Phil Wallis finds his creative niche in woodworking
by By SARA DAWSON Banner Staff Writer
Apr 10, 2013 | 1603 views | 0 0 comments | 70 70 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A cut above the rest
Banner photo, SARA DAWSON
SELF-TAUGHT WOODWORKER Phil Wallis shows off some of his smaller projects, such as bracelets, an inverted drawer, and two of his original “kalinkas,” in his Ooltewah workshop. Wallis uses many different types of wood, finishing techniques and original ideas to create various wooden creations.
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“Orange heart, red heart, lemonwood. Lemonwood was cool, but too expensive.” Phil Wallis rattles off the list of woods he has worked with and enjoyed.

“I love padauk. It’s a burnt orange (color). I love working with black walnut, padauk and cherry or maple.”

Wallis loves wood. He has become known all over the Southeast and beyond for his fine craft woodworking skills, showing his work in juried art festivals such as Piccolo Spoleto in Charleston, S.C., and art galleries in Nashville, Chattanooga and Dalton, Ga. His work can also be seen in the Museum Center at Five Points’ Gift Shop.

Wallis was a homebuilder in the Milwaukee area of Wisconsin until April 25, 2005, when he had a heart attack and was clinically dead for three to five minutes before being resuscitated.

“It changed my life totally,” Wallis said. “I know what’s waiting on the other side for me; I do not fear death anymore and I cannot wait to get back.”

As he waited through the long recovery period, Wallis began to work with small pieces of wood he had lying around his personal shop.

“After my heart attack, I asked my doctor, ‘Can I at least turn some of my machines on? I’m going crazy’ — because I couldn’t do anything at that point,” Wallis said. “He said, ‘Oh sure, just remember all the medication you’re taking. Don’t fall asleep.’ So I built a simple box with a lid on it.”

Wallis showed the box to his wife, who really liked it, so he emailed a picture to his sister, who also admired it. He soon had nieces calling and asking him to build them boxes.

From boxes, he started building furniture then branched into other little things. Before he knew it, he had so many wooden trinkets, he had no idea what to do with all of them.

“Before I knew it, I’ve got a hundred things,” Wallis said. “And I thought I’ve gotta do something with this. That’s basically how it started.”

Wallis has built tables and cabinets, bracelets and chairs, as well as vases of all types that he refers to as “a holder for dead things.” He builds picture frames, too, but openly admits he hates making them.

Everything Wallis has learned about woodworking has been self-taught, though he comes from a family of builders and has built houses for years. Aside from simple construction, Wallis also practices wood bending and coopering.

“Building homes, you have basically the same kinds of tools,” Wallis said. “But building a home you can be a quarter of an inch off. Building this stuff, you have to be less than 1/64 inch off.”

Because of his health, Wallis and his wife, Cindy, a professional flutist, knew they would not be able to stay in Wisconsin with its harsh winters, so they began looking for places to move. Chattanooga kept coming up as a possible location.

“We had been researching all these different cities, and we looked at each other and started singing the ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo,’” Wallis said with a laugh. “And we’ve been down here ever since.”

On April 25, 2008, the three-year anniversary of his heart attack, Wallis applied for a relocation grant through Create Here Chattanooga.

One day shortly after he applied for the Create Here grant, he saw an advertisement on Craigslist looking for artists, so he sent a few photos to New York Gallery Firm. The next day, he received a call and was offered a place in a new gallery opening in Nashville.

“That was Monday, Wednesday of that week we had signed contracts, Thursday I was in Nashville,” Wallis said, laughing.

At the beginning of June, Create Here informed Wallis he had won the grant. Even though Wallis was unable to accept the grant because of restrictions on where he could move to and how much space he needed to run his wood shop, he and Cindy decided to come to the Chattanooga area anyway.

“We moved from Wisconsin at the height of the [recession]. We had no jobs lined up down here; we just came. And we made it, through the grace of God. And I’m glad. We really like it down here.”

Wallis sells his work at various galleries and festivals across the Southeast as well as from his Ooltewah shop, and Cindy found work teaching at Chattanooga State Community College and Lee University.

