From Academic to Artisan

March 1, 2015 | By More

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The word physics comes from an ancient Greek term meaning “knowledge of nature.” The study of physics is the journey to attain an understanding of the nature around us, and in turn use this knowledge for the betterment of self and others.

James Thomas Willcutt, a professor of physics at Arkansas Tech University for 38 years, spent his entire academic career learning the Earth’s ways—cryptic yet awe inspiring even to the most educated of scientists—and passing his lessons on to his students.

In retirement, Willcutt has found another way, far more hands on than theoretical, to give to others the finished product he creates from the natural world. Willcutt, 71, now dedicates about eight hours a day, six days a week, every week, to woodworking.

Today, Willcutt can turn chunks of old stumps and cast-off wood into everything from Post-it note boxes to kitchen cabinets, sparing none of his talent for whatever crafted art catches his fancy in between. His designs and output are more intricate and prolific with every run of the saw, and it’s easy to mark Willcutt’s progression as a craftsman with each piece.

Wilcutt has built nearly everything in his home, and he said if you talk to his wife, Norma, she’ll be sure to point out which pieces are “early-Tom” and which are “late-Tom.” There’s quite the difference between the two, they both agree.

“A man named Leonard Stout had a small table saw, router, lathe and jointer for $200,” Willcutt said concerning his start in the craft. “I bought it and worked out of my garage just doing refinishing work starting out. The first job I ever did was a pie crust table for Pattie Barker. I probably made 50 cents an hour on it—if that.”

His work isn’t about the money though.

“I just take a wild guess when pricing something,” he said. “It doesn’t matter at all.”

The only reason he sells the decorative boxes, picture frames, shelves, chairs, stools and anything else that can be made from one of the 28 types of wood he works with daily is to make room for doing more work. For Willcutt, the effort expended is simply about enjoying himself while perfecting the craft. Like Tantalus’ fruit, a perfect state is unattainable for the artist, yet he pursues it with ever-increasing diligence. Simply put, Willcutt likes to make things. Selling them is a necessary evil to clear way in his shop for future works.

Just as Barker’s table helped prove to him that money is valueless in his goals as a woodworker, it also taught him his first lesson in handling fisheyeing, a major problem for neophytes in his field.

“The varnish wasn’t sticking to the wood because the surface tension was too high so instead of sticking to the wood it stuck to itself and pulled away and formed the little holes they call fish eyes,” he said. “The problem is that the cohesive forces are greater than the adhesive forces. Little bit of physics involved there, see?”

The woodworker never loses interest in the complexities of creating out of the earth’s raw materials, but Willcutt now has the  process down to an exact science.

Boxes are his biggest seller, and are what he’s best known for in the River Valley community. He’ll generally be making about six types and sizes of boxes at once, all of which have a plan he may choose to alter during the construction. But ultimately, meticulously, each is brought to fruition with an idea based on simplicity: to make something aesthetically pleasing.

“I usually just look at a certain piece of wood and think ‘that might make a pretty box,’” he said while holding a piece of spalted persimmon. This is his favorite wood for boxes because of its decaying look that provides unique patterning and a rustic feel. “You hear these artists say they saw the figure of their finished products in the wood the whole time, and that they just liberated it from the wood. I never see any of that. I just take off at it and do what I want.”

Not just any piece off a felled tree will work for Willcutt, though. He will search through mounds of wood piled chest high to find intact sapwood, as opposed to the heartwood in the center of limbs and trunks that’s become resistant to decay. The sapwood is still living. This means it will decay and provide him with the distinction each piece of wood offers after being allowed to cure.

Once selecting the wood is finished, most of his work is completed using his table saw and jointer. The latter being is used to get the edges perfectly straight and ensure there’s no gap when the wood is fitted together.

He said after the pieces are cut, and the form of the box has taken shape and been glued together, rubber bands and clamps are used to hold everything together for a about a day. This solidifies the glue’s hold and strengthening the structure of the wood.

