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Interview with Nora Woody, November 5, 2003 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Nora Woody, November 5, 2003
November 5, 2003
Nora Woody offers her insight on the artist and craftmanship of Arval Woody.
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Interviewee:  Woody, Nora Interviewer:  Hayes, Sherman / Zarbock, Paul Date of Interview:  11/5/2003 Series:  Arts Length  45 minutes


Hayes: I’m Sherman Hayes, university librarian from UNCW in Wilmington. It’s November 5 and we’re with Nora Woody.

Hayes: Nora, what was your maiden name?

Woody: Nora _____.

Hayes: That’s great. What heritage is that? That’s an interesting, umm…

Woody: It’s English mainly English and Scottish. It’s my father’s name of course.

Hayes: Great, and you’ve been married to Woody for quite some time.

Woody: Longer than I care to admit.

Hayes: And involved in this kind of interesting business, but you were saying that after the war, Woody and his brother…

Woody: They were doing a different thing at first. My husband was teaching agriculture on the Veteran’s program. His brother was training to be a mechanic and they decided they wanted to carry on their heritage that had been in their family for many, many years. Neither of them had any money since they had just returned from service. They actually made the concrete blocks that this building is built from.

Hayes: And right now we’re in the main workshop. Everything is worked right out of here and what, thousands of chairs a year, what’s your sense of production now. I know up and down based on the market.

Woody: Well generally we have turned out as many as close to 2000 a year. Not often, I’d say 1500 would be usually, but we work with a number of the home demonstration agencies in North Carolina for a number of years. They wanted their people to see the chair and to finish it. They would buy the chairs unfinished and unseated and teach their people how to do it.

Hayes: So that was bigger production. And you make some other products that we’re going to see in a few minutes. Were those just to help with the tourist trade more or less.

Woody: Well partially it was to use up some of the excess lumber that was too small to go into a chair, two short pieces and it was too expensive just to waste so we started to look for things that we could make from the smaller pieces and just gradually expanded and its been a rather lucrative thing.

Hayes: Yes, it makes sense, you hate to lose that lumber. We were talking earlier in another conversation about walnut. Is that what or what is this right here?

Woody: This is walnut. It will be darker when the finish goes on it

Hayes: And that’s just hard to find, right?

Woody: It’s very hard to find. And these are the backs that go into the chair.

Hayes: Now you’ve been in the business yourself how long?

Woody: Almost from the time we were married because I wasn’t doing that much. I was doing the bookkeeping and my brother-in-law who was a partner in the business at the time was finishing building his house and we were starting to build one. So they were away from the shop quite a lot at that time . He also had had a grocery store and a gas station here. The gas station was still here at the time so I was running it and running the business here while they were working on our houses.

Hayes: Now did you have a background to be able to do this. I mean that’s quite unusual for a young woman to just step right in and do….

Woody: Well I’d always been pretty adaptable to anything that comes along.

Hayes: I mean the bookkeeping, enjoyed that kind of…

Woody: I never had any difficulty with anything to deal with books. I never had any difficulty with that. I had known something about lumber because I had worked with one of Arval’s cousins, Marion, where I lived while I was in high school and he bought and sold lumber. I learned to know what my under measurements were. I figured all the bills on the weekends so he could pay the people and so forth. So I had a little bit of a background in it.

Hayes: Now during this time did you ever have a family as well, you and Avral?

Woody: No.

Hayes: Okay, so you were able to dedicate time to the business. That’s great. Well thanks for helping us. Now how about back when you were starting walnut wasn’t so scarce.

Woody: Not quite as much as it is now. As far as price was concerned, I suppose the prices then were much lower than they are now, but it probably equaled out to the same amount they were paying.

Hayes: It was still scarce. It’s always been scarce. What, is it very slow growing tree, is that part of the issue?

Woody: It was very slowly yes.

Hayes: And very hard?

Woody: It’s very hard and it’s a tree that you can’t successfully tree farm. Walnut will actually poison itself if there are too many trees. If you tree farm it, you have to intersperse it with locust or some other tree to make it grow well.

Hayes: So how do you get it now?

Woody: Well it grows mainly just out in the woods. You’ll find a tree here and a tree there, but never stands of them as a general rule.

