Woodworking for Charles Quillin runs in the family. He learned from his father-in-law, practices his craft with his wife, Heda, and has taught family members.
“My father-in-law, Dr. Arthur H. Jones, taught me how to turn. A renowned Methodist minister in the Holston Conference, he was also an accomplished wood worker. In an effort to gain favor from his daughter, I asked for his help in making a piano bench; most of it I could do but not the legs. He coached me for hours as we crafted the first leg. When I asked, ‘How do we get the other three to look like this one?’ he looked at me, smiled, and said, ‘That, my boy, is the challenge,’ and walked away,” Quillin says.
From that initial challenge, Quillin has grown into his craft and won over his father-in-law. He inherited his woodworking equipment from Rev. Jones.
“I married into practically every piece of woodworking equipment we use. Having spent over 25 years in the Air Force moving almost 20 times, we traveled light. Conversely, Heda’s grandfather built his house himself overlooking the Holston River in the early ‘50s. He did have top of the line equipment (Delta table saw, band saw, and drill press) to do it with and it’s working fine 70 years later. Heda’s father had a 1940s vintage Shopsmith, which we use as the lathe. We inherited these shortly after we moved to Abingdon in 1995,” he says.
Quillin appreciates the natural beauty of wood and also that certain trees have an emotional connection for people.
“The natural wood grain and flaws (knots) in wood can be incredibly beautiful when turned (shaped on a lathe), sanded and polished; we use no stains or dyes. Even a plain piece of wood can be meaningful if it comes from a place that is significant to the one who gets it. We like it when someone gets excited about something we have made because it is just the right gift for someone else.
“Each species of wood turns differently depending on the closeness and consistency of the grain. Plus, God has a way of keeping you humble. Just when you think you have your tools sharpened and have figured out how to turn a particular wood, you will run into a hidden cavity, the blank (piece of wood) blows up, or you get completely finished and Heda finds a hairline crack; I hate it when that happens. She is the ‘Inspector 12’ of Quillin’s Quills.
“Most domestic woods (cherry, walnut, oak, maple, poplar, etc.) turn easily and consistently. Cedar is softer, turns easily but will blow up at the least provocation. Many of these woods were stored on our farm in Scott County. We were given wormy chestnut from a 100+ year old barn being razed on a local farm.
“Exotic woods like padauk, purpleheart, zebrawood, Honduras mahogany or native woods like birds eye and curly maple can be another story. They tend to be denser, more brittle and a challenge to turn. However, products made from woods like Bolivian cherry and rosewood and cocobolo are very elegant and popular as high end gifts. We get all exotic woods from lumber importers.
“We like it when someone brings us a piece of wood that has significance to them and asks us to make something out of it. I remember a young woman from Dickenson County in our small business class at Virginia Highlands Community College saying she wanted to get something for her two yuppie cousins (one in Atlanta and the other in New York) who were not in need of anything. She brought us a limb from the apple tree in their grandmother’s yard that they climbed when they were children. Who would have thought something made from apple would be pretty?
But it’s beautiful. She was thrilled,” he says.
The first special tree the Quillins used was a favorite tailgate tree near the duck pond on Emory & Henry’s campus. The class of ’69 wanted to raise funds to replace the tree, so the Quillins used wood from the downed tree to create picnic cutlery to be used to acknowledge donors. They’ve also used wood from the Old Glade Presbyterian Church to help raise funds when its sanctuary had to be rebuilt and did the same for the Abingdon United Methodist Church.
One of their more historic offerings is from the Pemberton Oak, the tree where Col. John Pemberton assembled his command to march to Sycamore Shoals and with the other Overmountain Men to the Battle of King’s Mountain.
“The Vaughans (Ms. Vaughan was a Pemberton.) saw our work at the Virginia Highlands Festival and offered some remnants of the oak being stored in a barn. It spread from there.
“We also visit the campuses of regional colleges and universities and historical sites working with the grounds crews and gleaning wood that can be used for turning. We have city planners and arborists from towns like Abingdon who will call us to offer us wood when they are going to take down a tree, and facilities personnel that will call when they are going to raze a building.
“We have items made from wood gleaned from the campuses of Duke, Emory & Henry, ETSU, Milligan, North Carolina State, Virginia Tech, University of North Carolina, University of Tennessee, University of Virginia, UVA-Wise, Virginia Intermont and Wake Forest.
“We tell every customer exactly where the wood came from, how we got it, and include a certificate of authenticity - a slip of paper stating the origin of the wood,” he says.
Quillin runs his woodworking business from his home and sells his wares primarily at shows. He met one of his mentors at the Virginia Highlands Festival.
“I was enthralled watching Bill Anders of American Penworks demonstrating in their booth at the VHF. He and his wife, Emily, took an interest in and encouraged us. I remember him saying, ‘Charlie, this isn’t that hard, you just have to enjoy working with wood and meeting people.’ We did not have a booth at the VHF until after American Penworks retired; Bill has since passed.
“Although we do have business cards and advertise in the Highlander Magazine, we do not have a website, nor do we want one. We do this because we enjoy working together and having someone else appreciate the beauty of the product.
“We only do four shows each year (the Virginia Highlands Festival in Abingdon; Lazy Daze in Cary, North Carolina; Poquoson Seafood Festival, Poquoson, Virginia; and the College-Community Club’s craft fair in Emory). And we do these because we have some connection to the people in the area. Otherwise, one can simply call our home number (276) 623-9237 and we’ll work with them. We routinely take and mail special orders,” he says.
He creates a variety of items, such as ink pens, wine bottle stoppers, key rings, magnifying glasses, back scratchers, shoehorns, flashlights, pill boxes, toothpick holders, whistles, laser pointers, perfume atomizers, salt and pepper mill combos, coffee scoops and cheese slicers. Recently, he added gel pens, and ice cream scoops and paddles to their offerings.
“Heda would say we need to add new items since all our pens are easily refillable, they are likely to last a while. The Honorable Joe P. Johnson eagerly shows us the cedar pen he got over 15 years ago saying, ‘I don’t need another one, this one works fine, and I can get refills at any office supply store or Amazon.com,’” Quillin says.
Charles says that Heda does nine of the 11-step process for making a pen. “All I do is make them round and shiny. She is also marketing and sales for Quillin’s Quills. She keeps the inventory (700+ items) and tells me what we need to make out of what. Plus she handles practically all the credit card purchases. We do most of our inventory replenishment in the wintertime. There is an old wood/coal burning cook stove in our workshop from my home place. We fire it up and spend cold/snowy days turning and working together.
Quillin also works at Emory & Henry College, Emory, Virginia, as a veterans services coordinator.