Carving a niche

Where others see wood scraps,
Billy Bass and his fellow craftsmen see toy cars and trucks waiting
to be made.
Monday, April 26, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:21 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

You might say Billy Bass, Daryl Maggine and Ernest Hilderbrand act just like kids sometimes, especially when they get together on Monday nights.

Their “clubhouse” is the Boone County Lumber Millwork on Vandiver Drive, where they meet every month with about 60 other men and women who call themselves the Midwest Woodworkers Association.

The group has been around since 1983, and those who belong to it love not only working with wood but also talking about it — the equivalent of war stories, or in this case, wood stories.

They’re all craftsmen and hobbyists. Some build toy cars. Others make wooden pens, lamps, bowls and furniture — all from scratch.

“I don’t like to throw anything away,” Bass said. “I might see a scrap piece of wood and say, ‘Hey, maybe I can make a car out of it.’”

He can, and he does. Hundreds of them.

Leaning forward in his wooden chair on wheels, Bass scoots across the dusty cement floor of his home basement workshop, angling a virgin block of pine toward a jagged bandsaw blade.

Bass, 76, is a polio survivor who has lived with the muscle disease since the mid-1950s. And he isn’t able to walk much anymore.

“I don’t let my handicap stop me from doing the things I love to do,” he said. “I’ve had to slow down making some of this stuff. But I’ll do it as long as I feel like it.”

Bass worked as a printer for the Columbia Missourian when he was younger but never let polio control his life. And he still doesn’t. For the past 30 years, he has spent many hours in his workshop crafting handmade wooden toys.

Already this year, he has built 89 cars, trucks and boats from scratch.

His goal is 100.


Billy Bass, a member of the Midwest Woodworkers Association, has crafted handmade wooden toys for 30 years.


Sharing their talents

During the holidays, he and other Midwest Woodworkers will donate them all to local charities, which then distribute them to sick and needy children around Boone County. Last year, the group gave away about 650 toys.

"It’s the idea of turning a nondescript piece of wood and making something out of it that’s beautiful and usable,” Bass said.

Bass and the other Midwest Woodworkers enjoy what they call “show-and-tell” — when they bring samples of their work to the monthly meetings at the lumber shop.

Daryl Maggine, 61, makes jewelry boxes, hunting calls, pens and picture frames from exotic woods like Brazilian maple, Osage orange and Madagascar rosewood.

“We bring it to the meetings and brag on it,” he said. “It’s always interesting to see what someone else is doing and to say to yourself, “Can’t I do that?”

Maggine says he’s passionate about wood and hates to see wooden furniture covered with paint.

“Let that good wood show through,” he said.

Ernest Hilderbrand, 62, guesses he’s turned out at least 200 wooden bowls for family and friends since he retired five years ago from MU’s information technology department. He taught himself the craft and wishes he could devote more time to it.

“Trial and error,” Hilderbrand said. “I’ve made plenty of mistakes. If I had the time, I’d like to do it all day long.”

Hilderbrand clamps a heavy stump of box elder wood into his industrial-strength lathe, revs it up to 850 rotations per minute and scrapes away the outer edges until they’re smooth and round. Wood shavings spray everywhere like Silly String. Two hours later, the pile of shavings blanketing his loafers is almost knee-high.


This year, Bass has made 89 hand-made wooden toys such as cars, trucks and boats from scraps of wood. His specialty is old-fashioned cars. (PARKER ESHELMAN/Missourian)

“You never know what you’re going to end up with,” he said.

Like Bass, Maggine and Hilderbrand, many group members are retired and make the toy cars and trucks in their spare time. Although the toy car campaign is the association’s biggest annual project, the group does other things.

Giving back

Past projects include building park playground equipment and wheelchairs for people in developing countries. This summer, the group plans to donate enough lumber to help a local Boy Scout troop build about 250 stools and picnic tables.

“You name it, we’ll do it,” Maggine said.

It’s that attitude — and maybe the rare thank-you card from a grateful parent — that keeps the woodworkers making old-fashioned toys each year.

“That’s an incentive to continue doing it,” Bass said. “When I can take wood and make something that kids really enjoy, that’s my pleasure.”

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