Hayes: And so you had said that the friendly timber folks will be on the lookout, right?

Woody: They are because they don’t get enough of the walnut to make it worth their while to take a load of them to some lumber buyer as a general rule, because maybe they’ll have only tree. There will be only one good usable log from that tree. So they will often call to see when they can buy some lumber and get it.

Hayes: That’s great, so you grab it every chance you can?

Woody: Every chance we get. We almost run out a lot of times.

Hayes: Do you really?

Woody: In fact, we have been looking for lumber several times when it was just completely out.

Hayes: So what would be the next most important wood? I know walnut is kind of a high end premium. What are other chairs made of?

Woody: Cherry, ash, oak, and maple. Cherry is the next expensive one down the line. In fact it’s almost as expensive as walnut is now and getting almost as scarce. It isn’t quite so much.

Hayes: And it’s not a big tree either.

Woody: It can be.

Hayes: Can it be?

Woody: Cherry can be a very large tree. You don’t find very many of them that aren’t very large, but they can be a very large tree.

Hayes: And are they in this area too or do you have to go further for cherry?

Woody: Yes, the wild cherry which is what we need, the cherry that grows in people’s yards doesn’t have the grain and the color that the wild cherries do. We cannot use those. We are approached by people a lot of times that have a big cherry tree in their yard that’s been there for years and years and years and they are going to cut it because they figured it wasn’t stable and they couldn’t leave it there, but the lumber is not usuable. It’s softer and it just doesn’t work that well. It has to be the wild cherry.

Hayes: Wow, that is rare. And then the next woods down, oak of course is more common.

Woody: Yes, oak is our third best seller.

Hayes: Is there a particular type of oak that you’re using?

Woody: Well it has to be the wild oak. It has so much color of its own, that you can’t finish it. Well then we use ash and maple, but those too are not as popular. I think a lot of people when they see the ash, it’s a beautiful grain. It’s an almost flat wood. You can stain it any color you need, but people who are not familiar with it tend to order the other one because they don’t know what the ash looks like.

Hayes: Interesting. Well we were talking earlier, these are kind of different woods, gives you a different flavor.

Woody: Now these have not been finished. These will probably go in the top of the chair. They’ll be the first thing around the seat because these then are covered up with the chair seat. When the seat is woven in…

Hayes: What kind of wood is that?

Woody: That one is maple And this is walnut and this is walnut that hasn’t had a finish on it yet.

Hayes: Oh, that’s interesting.

Woody: When you are dealing with the walnut, if you even touch water to it, it will turn it dark. As it dries it will come back to this color. But anything on it will turn it darker.

Hayes: Look at even the different colors within that same species of wood, that’s interesting.

Woody: These will probably be used at the top of the chair that’s covered up by the chair seat so it doesn’t matter that they’re stained the same color. In fact it does better that they aren’t stained and you have a little bit of a rough surface for the cedars to roll their cord around. It holds better.

Hayes: Now you have actually stained this middle one right?

Woody: It has been stained.

Hayes: That’s kind of a more finished look.

Woody: The thing that we use on it is just to even out the color, that’s all. If there’s some light spots and some dark spots, we just put a new stain to even out the color. We’re trying not to change the initial color of the wood.

Hayes: That’s excellent. Now we were talking about you’ve incorporated so much older machinery, they got what they could get and they fixed it up, but they’ve never gone up to the new ones.

Woody: No.

Hayes: But it wasn’t about money was it?

Woody: No, we found out we had machines that would do better work than most of the new ones would do.

Hayes: And the one you showed us here was a World War II tent peg maker. That’s a starting point and then this one here, you were talking about was…

Woody: This one is just called a flapper sander. When this goes around, those are pieces of sandpaper there.

Hayes: And they don’t want it tight, they want that flappy.

Woody: Because you will go into grooves and things of this sort. On the chairs especially, you’ll go into little grooves and you need something that this will go into. This will probably be sanded again twice with belts that have a smaller grip to them until it gets down to a very, very smooth surface. This is the one that takes the most off the outside and makes it somewhat smooth. And then you get down to where the ones that don’t need much smoothing.

