Bill Whipple takes rejected wood and combines it with metal to create simple, artistic pieces.

Woodworker Bill Whipple likes to dance and play the fiddle, and his compositions in wood and metal look like they're dancing, too.



Tabletops, chair seats and benches of burl or other highly figured wood often float on a curved base. The base is frequently metal, its form repeating some of the principles of ikebana, a Japanese flower-arranging discipline that Whipple has been studying recently.



Such interests are in his blood — his mother, Carol Swift of Illinois, won a lifetime achievement award from the Garden Clubs of America for creativity in flower arranging. "Ikebana and I were made for each other," says Whipple. "I love the Asian aesthetics, symmetry yet balance."



This translates to his furniture designs. Several pieces, including his Mori coffee table, a maple tabletop over a three-footed base, are inverted ikebana arrangements. The number three is prominent in ikebana, with two stems (or furniture feet, in this case) three-quarters of the size of the third one. The highly figured top, he says, is from "a piece of maple that was really weird." The table is priced at $1,800.



A wood and metal lamp he calls "Shelf Enlightenment" could be bowing slightly to a dance partner. Two pieces of ash are fused diagonally to form a shell-like shelf about half-way up the curved metal lamp base. He filled the grain of the ash with dark paint, then sanded and finished the rest of the ash a natural shade, creating a chevron pattern of light and dark. Priced at $575, it is just the right height for holding your drink as you read beneath the angled lampshade he makes from paper.

Whipple took classes in ikebana and welding at the same time recently, which made for interesting contrasts in classmates, he says. He has been in woodworking for nearly 25 years, ever since he discovered it was what he wanted to do with his life.



After completing high school in suburban Chicago, "I knew I was done with books," Whipple, now 43, remembers. He knew he wanted to work with his hands. He tried pottery and watched his cousin's husband work at woodworking. One day he started building some stairs to the mobile home he was living in in northern Illinois. Suddenly he realized "four hours had passed. My eyes were dry because I forgot to blink. I was so focused and so into it. It was like, ‘Wow!'" He is amazed that after trying so hard to figure out what he wanted to do, he came upon it almost accidentally.



A long period of learning by doing ensued. "Learning, experimenting, messing up," he describes it.



He started out making ladderback chairs using green wood joinery. "You keep it wet so it shrinks on the dry wood to get extra strength," he says. It was invaluable experience, he believes. "You understand how wood moves and how to use it to your advantage."



He used a drawknife, which gave him an understanding of where wood is strong and where it is weak, he adds. "You don't get that on a planer."

For 17 years, Whipple lived, learned and worked in West Virginia, which he says was wonderful because of the variety of wood there. "The Northern forest met the Southern forest." He moved to Asheville, NC, five years ago.



Being self-taught, "I've learned to invent," he says. His self-teaching has given him freedom to follow his intuition, like combining wood and metal, which he began last year. They complement each other wonderfully, he says. Wood has character and soul, and can't be maneuvered beyond its inherent limits. Metal, he says, is elegant, with no personality of its own. "Metal is stable, neutral and does whatever you want it to do," he says.



"I'm even getting into cement for the base," he adds. In his "Wetting Altar," two "leaves" of wood are supported by a slender metal rod anchored in a concrete base. The two leaves are both two-tone in color, book-matched pieces of crotch walnut. Sand-like ripples and stones decorate the base. The altar was recently used in a friend's wedding.



Because he is self-taught, Whipple says he may sometimes reinvent the wheel. But for him, "Creating something I've never done is as powerful as creating something nobody else has done," he says. And who knows, he adds, he may create something that is new to everybody.



One of his inventions is "Wiplstix," which he sells over the Internet at www.wiplstix.com and at shows. (He has a separate Web site for his business, www.wiplwood.com.) Wiplstix is a drastically slenderized four-string fiddle pared down to the basic elements of soundboard, fingerboard and maple body. It fits in a case made from a PVC pipe.



It is designed for musicians who like to practice on trips – "if you're in an airport waiting for a plane," he says. Whipple has sold more than 350 of the instruments, which range from $265 to $285. He says that at shows, they get more attention than his furniture.



Making Beauty Out of the 'Worst'

For his furniture, the wood that Whipple prefers is what everybody else leaves behind – the knotted, twisted, spalted, insect-riddled pieces. "It looks like a wood infirmary in here," he laughs as he looks around his 500-square-foot shop in a building he rents next to Grovewood Gallery in Asheville. Much of his work is sold through Grovewood, as well as its sister gallery in Asheville's Grove Park Inn called Gallery of the Mountains, and the Silver Fox Gallery in Hendersonville, NC. He also does some commissioned work for Grovewood clients.



Bandsaw mill operators in the Carolina mountains who cut up small amounts of timber know to save him their worst pieces. In one instance, they had consigned one slab of walnut to the firewood pile — an abortive cut had left a small slice out of one side. "It was too funky even for them," Whipple says, "but not too

Whipple’s Mori coffee table, above, with its distinctive pattern on top, was made from “a piece of maple that was really weird,” says Whipple. The metal legs echo one of the themes in ikebana, the Japanese flower arranging discipline that Whipple studies. There are three “stems” or legs connected to the table in an off-center spot. Two of them are three-quarters the length of the third, he says.

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