Woodworking keeps Neal Morris alive and he refuses to sit still.
The numerous finished woodworking products speak to his mastery as a craftsman, but witnessing his process reveals Morris’ is a true Renaissance man.
As a young child, Morris’ interest in woodworking started with crafting wagon wheel spokes and plow handles on his grandfather’s mule farm in Arkansas. His interest in the principles of construction and engineering led him to a career with Catalyst Technology. Morris, almost self taught as an engineer, built large-scale machinery across the world for the company’s oil refinery business.
“I never give up on anything. If something faced me, I always tried to face it down,” Morris said. “As I went along, I always read books to teach myself and ended up being an engineer for Catalyst Technology. I built screening equipment and other machinery in oil refinery production. The refineries would tell me what they needed at their oil processing locations and I would take a look at their facility. I had a good idea what I needed to make and I would then design and build it. It all just came to me kind of naturally.”
Morris never put down his passion for woodworking. As he and his wife traveled around the world, he always had a room in his house where he would whittle wood. He worked with his first lathe in the military. He decided to build his own lathe in 1977 and
still uses it today in his workshop.
Every wood from domestic to exotic lay in different stages of production in Morris’ workshop. The layout and equipment, some vintage and some self-fabricated, would give a visitor a sense of Morris’ depth as an artist and engineer.
Morris custom built the entire workshop himself. A suction and ventilation system runs to various workstations: the first lathe he built, a self-made sandblasting chamber that he custom made with gloves and a viewing window, a lathe from the 1920s and an engine he rebuilt all connected with tubes with shutoff valves for suction.
Morris comfortably weds science and art. Small blocks of walnut, pine and cedar lay near a saw. A South American wood called purple heart lays on one of his tables. Bowls Morris carved and lathed cure on a shelf. The wood chips and dust picked up by the tubing that snakes to every station is filtered and screened by a custom made chamber. Morris transports the collected wood dust to a stockpile outside that he will use like compost or fertilizer in one of several garden beds.
“I take these bowls here until they reach a 10 percent moisture rate,” Morris said. “I will put them into a box (another custom made piece of equipment) with a dehumidifier until they reach a six percent moisture rate when they are ready to be finished. I start some wood on the floor at 20 percent. If you dry wood too fast it will crack and it will goof up a good piece of wood.”
Aside from his own equipment, Morris makes several different types of wood products.
Candle holders, ornamental bowls and food grade bowls that can be used in food production, which can be washed and used for everyday purposes. He used to turn soapstone and alabaster. Underneath the bowls on his curing shelf lay carved drumsticks, large salad forks, spoons and spatulas that he will finish with butcher-block oil so they can be used in the kitchen. Morris has made urns a ‘his’ and ‘hers’ for himself and his wife. The wall beside his lathe has rows of carving tools Morris made himself. He never draws a design. He shapes it with his hands.
“I use to fool with a lot of South American wood, but it’s just too darn expensive,” Morris said. “I have these Australian banksia pods that I cut in half and make into pencil or pen trays. I may make them into buttons, but these have become expensive too.”
Every different kind of wood has a different purpose, Morris said.
“Walnut, cherry and oak are strong woods that are good for ornamentals or furniture,” Morris said. “Walnut and maple are good food quality pieces. Every wood there is isn’t good for everything. Cedar is a wood I do a little bit with it. People don’t care too much for it though. It’s a poor grade of wood to some people.”
Morris has made a large bowl out of cottonwood for his wife. She proudly displayed a vase he made from a plum tree. Each bowl or piece Morris makes he engraves with the year it was made and the type of wood the piece is made from.
If it is a food grade bowl he will engrave in small letters on the bottom what the piece can be used for and directions on how to clean it. Every piece has been carved and sanded with attention to detail. Morris will only use a clear finish on his pieces to showcase the beauty of the wood’s grain. The inside rim of an ornamental bowl is sanded by hand where most carvers would have left it rough.
“I enjoy any kind of woodworking whether it is by hand or machine,” Morris said. “It keeps me alive. I used to do a lot of shows in the past where I would sell my stuff, but I’ve really had to cut back.”
Morris only sells his work at five shows a year now and mostly in Henry County. Morris said he isn’t as fast as he used to be and some pieces can take a year for him to finish the way he wants them to be. Open-heart surgery and a stroke have made him slow down, but Morris stubbornly says he won’t stop doing what he loves.
His early military years where he saw his share of action in Vietnam and the Korean War have only helped strengthen his inherent resolve.
“I just can’t quit. I just can’t sit down. Sitting down goofs me up,” Morris said. “To sit down, goofs me all to hell.”