• By Walkertown Branch
  • Posted Friday, February 21, 2020

Jim Tobias: Woodworking Show & Reception February 29 at Walkertown

A woodworking exhibit by Jim Tobias of HJT Woods will be on display in the lobby of Walkertown Branch Library through the end of January. The exhibit features decorative multi-wood boxes as well as the unique process that Tobias uses to turn sweetgum balls into decorative pendants. All items are available for sale. More of Tobias’ work may be found on his website at http://hjtwoods.com/.

The reception will take place on Saturday, February 29, at 12 noon at the Walkertown Branch Library. Come and learn how you can make a perfect piece of jewelry out of unwanted sweet gumballs.

Watch this short video of Jim Tobias explaining the process of creating the pieces.

Below is a transcript of an interview with Tobias conducted by Natalia Tuchina, Branch Manager at Walkertown Branch Library in December of 2020.

Natalia Tuchina: Please tell us about your show here at Walkertown Library and yourself.

Jim Tobias: I have a small company, HJT Woods. I’m the sole owner and employee. I make wood products and use materials such as stone, acorns and other natural things I find to make items that I hope are useful as well as decorative and beautiful. Some of the items I make are decorative boxes and jewelry boxes. I also make pendants and jewelry from sweetgum balls. I make a variety of box shapes like octagonal, rectangular sliding top (like a wine box) and hinge boxes.

Tuchina: How did you discover you could make jewelry that looks like stones out of sweetgum balls?

Tobias: I had been making crushed stone inlays on box tops. I carved out box tops into a design, then put crushed stone in an epoxy and sanded it smooth, making a decorative inlay. I had been doing that a lot and thinking about that all the time. My grandson was five years old at the time and picked up a sweetgum ball at a park. I saw the holes in it and my brain started thinking “I wonder if I could inlay something in those holes.”

I figured out in my shop how to grind off the spikes. Once you grind off the spikes, they have a very beautiful honeycomb effect of chambers in a circular pattern. One thing led to another and I ended up crushing up stone and fill them in with clear epoxy and stone. This basically makes what I call a rock snowcone. Then I spin it and grind it back to a shape and polish it with higher and higher grit up to about 10,000 grit paper. This creates a very high luster to the stone so it shines. It’s very durable because it’s very hard rock and epoxy with the sweetgum ball.

Tuchina: So it lasts forever? What a great gift.

Tobias: It will last forever! People tell me they drive over sweetgum balls and they still keep their shape. The good thing about the sweetgum ball is that it’s something that everybody detests in its natural form. To take something that’s that disliked and make something that looks good and you would want makes me feel good.

Tuchina: Are you the only person that does this in the country?

Tobias: I can’t find anyone else that’s done this. I don’t know that it’s because it’s unique, I think it’s because it’s very time consuming. It takes me close to four and a half hours to make one. It’s very tedious work sanding off the spurs. These things are built by mother nature to last because they have these spear-like seeds that are in these chambers. I pluck them out with needle nose pliers. After building them up with crushed stone and clear epoxy, it takes an hour to grind them back to a polish. It’s just very time consuming.

Tuchina: So why do you do it? What do you like about the whole process of woodworking?

Tobias: When I look at this display and I look at the original sweetgum ball and the steps that it went through to become the nice looking piece at the end… it’s like in woodworking. You take a raw board with bark on it and you clean it, sand it, cut it into a shape and fit it together and put a finish on it and smooth it, polish it and make a design out of it.

Where it started and where it ends up gives me a great sense of satisfaction. It’s taking and building something from material that’s “eh, ok” but nothing special into something pleasing.

Tuchina: What’s your favorite wood?

Tobias: Oh gosh, what a question! I love oak, and cherry, and walnut. I love wormy chestnut, which is an old wood. I like it because it cuts literally like butter and is easy to work with. I love exotic woods like wenge, rosewood, you name it. In the display case, I probably have 25 different woods or more in those eight or nine boxes there. There’s at least a couple in every one. I like contrast. I like spalted woods with natural black spalting lines from fungus and moisture. You can’t recreate that.

Tuchina: Where do you find these woods?

Tobias: I’ve bought wood from all over the place, some on the internet. I’ve bought wood three or four times over the last 30 years, but in sizeable quantities. Each time, it was someone who either used to be a woodworker and retired, or a son whose dad was a woodworker and passed away. There’s some good vibes from that older wood too, knowing someone else was hoarding it like I’m hoarding it. I know I can’t possibly live long enough to use all the wood I have!

Tuchina: Is your grandson learning about woodworking?

Tobias: I actually have 10 grandchildren, five grandsons and five granddaughters. Each of them has items I’ve made in the shop. Once in awhile if they’re by themselves, I’ll get them to come to the shop and we’ll make something just me and them. Of course, I can’t let them loose on the saws and cutting tools!

Tuchina: How should someone start with woodworking?

Tobias: They should start with something they see that interests them visually, then try to figure out if it could be made out of wood. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help. A lot of my skills are self learned, but I also started learning when I was 12 years old helping my uncle and granddad during summers. They were builders and I helped them on jobsites. That’s how I got comfortable around wood.

The biggest piece of advice I’d give anyone is don’t be afraid to try anything as long as it’s safe. Don’t take risks on a table saw, but don’t look at something and think “I can’t possibly make that.” You can, you just need to figure out how to attempt it. There’s always multiple ways to accomplish the same thing and you just need to find the way that works best.