drivers, a few chisels, a couple of planes, and maybe a few others but not many. They were all a little rusty. When I was about eight years old I began to play around with them as best as I could. With no one to teach me I managed to build a few crude things like simple boxes, a crude sling shot, and a few other things. When I was around ten I built a pretty crude soap box car that my brother and I played with. We moved into another house across town and my grandmother rented the house to another family. She let me take the tools with me and I put them in the cellar room in that house. A year or so later I went to the seventh grade and they had a shop class that I went to so at least I received some proper training at that time for 9 months.
I also had a cousin who was also my best buddy and his daddy was a mechanical engineer who had graduated from Georgia Tech. My cousin’s grandfather owned a local hardware store and lumber yard that had been in business since the 1880’s. Both the store and the lumber yard were really old time affairs and I loved to go there with Barney, my cousin and friend. Barney’s father ran the lumber yard and Barney had to help his father at the lumber yard most every Saturday and I was fortunate enough to be allowed to tag along since me and Barney were usually together many of the weekends at one or the other’s house anyways.
The lumberyard was a fascinating place to me because it had once been run by an old steam engine and it was still there but wasn’t used anymore because the lumber yard had been changed over to diesel engines before I was born. The lumber yard had a small woodshop, a small mechanics shop, and a small blacksmith’s shop. Barney was mechanically inclined and could do a little bit of everything so I learned quite a lot from him. Barney’s daddy also had a good many tools at his house so Barney and I were able to do quite a bit together at his house whenever I was there. So this is another way I got started early with tools at about the same time.
2.What was it about woodworking that initially caught your interest, enticing you to get into it at the level you are now?
In addition to learning from first hand experience that many useful items could be built from tools and wood I acquired a love of fine antiques that had been built by expert craftsmen of prior generations. Both of my grandmothers were antique lovers and so was my mother and most of my aunts and uncles. Early on I was around antiques in my own home and whenever I went to visit relatives nice antiques were also in their homes. A love of antiques was just a natural thing to pick up from all of them. We were not wealthy people and many of these antiques were passed down from generation to generation and there was this fact also that made me a lover of antiques since they had a history of their own. Naturally anyone who loves antiques and has also done the least amount of woodworking is going to admire the antiques and the craftsmen who made them and also to study how those items were put together and the reasons they were pleasing to the eye.
Whenever my mother went to visit the local antique stores I would go right along with her. One of her favorite dealers was a company called Adams Antiques and it was owned by a man and wife. My mother and I were fond of the Adams and, best of all, Mr. Adams had a small wood shop where he restored furniture. Whenever we visited them he would take me into his woodshop and show me what he was working on and, of course, I asked him a great many questions. He didn’t have anyone working for him because the volume wasn’t there to support it so I never had the opportunity to actually work for him.
Looking back I wish that I would have offered to work for him for free if he would teach me what he knew. My favorite antiques were clocks, guns, and primitive country furniture. I also liked a lot of the country furniture that had been on many of the old plantations. Even though I was just in Jr. High and High School I actually acquired a few pieces of my own.
My mother actually became a dealer herself for a while and also had a small gift shop in a small two story house. I setup a small shop in one of the bedrooms upstairs and it was my job to refinish and repair whatever pieces that I was able to if they needed it. The rest of the pieces that needed fixing we would take to Mr. Adams. He would always answer any questions that I had so that helped me a lot.
So, I would say that this exposure to antiques, the love of antiques, and being able to actually work on some of them caught my interest in woodworking and caused me to love it too.
3. Tell us a bit of history of your journey from that beginning to where you are today.
Well I suppose that I’ve already been doing some of this in answering the previous questions so I’ll try not to repeat myself. In addition to being somewhat of a woodworker, Barney was a good self taught mechanic because he loved cars and worked on them all throughout high school. I helped him all that I could because I like cars too and actually owned an A model coupe that I worked on occasionally. These experiences taught me a little about mechanics which would come in handy later on.
During my latter years in High School my father, who was not a woodworker, along with a small group of men (not woodworkers either) started a manufacturing company to manufacture furniture for the mobile home trade. My father went on to acquire the whole company in the coming years. His plant manager was a man that had grown up on a farm and had become a very good carpenter and Jack of All Trades. He had built a number of houses from the ground up, including plumbing, heating, and electrical and was a hard worker. My brother and I went to work in my father’s business and Richard was our boss. He taught my brother and me the meaning of hard work and we worked very long hours and learned all that we could from Richard. We respected Richard a lot. The company took off and grew and we were eventually turning out as many as 3,000 tables a week for the mobile home trade and rental and retail stores and eventually got involved with some consumer products such as KD entertainment centers and wall units. Along with these products we became involved with supplying nursing homes, motels, and hotels with furniture. My brother and I always worked on the factory floor and were directly involved with the machinery and production.