Hayes: Now we’re in a woodworking shop but I still think it’s somewhat unusual that the floor is wood (laughter). This wouldn’t be normal, would it?

Woody: Not usually. They used to do floors like this a lot in all the mills and so forth back before the turn of the century it was an ideal flooring. But rarely now, but it works well for us. The wood was on their father’s property, locust, which doesn’t deteriorate in the dampness.

Hayes: Did they finish it?

Woody: No, it has gotten finished just with the sawdust and the people’s feet.

Hayes: Interesting, and how about when you stand on it, it’s a lot better than cement, right? It gives you…because this is all stand up work, right. The shop people are here long hours standing up, right?

Woody: Almost totally.

Hayes: Okay, walk us around some other areas. I see these are obviously part of the chair.

Woody: The chair back.

Hayes: The chair back. Getting ready in pieces.

Woody: This is our lathe back here. You see this motor over here is a humongous thing, but it powers the lathe beautifully. The lathe itself is old and the pieces that you see hanging in the window, I tell people that we make the really modern chairs out of those, that we have the most updated equipment ever (laughter). What they are is a piece of wood with small nails driven through it so that the point comes through to one side just barely. A combination of any of these will make any chair that we use.

So whenever he starts to turn a chair post, he makes it a 2 inch square into a round first. Then depending upon the chair that he wants to make, he reaches up and gets one of these back here, holds it against the post while it is turning in the lathe and puts scrab marks on it and that way it knows where to turn, we know where to put the backs.

Hayes: These are kind of like guide marks.

Woody: Almost, it’s called scrab marks because you see a little line in the wood, not very deep. In fact we leave those on it to show that these are handmade chairs.

Hayes: Every chair is a different chair?

Woody: Yes.

Hayes: And it isn’t a machine in the sense of a factory. Every one is precise. They come out slightly different.

Woody: They look as though they’re the same, but if you start measuring them, you will find that there are slight differences all over.

Hayes: Is it the wood that dictates a lot of that or is the mood…

Woody: No, it’s when you’re making them you cannot free hand turn them and get them completely the same all down the way. Even after they’re sanded there’s going to be a little bit of discrepancy.

Hayes: Now I see a lot of very fine sawdust here. Have you figured out a way to use that for anything?

Woody: Well I’m a gardener and I use most of it for mulch.

Hayes: That is good cause that’s expensive mulch some of it.

Woody: And a lot of people also come and get it every once in a while to put in their dog beds or beds for their horses and things of this sort.

Hayes: And this here for example is what we talked about. Oh my goodness, that is heavy.

Woody: Now these are the two inch squares that we cut into for the chair posts and so forth. Then we cut some that are flatter and thinner for the chair backs.

Hayes: Now are you having to process this or can you buy this from the lumber people like this?

Woody: We can buy it like this but the expense is enormous if you did. We can process it much better and get the maximum amount from any board that there is in it by cutting judiciously in case there’s a little defect or anything.

Hayes: Just beautiful, just beautiful. The ones up on the wall here are waiting to go?

Woody: Yes, those are some chair posts that sometimes when we are making chair posts or something of that sort we will go ahead and run if we have the timber there that is just the right moisture, we will run them at the time and just put them up here because we know we’re going to need them within the next few weeks.

Hayes: Excellent, you don’t want to stay too far ahead though right because there’s too much storage then.

Woody: That’s right and you don’t get the right amount of moisture if it’s cut too much early.

Hayes: Good, good. Here’s some back here that are kind of in a process already.

Woody: These are walnut. These have been turned on the lathe and then we put the groove in them that the back fits into. The machine that does this is right here. It’s a machine that has an 18 something date on it.

Hayes: Let’s look at that.

Woody: It cuts as you see a beautiful mortis. There are no things on the end of it to show, there’s nothing in the center. It just cuts a beautiful square mortis.

Hayes: And you said you don’t use any glue at all?

Woody: No glue. Now this is the mortis machine and you can see the date on it.

Hayes: Golly, 1882.

Woody: This bit goes up and down and cuts the grooves.

Hayes: Houston, Pennsylvania, Montgomery, Pennsylvania, isn’t that something? And this cuts that kind of…

Woody: It cuts the long hole in the post.

