Hooked on wood
Each weekend, as drivers round a corner on U.S. 321 between Lenoir and Blowing Rock, they see a few men on the side of the road next to a small brown shed, with large, flat slabs of wood leaned on a trailer next to tables of wood bowls and rows of furniture made from willow.
One of the men is Justin Main, who boasts that of the wood that is his, about 90 percent is local. Cherry, walnut, beech, oak, maple, hickory and cedar are all represented, turned on Main’s lathe into bowls, rolling pins and candleholders, or cut by his band mill, from large trunks to hefty planks used for tabletops, shelves, fireplace mantles and benches.
Main, a merchandiser for Kellogg’s during the week, has been cutting the large slabs for about five years, but only got into wood turning about a year and a half ago, wanting to make baseball bats.
Finding the large pieces of wood cumbersome, he decided to try to turn a bowl, something he had wanted to try for a long time.
“One day I started a bowl and just fell in love with it,” Main said, attributing that to the way each piece of wood has its own character and each bowl is different.
It wasn’t long until he was hooked, and the specialty wooden bowls are now his favorite thing to make.
When asked why he would spend his free time working and sitting by the highway, he explained that he finds the works relaxing -- it’s peaceful for him to be in his shop, alone, just turning wood. It's a personal way to be creative, he said, seeing what a raw piece of wood can transform into, what it can become.
He spends 10 to 30 hours per week turning wood on his lathe in a small shop behind his home on Hickory Heights in Lenoir. He mills the large slabs of wood on his father’s property, four acres with plenty of room.
Working with wood is nothing new to Main, who used to work construction, a profession his father and uncle made careers out of.
His work has traveled far from the empty lot on the side of the highway, shipping slabs and bowls to customers in California, New York and even Canada.
Main sells his work online as well, at jmainwoodworks.com, and when asked why he still comes out to the highway each weekend, he said, “I enjoy meeting the people. It’s nice when I get a bit of money, but meeting individuals who enjoy the work is really nice.”
On a good weekend in the summer, Main will sell three to six bowls and five or six slabs, but in the winter, sales may be just one slab a day, which go for anywhere from $75 to $150, while the bowls stay in the ballpark of $30.
But what Main would really like to see is a place where craft artists like him can display and sell their work.
“There are a ton of great woodworkers in the area, but nowhere for them to display their work.” Main said, adding that in a county known for its furniture, there are craftsmen more skilled than he, and a craft space for vendors could bring a lot to a community that’s already seeing growth in its tourism-based economy.
“It’s amazing to think people are traveling, coming to our mountains for our craft scene,” he said. “It’d be awesome to see people get more involved.”