After a few years I went on to college and my brother stayed on with the company. My training in school was mostly in the sciences, mathematics, and mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech. After 2-1/2 years at the University of Georgia and 2-1/2 years at Georgia Tech in Mechanical Engineering I had become married and had two daughters and had to withdraw from school for financial reasons. For the next 6 months I went to machinist school and planned on going back to college and working my way through as a machinist. I never went back to school, however, and went into the family business instead. We lost the first company about 1984 due to a three way law suit that we were found innocent of in a court of law but the law suit had already devastated our company and we lost the company as a result. I went to work for another company and my brother formed our present company shortly thereafter. I soon went to work for my brother and earned back my stock through hard work and long hours. We made nursing home and hotel/motel furniture and other products related to the wood industry. By 1992 we were mostly involved with architectural molding and millwork which is what we do today. I suppose that our plant is around 180,000 sq ft and we have five Weinig molders as well as a finger joining line among various other pieces of equipment.
So for the last 35 years I have been in the furniture and millwork industry. I have spent much time in production but my primary duties have been in the maintenance and engineering end of the business. For all of that time I have had a machine shop in the plant. I was the molder setup man for nine years and also ground all of the molder knives and made all of the templates, jigs, and fixtures. I also designed and built several large production machines from scratch for the plant over the years. I have always had a deep and abiding love of woodworking. However, my brother and I were both workaholics and so we devoted ourselves to our business and didn’t have a lot of time left over. I haven’t had nearly as much time for the last 40 years to pursue my hobby as I would have preferred. What little time I have been able to spend in hobby woodworking over the years was done in what I would call stolen moments here and there. Most everything that I built over those years were things for my family other than a couple of kitchens that I built and installed for other people. I also did some remodeling on our home.
I enclosed my carport about 6 or 7 years ago and built my little shop at home. For the last 3 years I have been able to pursue my hobby nearly every weekend. This pretty much brings me to where I am today.
4.What inspires you regarding wood creations?
Over the last 50 years I have grown a deep and lasting love for tools and wood. I bought my first set of tools 40 years ago just after my wife and I were married and I still have everyone of those tools. I also have grown a deep admiration for the craftsmen who have learned how to work with tools and wood to create all of the beautiful creations that they have made. I have come to realize that there is a very close relationship between a craftsman and his tools and the wood he works with. These two, the wood and tools, along with his mind and heart and soul come together to give rise to all of the beautiful things the craftsman brings forth. After all of these last 40 years I would like to pursue this craftsmanship so that perhaps I might be able to leave behind some beautiful things to my family and loved ones when I leave this earth. This is what inspires me to keep going in the pursuit of craftsmanship and wood creations. I suppose you could say that after 50 years of working around and with wood I have come to the point where I now want to learn how to be a craftsman myself.
5. What are the greatest challenges that you have met along the way? (and how did you overcome them)
The greatest challenges that I have faced over the years is that I have had to learn nearly everything that I have learned in this business on my own. This is the way it has been for both me and my brother. Richard was with us for only 5 or 6 years and he knew very little about woodworking. His background was building houses so he knew enough to get the company going but not a lot about the furniture manufacturing business. No matter what challenges I have faced over the last 50 years I would say that what has overcome them, along with my faith, was sheer determination to do what was necessary to overcome them and just plain old hard work. I have also learned that these same things will go a long way into turning you into a good woodworker if that is what you put your mind to be. Even if you are like me and are getting a late start in life it is never too late. Desire, determination, and hard work will get you there.
6. What is the greatest reward that you have received from woodworking? (personal or tangible)
I would say that it would be the satisfaction of seeing your skills improve commensurate with the time that you put into it. I really believe that practice makes perfect. You will never reach perfection, of course, because perfection is the total lack of flaws. A perfect thing is something that has no flaws. We are not flawless, our raw materials are not flawless, our tools are not flawless, and our concentration is not flawless. We can always get better at what we do but we will never get close to perfection. This is a good thing because we will always have something higher to aim at as long as this is so and it will always be so. Seeing your skills improve day by day is a source of satisfaction and a great motivator. It’s very rewarding.
