A! Magazine for the Arts

Tom Ilowiecki says, "I try to use the wood that's close to the knots - that has "wild' grain and different configurations." (Photo by Hank Daniel)

Tom Ilowiecki says, "I try to use the wood that's close to the knots — that has "wild' grain and different configurations." (Photo by Hank Daniel)

Turning Wood into Art: Tom Ilowiecki

April 27, 2010

Tom Ilowiecki tried woodworking in high school and in the U.S. Army, but his real interest came after he retired as a commercial airline pilot and bought a farm in Mendota, Va.

He noticed that a local sawmill had plenty of leftover chunks and slabs of wood. Ilowiecki asked if he could buy the scrap pieces, and his hobby soon turned into a full-time project.

Just for fun, Ilowiecki started making bracelets for his wife and daughter -- and then everyone they knew. At first, he cut disks out of knots in the wood and made bracelets out of one piece of wood, but the grain was weak. Now he often cuts the wood in tiny strips, sorts out the best parts, and glues them back together to make what he calls "segmented" bracelets -- a much more time-consuming process. He also makes matching necklaces, earrings, and finger rings.

"I enjoy making something different and unique," Ilowiecki says. "When I was working, in my flying days, I got a lot of enjoyment out of doing a good job but not a whole lot of appreciation because it was expected of me. But woodworking is doing something -- and having people enjoy what I make."

He continues, "I have been turning wood for more than 25 years and enjoy turning small projects such as wooden jewelry. All my jewelry is made from salvaged wood found in Southwest Virginia -- from power line clearing, my fire woodpile, and from friends and neighbors."

While poking a tree stump for emphasis, Ilowiecki says, "Spalting, like this box elder in the early stages of decay, causes the colors in the wood to change. If you can find the right tree, you have some real beautiful wood. I try to use the wood that's close to the knots -- that has "wild' grain and different configurations. You can take a piece of wood and turn the grain one way to make something out of it and it will look all right, or you can turn the grain the other way and it will look extraordinary."

Ilowiecki also teaches woodworking. "It's taken me 30 years to get where I am now, so I like to pass on what I've learned and the ideas I've come up with -- they're not in a book," he says.

"One of the things I'm always asked when I'm teaching a class is, "How long does it take to make one (piece of jewelry)?' I don't know, and I don't want to know "cause if I found out, I probably wouldn't make them anymore -- definitely not to sell," he adds. "As gifts, women love "em. They always like to wear something that nobody else has. I'd like to drive a Ferrari that no one else, but I'll have to stick with my old Chevy pick-up truck."

Ilowiecki's jewelry won first place in category at the 2007 Woodcarvers & Woodturning symposium in Gray, Tenn. His work is on consignment at the following venues in Virginia: Rural Retreat Winery, Meadowview Farmers Guild restaurant, Appalachian Arts Center in Richlands, The Clapboard House in Wise, and the William King Museum gift shop in Abingdon. In Tennessee, his work is available at Mauk's in Jonesborough and the Jim Gray Gallery in Gatlinburg. In addition, he is a member of "Round the Mountain: Southwest Virginia's Artisan Network, which promotes his wares.

of Ilowiecki working, visit www.roundthemountain.org.

-- Tillson: Hand-Turned Artistry