The down-to-earth pleasures of working with wood
Working with wood isn't rocket science. But for one of the artisans at the cooperative gallery in Green Bank, it's a lot more fun.
And Bill Leffingwell would know. He worked on his share of rockets as an employee of General Dynamics in the 1950s and 60s, including the Atlas rocket program that eventually sent John Glenn into orbit. He later worked for Rockwell International on the rockets that lifted the Apollo and Skylab missions into space in the 1960s and early 70s.
But it wasn't a direct trajectory from rockets to woodworking for Leffingwell.
Faced with the choice of being transferred to the Los Angeles area or finding another line of work in Florida, Leffingwell ventured into commercial fishing for the next from 1973 to 1992.
His fishing for mackerel, snapper and grouper took him along the southeastern seaboard from the Florida Keys to Murrells Inlet in South Carolina.
It was actually through fishing that Leffingwell discovered the joy of working with wood.
"I did buy one boat finished, but for the most part I bought bare hulls and would build them up," he says, "but I knew nothing about carpentry. I had a saw and a drill and a hammer and fiberglass. You can cover all kinds of mistakes with fiberglass."
But even in those early, mistake-prone years of working with wood, Leffingwell says he thought to himself: "I rather enjoy this."
From Florida, he and his wife Nancy moved to north Georgia, where they remodeled an old house, turning it into a bed-and-breakfast. Aside from the drywall work in an addition, Leffingwell says he and Nancy did all the carpentry and renovation themselves.
About that time, Leffingwell was browsing a commercial fishing magazine when he came across information about woodworking classes with a furniture maker in Massachusetts named Bill Sayre. Leffingwell says Sayre himself learned woodcraft from an Englishman who worked solely with hand tools from log to finished product.
In 1993, Leffingwell went to work under Sayre.
"I was learning patience," Leffingwell says. "He was a fanatic on details."
His experiences learning furniture making with Sayre sparked Leffingwell's interest in the stylings of Shaker furniture.
"I guess that's my first love," he says. "If I could make what I wanted and sell it, it would be the Shaker furniture."
Unfortunately, Leffingwell says the market for hand-made furniture is small. He jokes that many of the larger furniture pieces he has made wind up in his own home.
"We're running out of room for furniture in the house," he adds with a laugh.
But even when he was making furniture, Leffingwell says he was trying his hand at other objects.
"I had always made a few cutting boards, but that was just extra, to have small items to sell at shows," he explains.
In the past three years, Leffingwell says the cutting boards have now become a mainstay of his woodworking business. In just one year at the Artisan Cooperative Gallery in Green Bank, Leffingwell said he sold in excess of 300 cutting boards.
Made from a variety of Appalachian hardwoods-cherry, walnut, maple-no two of his cutting boards are quite the same. Some have sleek and rounded modern lines, others have a rustic look and feel, where Leffingwell has taken his cue from the natural lines of the wood itself.
Through the years, Leffingwell says he has collected more lumber than he'll possibly be able to use. He has even moved a significant amount of lumber with him from Georgia to Hot Springs, Virginia, then to his present home in Richwood. A couple pieces have even come with him from Florida.
Some of his lumber has come from Eddie Fletcher, of Williamsburg, who specializes in salvaging and reclaiming wood that might otherwise be discarded.
From this stockpile of raw material, Leffingwell creates his furniture, cutting boards and now picture frames and mirrors in the workshop housed in the garage behind his century-old home. On a given week, Leffingwell says he spends 25 hours or more in the workshop.
It's a world of chisels and planers, shavings and sawdust, that is worlds apart from his work in the space business almost 40 years ago.
"I had always worked for somebody until 1973," Leffingwell says, "and I decided I wanted to go fishing."
Just two weeks after he left Rockwell International, the firm landed the contract for the NASA Space Shuttle program. While he had a standing offer to come back to work on the project, he couldn't see himself returning.
"I knew I could never work for anybody again," he says "I think it's the independence."
"And I like working with wood," Leffingwell adds. "It beats anything else I could do."