Hayes: What’s the technical term you used it before, whit did you call that?

Woody: It’s a mortis machine. It mortises the groove in the post that we put the backs into.

Hayes: There’s quite a bit of skill in running this cause if you get this wrong, you ruin a very expensive piece of wood.

Woody: My husband runs this a lot of times and he can go by the scrab marks on it when they’re turning on the lathe and he knows just about exactly where to position this so that it works.

Hayes: Interesting, well later what we’ll do is have him do some, but then it won’t matter so much that we can’t hear. Then somebody can see this tape through the process and then see it done.

Woody: And he’s invented another machine over here that most people say is impossible; leveling a chair or leveling anything with more than one leg is quite a feat. You keep cutting off one that’s high and another one that’s high and you soon wind up with one that’s 4 inches tall. This table over here, this machine, there’s a saw in here with a line center and it’s totally level. You set your finished chair down on here around this side and you just very gently hold it steady and very gently turn it around and any high spot on one of the legs will drop right into this little groove and cut it off once around and your chair is level.

Hayes: Well I know I’ve got some stools at church that we use for our church choir and they’re a little too tall for somebody and I’m very nervous about how I’m going to trim those down (laughter). I won’t send them to you, but I am sympathetic to the problem, how do you get four legs to cut down each the same.

Woody: Well we have had a lot of hobby woodworkers in here. They say that’s the worst thing, when they start building a table or anything else to do, to get it level.

Hayes: He wants to get back to work. We’ve gone to the upper level, do you have a special name for this?

Woody: Upstairs (laughter).

Hayes: Whoever is watching this I’m sorry for moving my camera so much. We’ve got a lot going, different sizes. Hello sir.

Woody: This is one of our chair seaters, Leray _______.

Hayes: Hi Leray.

Woody: He does a lot of chairs and does a very, very good job of weaving as you see.

Hayes: And what was the term that you called him?

Woody: A chair seater. He puts the seat in it.

LERAY: It’s the thing you sit on.

Hayes: Well, I’m an academic, I really appreciate you clarifying that up for me. You’re working on a bench. What is that material that you’re working with Leray?

LERAY: It’s called a craft cord.

Hayes: Who’s the supplier?

Woody: We get this out of Michigan.

Hayes: And what’s it being made out of?

Woody: It’s actually almost a fiber type thing.

LERAY: You’ve seen them brown paper bags at the grocery store? That’s what it is.

Woody: It’s a little bit more than that, it’s a special paper and it has a lot of other chemicals and other things impregnated in it so that it wears really well. A seat with one of these with any care at all will last at least 50 years. We’re just now beginning to get a few of the first chairs that they made back in for a new seat and that’s well over 50 years ago.

Hayes: So you’re really weaving this to get extra strength by just the right kind of cord, the angles.

Woody: You have to have the angles because you have to put the corners in first and then it comes out in what is called a four point pattern. See what I’m talking about here.

Hayes: Those are wonderful. So it supports a lot of weight. If somebody sits on this, you’re not at risk, right?

Woody: A 500 pounder or 700 pounder could sit on that and it would be fine. Not only the seat but the chair posts also.

Hayes: He’s unwrapping one of these to give you a sense of …

Woody: It’s just a twisted type of fabric. You can’t wear it out. This is a special fiber and it’s impregnated with a lot of other things to give it strength.

Hayes: And then by the wrapping, gives it even more.

Woody: They put it in when it’s damp. They sprinkle it with water or something, roll it up in a towel and leave it for a day or so until it’s uniformly damp. That way they can pull it tighter and it isn’t as hard on their hands. When it dries, it will get tighter.

Hayes: You use different widths of this based on the…

Woody: No, it’s all one width, it’s all 6/32 of an inch.

Hayes: Even for a small chair, you’d still use that same strength.

Woody: Because the smaller ones just don’t give good results. So this one gives better results.

LERAY: You put padding in and that gives it strength.

Woody: Eventually the seat in any of these as they get really old will begin to sag somewhat.

Hayes: So what are you putting in the middle to help it out?

Woody: As they go up they keep padding.

Hayes: It gives you just a little extra.