Each piece Wallis creates has its own story. Wallis remembers where he got the wood, funny moments during the creation process, the reactions of friends and family to the different pieces, and even the people who have bought his pieces.

“I find a piece of wood, and the wood basically tells me what we’re going to do. I don’t work off of plans. No plans. It’s just understanding proportions.” Wallis said. “Can I work off plans? Yes, I can and I do. But it’s boring because someone has told you how it’s going to end up.”

Two to five different kinds of wood species are used in every piece that Wallis makes, and he always recycles the small bits that are left to use in other projects. These bits can be fit together into tight blocks and made into bracelets or used in novel projects that Wallis creates, like his “kalinkas.”

“Kalinkas” are small wooden blocks placed artfully on stiff wire stems in a base that is decorated with river rocks or whatever else Wallis chooses to use.

Where did the name “kalinka” come from? “When the wind blows, they all go kalinka, kalinka, kalinka,” Wallis explained.

Furniture is Wallis’ favorite thing to build, but the most difficult thing he ever created fits on a mantlepiece. The pieces is called “Three Crosses” and is a blend of different woods pieced together so that when the light shines behind the piece, the viewer can see three different crosses.

“It’s probably for me one of the most difficult pieces to put together. I can’t tell you how many of these I’ve made and how many of these that I sold,” Wallis said, adding he has sold them to people from Connecticut to Atlanta.

While “Three Crosses” is a complex piece, some of Wallis’ creations are quite simple in design.

“For some unknown reason, I find a spalted [decaying] piece of wood and I put three holes in it. And then I find these candles and put them in there, and people buy it,” Wallis said jokingly. “And the interesting thing is if you get tired of looking at this side, take the candles out, flip it over, and now you’ve got another side. So they get two for the price of one.”

Sometimes Wallis has to step back from a piece and evaluate the plans he originally had in his head for it.

“This one,” Wallis said, indicating a picture of an intricate table, “I was going to add one more set of legs. And I sat down, had a cup of coffee and said ‘Are you crazy? No more legs. Where would they go?’”

Customers can also commission Wallis to design pieces for them. Wallis made the altar and baptismal fount at The Mission Chattanooga as well as other pieces commissioned by local customers.

Wallis gets his wood from a variety of sources. Friends and acquaintances give him trees or tip him off when portions of wood are being thrown away. His exotic woods come from wood stores, such as one in Kennesaw, Ga.

“I love shopping for wood,” Wallis said. “It’s just fun because you see different things. If the wood is spalted, I love it. Spalted means rotting, and that’s what gives the wood character.”

Wallis said his favorite kind of wood is bubinga, an African wood he only works with very sparingly because of how tough it is to do so.

“When you finally get your babinga done and finished, it is absolutely gorgeous,” Wallis said. “But the problem with bubinga is it’s like concrete. You end up smoking your blades, you’ve got to go real slow. And because bubinga has its own oil, you put any other oil on top of it, it takes forever to dry.”

In lieu of bubinga, Wallis names padauk, another African wood, as his favorite to use.

“When I work with padauk, my wife always knows. The sawdust is more powder, so my beard is red, my clothes are red,” Wallis said. “So how can you tell? You’re burnt orange!”

Wallis describes his signature look as “simple, rustic, organic and elegant.” He uses woods that have their own natural colorings and do not need to be stained to have a good effect in the piece. A lot of his work includes preserving the natural edge of a piece of wood and working it into the design.

Lately, Wallis has been experimenting with wood dyeing and different acrylic paints for a more modern look in some of his newer pieces.

Whether using a stain or paint or simply applying tung oil to the wood, Wallis said the finishing is really the hardest part because it can take so long to dry. Wallis estimates about 30 percent of the time put into a piece is the finishing process.

Because Wallis is in a one-man shop, he triple checks everything three times before ever turning on a machine. He is also careful to avoid creating a “cocktail for disaster” by accidentally mixing the sawdusts of different woods that could react badly with the spalted wood he loves using so much.

“I still have all 10 fingers and 10 toes,” Wallis said. “I love it. It’s extremely relaxing.”

Wallis’ next event is the Blooming Arts Festival with the Museum Center at Five Points in Cleveland on April 26-28. To see more of his work, visit his website at