7. What is your favourite tool that you use for woodworking?
I love all of my tools, especially my hand tools. I have had some of my hand tools for 40 years. I bought my first set of tools 40 years ago not long after my wife and I got married and I paid $1000 for them which was a lot of money back then. I still have every one of them and I’ve been collecting tools ever since.
I’ve been carving on the weekends for a little over a year. Based on what has occurred I would have to say that my carving tools are my favorite tools but I would not be able to select my favorite carving tool. I love them all.
8. What is your favourite creation in/for your woodworking?
I would say that so far it is my second green man which is the larger of the two. It is the last thing that I finished carving about a month or so ago. I have been working on my shop more or less ever since. I think my shop was becoming jealous of my woodcarving.
9. What tips would you give to someone just starting out or currently struggling with woodworking?
First of all and above all else I would say don’t ever become a workaholic no matter how important your work is. In my opinion it should never be more important than your family and you should think of yourself as well. If woodworking is something that you love and want to pursue then devote some time to it. Don’t wait until you are in your 50’s to build a shop and devote significant time to it. I worked in an open carport until I was around 55 before I closed it in. My woodworking was done in what I call stolen moments. If you do this, you will only be stealing from and cheating yourself and you may never have time to become a craftsman even if you want to be one.
The sooner you start off the better off you will be. Woodworking takes a fair amount of tools even if you are just a hand tool woodworker. Tools cost money and purchasing the tools that you need and setting up a shop takes time. If you want the hand tools and all of the stationary and portable power tools as well then so much the more time. It’s better to start out early. Start with what you have and add to it. Sooner or later you will have a well equipped shop if you stay at it. Time flies when you are having fun. You will have a shop before you know it.
Struggling with woodworking is the name of the game. If you don’t have to struggle with it then woodworking or anything else similar is probably not worth pursuing. Be happy in your struggling. Progress takes time so be patient. It will come to you. I believe that the skill will improve according to the time and effort that you put into it. You will gradually get better each time that you make something new or at least most people will do so. Read books about woodworking and take some courses if you need to. Join a woodworking club if there is one near you. Take some classes on the internet. Go to woodworking shows whenever they are close enough so that you can see all of the newest tools and techniques. Get to know other woodworkers in your area. If you are really lucky you will know an experienced woodworker who will be your mentor and take you under his wing.
10. How did you find LumberJocks and what is it that keeps you coming back?
I occasionally go searching on subjects related to woodworking and I accidentally stumbled across Lumberjocks on one of these searches. I became a lurker for a while and then I finally joined. According to my statistics I’ve been a member of Lumberjocks for about 532 days.
First of all, I enjoy coming to Lumberjocks. I like the people; I like to look at the shops and all of the projects; I like all of the information that you can find on here; I like to be able to ask for help and advice on something and not having to wait very long at all before someone helps you out with the information that you need. I think that it’s fun to read a lot of the blogs and forum posts that are here.
I also love to interact with the various people that belong to Lumberjocks. There are all kinds of people here; Lumberjocks are a very diverse group of people and a great many of them have a lot of know how and woodworking talent. From the projects you can see that there are a lot of fine craftspeople here – both men and women. Lumberjocks is a great motivator for someone like me who wants to become a craftsman himself. I’m just a beginner at craftsmanship and I really respect and admire all of the wonderful craftspeople that are here and all of the beautiful things that they create. The craftspeople that are here don’t put you down if you’re not at their level. No, they don’t at all. If you want to become a craftsman yourself they will help pull you up and teach and motivate you to become one.
One other thing that I love about Lumberjocks is that it’s a place where you can get to know some of the members on a personal level and actually become friends with some of them. I have a acquired a number of friends on Lumberjocks and I love to come here and communicate with them, interact with them, and read about what they are up to.
Lumberjocks is just a great woodworking community no matter how you cut it.
MsDebbie, I sure have enjoyed this interview and I was humbled by your asking me to do it. I hope that I have not been too long wended and boring. Nevertheless, these thoughts were on my mind. Thanks, MsDebbie, and thank you all for reading it.
And thank YOU for sharing your story with us – as well as your woodworking expertise. I do love your “Green Man”!!
-- ~ Debbie, Canada (https://www.facebook.com/DebbiePribeleENJOConsultant)