Original Writing – Featured Story
By Kristy Zurbrick – Columbus Messenger
Bill Duncan’s eyes twinkle when he talks about making things out of wood.
The London resident is especially fond of building small versions of big vehicles, like excavators, drilling rigs, cranes, tractors and helicopters.
“It’s a lot of fun. I love doing it,” he said. “I like the challenge. That’s what it is, more than anything.”
Duncan comes by his skill naturally.
“I’ve always liked to mess with wood. Even when I was a little kid, I liked to build stuff,” he said.
At age 9, Duncan contracted polio, which left his left side weaker than his right. He feels the effects to this day, but hasn’t let them slow him down. As an adult, he put those deft hands to work for 30 years as a thread grinder, making parts for landing gear on airplanes.
Duncan’s abilities came in handy when a heart condition forced him into retirement 20 years ago. The busy guy suddenly found himself with not much to do.
“For a while, I thought I’d go batty trying to figure out what do with myself,” he said.
That’s when he stumbled upon wood model making. He saw an ad for patterns in the back of a magazine and decided to give it a whirl. His first project was a three-foot long model of a tractor-trailer livestock hauler. With that, he was hooked.
Ever since, he has dedicated about three hours a day to his hobby, split between morning and afternoon. The shelves in his woodshop are filled with his creations.
“I get to cutting wood, and I could sit out there and do it all day, until my eyes go blurry and I have to quit,” he said. “My wife (Eileen) tells me, with woodworking, that’s my therapy.”
To be clear, Duncan doesn’t use kits to make his masterpieces. The patterns he orders are just that–patterns. They don’t come with ready-to-assemble pieces, not even ready-to-cut wood. He sources all of the wood and makes all the parts–from smokestacks for train engines to sideview mirrors for cars–himself.
Duncan has a few favorite sources for wood, including a shop in Springfield and a lumberyard in Amish country in northeast Ohio. He also has a great source close to home.
“My son, Kevin, is a carpenter. He saves me scraps from some of his projects,” he said.
That’s where Duncan gets some of the colorful exotic woods, like purple heart and Brazilian cherry, that give his pieces eye-catching contrast. Most of the other wood that goes into his work is oak and walnut.
“The Brazilian cherry is pretty but hard, plus it’s oily, so you have to clean it real well before you put the polyurethane on it,” he said.
tractor webIt’s challenges like that–with the material or the intricacy of a pattern–that really get Duncan going.
“I like making tractors but they’re hard because of the treads. I have to glue each one on separately,” he said. One of his projects, an eight-wheeled tractor, involved 400 treads.
Duncan shares his handiwork with others. He made a replica of Big Red, the London Fire Department’s old engine. He spent time at the station studying the vehicle to get the details just right before giving the finished product to the fire fighters.
He also gave an old-style field truck to the fire fighters in Newport and made an emergency squad, using yellow heart wood to mimic the color of the real thing, for the crew at the Madison County Emergency Medical District in London. He enters some of his pieces in the Madison County Fair every year and donates some to auctions that benefit his son’s church.
While he is partial to making model vehicles, Duncan said he’s willing to tackle anything. A lucky granddaughter got a doll house complete with tiny furniture and a cedar-shingled roof.
Next up on his project list are an old milk truck, a 1936 Ford convertible and a modern sport utility vehicle.
“That will keep me out of trouble for a while,” he said with that twinkle in his eye.
A couple dozen of Duncan’s wood models are on display at the Madison County Senior Center through the end of January. The center is located at 280 W. High St. in London and is open to the public.