Woody: Yes the seats in our chairs do not seat down nearly as quickly as most of them.

Hayes: Those are great.

Woody: It’s a very hard seat to sit on for the first few months. We also put a coat of clear sealant on those and that also helps it to wear a lot longer.

Hayes: And gives you a little bit of waterproofing?

Woody: Yes, it gives you a little bit of waterproofing. What is essentially wearing will be the seat after a very long while.

Hayes: And over here, these are ones that are finished or near finished?

Woody: Those are finished. They are ready to be shipped out or picked up.

Hayes: Different styles I see. We’ve got one here that’s got kind of a rounded style at the top.

Woody: This is called the chalet model. The one next to it is the Betsy Ross. It has a lot more turnings on it, yes. This one over here is called the Colonial American. That’s the three styles that we make.

Hayes: And how long have you been making them?

Woody: This shop has been here since the 1950’s, early 1950’s.

Hayes: Did you ever have different versions that you tried or has this been pretty much it?

Woody: This has been it. In fact the three, this one and this one were the only two I guess that we were making for a very long while. Then we had seen a similar one to the one with the chalet.

Hayes: From a standpoint of color, this might help somebody see this, this darker one then is walnut.

Woody: The reddish one is cherry, but now your cherry is going to darken with age to become the color that most people associate with cherry.

Hayes: And this one over here?

Woody: This one is cherry. This is maple. This one is oak. There should be some over here that you can see, this one is oak. This little one is oak.

Hayes: Now what’s this style here?

Woody: This is the Betsy Ross style, but this is a bar stool. This one is called a slipper chair. It was traditionally used in the bedroom to sit down and put your shoes on so therefore it’s a slipper chair. A lot of people buy it for small children or they use it in the bedroom as a slipper chair.

Hayes: Now these here are just a nice bench.

Woody: It’s just a little stool. We make them to nest as a set of three, but we will also sell them separately. See there’s three stacked in that nest. This little one should be under the bottom.

Hayes: How long does it take you to do a big one like this?

LERAY: I’ll finish it up tomorrow sometime.

Hayes: They give you lunch here or are they pretty tough here about that?

Woody: They go to lunch, yes we do.

LERAY: Go to lunch and see if the neighbors brought in anything to eat.

Hayes: So there’s a lot of handwork in that to get it just right.

Woody: I don’t know a machine that would do it at all.

Hayes: Well not with the same care either, that’s for sure.

LERAY: I just finished that one up there.

Hayes: Wow and how many hours a day can you do that?

Woody: He works 8 hours.

Hayes: Probably not too many people in the whole country that could do that.

Woody: There are not a great many and we have tried to teach a lot of people that wanted to seat. Women that were home with young children wanted something they could do out of their house and occasionally we would find one that would be a good seater, but most of the time they never would learn to put in a really good seat.

Hayes: Well it doesn’t help any if you’ve just got a wood frame with no good seat.

Woody: And if you have one with a seat that doesn’t look well, you’re not going to sell it.

Hayes: And you’ve always done this seat as opposed to a solid wood seat.

Woody: That’s right.

Hayes: That’s been your trademark.

Woody: You see this one back here with the top, that’s removable and it makes a valet chair out of it. You can put your coats and so forth on the top. There’s a thing behind it that you can hang pants. There’s a change purse right there on the top and that will just pull off the top of the chair. Just lift it off when you’re not using it and put it back.

Hayes: And how many people then work in the shop in total?

Woody: Let’s see, there’s usually three that work back there at all times.

Hayes: In the wood turning.

Woody: One is just the lathe man, Jimmy Marcus. He had been with us a number of years ago and I don’t know why, but he quit and went elsewhere and we had another man who had been here for a number of years and he had gotten in the last few years, pretty tough to live with, let’s put it that way, and he just kept getting worse, and he finally quit on his own and we didn't know who we were going to use as a lathe person because that is really a job that no one can hardly do.

And Jimmy found out about it and he came up to Avral and he said I’ll come and do your turning for you. He works on one shift and he comes in about 10:00 in the morning and stays until about 2:30 in the afternoon and his turnings are so much superior to the man who left that it’s just astounding.

End of tape

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