Sunday, November 06, 2011

Open Studios, Botetourt, Part IV

For my last installment of the Open Studios, Botetourt, series, I present to you Willie Simmons.

Willie is a personal friend and a woodmaker of note. He lives in Fincastle.

The following is a revision of an article I wrote about him that appeared in the October 26, 2011 edition of The Fincastle Herald.

It's almost a lost art, the idea of taking a piece of wood and turning it to create the leg of a stool or an intricate architectural piece. But Botetourt native Willie Simmons has kept this craft alive and in the public eye.

Bottle stoppers made by Willie Simmons

Simmons' wood creations include stools, pepper mills, bottle stoppers, wooden bowls, and Christmas ornaments, to name just a few.The woodworker's pieces are well known to those who follow the arts and crafts shows in the Roanoke valley and beyond. He spends his autumn weekends at these events where he sells the creations he has painstakingly made at his shop.

He has spent 31 years working with wood, and 25 of those as a wood turner. He started out helping his father, Bill Simmons, at the same location when it was Castle Crafts, a furniture and antique repair shop that opened in the mid-1970s. When his father needed a piece of oak turned into a chair rung, for example, he asked his son to make it. And Simmons obliged.

Pepper mills made by Willie Simmons

"I worked for him a while, and then went back to teaching," Simmons, a graduate of Virginia Tech, said. He later returned to open up his own woodworking studio in the same building as his father. For the last 15 years, he has also worked as a county magistrate, having long ago given up the classroom.

While all of Simmons' work is functional, some of it is so beautiful that it might be found on display in someone's home instead of hidden in a cabinet. His bowls in particular convey an elegance of design that draws out the wood grain and conveys a since of the majesty of the native hardwood from which it came.

Most of his wood is local. He likes to work in walnut, cherry, oak, and maple. He also works with pine, but has found it to be less durable than hardwoods. "I do use some exotic woods, but it's not as much fun as a native wood," he said.

Handcrafted bowls made by Willie Simmons
He also likes to use old wood and has in the past turned wood from barns or someone's old home place into keepsake ink pens. Those pens tend to be cherished by their owners. One person told him that a Simmons pen was the one pen he would never lend out, Simmons said.

Kurt Hertzog is a wood turner in Henrietta, NY who serves on the Board of Directors for the American Association of Woodturners. That group oversees most of the woodturning organizations in the country, and Simmons is a member.

"He's very skilled," Hertzog said of Simmons. "As a wood turner he excels at peppermills and spindle turning. I have taken classes from Willie, and he's a superb teacher. He shares his skills."

He likened Simmons' work to the ancient arts found in the Foxfire books, which harbor ancestral secrets such as how to weave a chair seat, another skill Simmons has mastered.

Willie Simmons, woodturner extraordinnaire

"I still have the stool I made in his class," Hertzog said. Those footstools are of a kind seldom found commercially, with woven tops and spindle legs.

Simmons is the program director for the Blue Ridge Woodturners, a local wood turning organization. He brings in expert turners for demonstrations. At the end of October, Richard Raffan, whom Simmons called "one of the top five turners in the country," demonstrated for the group. "It's a good coup for me and the club," Simmons said. "He's in demand worldwide."

Simmons also builds furniture on commission, but he is choosy about his work and the assignments he accepts. He will have a few select large pieces for sale during the Open Studios event, including a jelly cupboard and a 30-year-old baker's cabinet, one of his early works. That piece was in his home but he recently built a new house and has decided to let the cabinet go.

His work is never finished, he said. He is always striving for better, a new way to improve a technique, a different and better cut. He works with four or five tools, but his shop is filled with an array of metal and wood, some of it stacked, some not. Clamps, hammers, and chisels line the walls. A big pile of sawdust rests at his feet.

During a recent interview, he looked rested and content even though he had spent the previous three days working at an arts and crafts show at the Roanoke Civic Center. He is honored to know that his work graces the homes of not just his friends, but friends of friends, some of whom live in other countries. His work is in England, Australia, and other nations. "A few times I have gone in and seen something in people's homes and realized I made it," he said, adding that he found it gratifying to know that his work is enjoyed.

Reflecting on his career, Simmons smiled and summed it up this way: "I'm better than those people who are cheaper, and cheaper than those people who are better." His work is always for sale; if you can't make the Open Studios event, stop in when his lights are on, and check him out.


  1. I LOVE hand turned wooden bowls. Great for displaying on my dining room table with a bag full of potpourri inside it!

  2. Very nice article about someone with a special talent and skill. His work looks so beautiful. Like Diane, I love the bowls.

  3. I just love wood, the look of it, the feel and especially the smell..
    adore the burl bowls, the Indians found those 'natural' bowls and scooped them out.Thanks for sharing, and good luck with the shadows.

  4. His work is wonderful! Does he have a website? I'd love to purchase some of his work.

    Great article!

  5. I'm so sorry that I missed this.... maybe next year!



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