“Now if I stopped right there and dropped the box, it would shatter because glue on edges doesn’t have any strength,” he said. “So I make a jig and cut a spline that I glue onto the edges to make sure it won’t fall apart. Most people think the splines that run over the edges are just to look pretty, but the primary reason is for strength.”

After curing, the boxes need only a layer of sanding sealer and satin polyurethane to be completed. After application, any designs, lettering or other additions inspired by the self-effacing artist’s whims can be added.

And though Willcutt has said he prefers creating boxes and other woodworks he has complete creative control over, some of his most cherished projects have been custom jobs for clients desiring a piece either be reworked upon or constructed anew.
“What I really like doing is for people to bring me wood out of their mother’s or dad’s old house, or taking a piece that has sentimental value to someone, and making something out of it,” he said. “And believe it or not, I really do a whole lot of that.”

Caroline Statler, a longtime client of his whom he had done numerous jobs for, passed away recently and had left a few pieces of furniture to her kids. The pieces were becoming worn with age and falling apart. Willcutt completely remade the bottom two legs before stripping and refinishing a desk, repaired the top of one of her make-up tables and also refinished a chair to match the table.

“Stuff like that is important because they really do cherish it,” he said. “That right there makes it special to me.”
Lisa Porter brought Willcutt pieces of wood from her father-in-law’s tornado ravaged house he then transformed into a chest, end tables, stool, mirror frame, book shelf, several assorted boxes, crosses and picture frames for her in remembrance of the home.

Another client, Ann Webb, brought him a stool that was time beaten and nearly busted from weathering. It had belonged to her grandfather and she wanted Willcutt to put it back together.

“I said ‘lady that’s all broke.’ She told me ‘No, you can fix it.’ So I did.”

Willcutt reveals with a grin that once he had fully restored the stool he told Webb what it was actually used for during her grandfather’s generation. She was surprised to find out it held the chamber pot.

“She didn’t know what it was before, but when I told her she said, ‘That’s probably right, now that you mention it, because the stool was always in his bathroom.’”

Willcutt restores the old by reviving the past.

After the former mayor of Pottsville, Jerry Duvall, passed away, his wife wanted handcrafted boxes to put some of his belongings in to give to their four grandkids. Willcutt wasted no time assembling some of his hallmark boxes for the family.
Willcutt rattles off handfuls of River Valley citizens’ names — those he’s reached by using his craft to give them back a dying piece of the past. He remolds, reshapes, and recreates what once was, and the stories of his workings are the retold stories of days and years gone by.

He’s used wood coming from ancestral homesteads as far away as North Dakota to hack and saw into existence new forms from old shades, but he’s also used his own family’s pieces as inspiration for replicating woodworks.

Willcutt’s oldest sister has the original piece of the only furniture left that once belonged to his great-grandmother. He decided to create copies of the darkly stained elm nightstand, and give one to each of his two brothers and sisters, all of whom still live within twenty miles of one another.

“I’ve made stuff out of mom’s and dad’s old house after we had torn it down,” he said. “I’ve been able to build furniture for my whole family that really means something.”

Although his wife, Norma, tells him he works all the time, he insists that what he does in his woodshop is the farthest thing from working. It’s playing.

“I thought when I retired I’d fish all the time,” Willcutt said. “While I was at Tech, I even arranged all my classes so that I was free every Tuesday for fishing. Guess what. I never fish anymore. It’s just as fun to woodwork as it is to fish. I’d just as soon do this.”

And while he downplays the work he pours into his daily task, it seems his passion for teaching physics has seeped into his “play” as a craftsman.

“I told people while I was teaching that I didn’t know why anyone would want to be anything other than a physicist, and if you don’t feel that way about your job you’re probably in the wrong field,” he said. “You know, somebody once said to find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Willcutt may be citing a cliché, but there’s a reason these sayings recycle throughout the gamut of human existence: They’re true.

In woodworking, as in physics, he has found his own truth. And Willcutt’s pieces serve as the representation of this truth. Happiness is put into each creation, and this is perhaps the truest instance of art imitating one man’s life.

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