Willie Sandry: An “All In” Woodworker

Willie Sandry: An “All In” Woodworker

When Washington-based woodworker and frequent Woodworker’s Journal contributor Willie Sandry gets excited about a project, he jumps in with both feet. And, considering that his day job is physical therapy, he also knows just how take these leaps forward in his hobby without hurting his back.

“It’s satisfying to be involved in direct patient care, the way primary doctors used to do years ago,” Sandry says. “The biggest reward is inspiring someone to change their sedentary life into one filled with fun and useful activities.”

Recalling those years prior to junior college and health care, Sandry would help his father, a remodeling contractor, build decks and refinish floors during his summer breaks from school. He admits that he didn’t realize it then, but those formative years were already teaching him about woodworking and how to do good work, generally. Two woodworking uncles — one a boat builder and the other a woodcarver — also influenced him.

Sandry’s mother is a writer, and her career helped shape his current publishing pursuits, too. “In the most basic sense, I build things and write about them,” Sandry says. “Talk about the acorn not falling far from the tree!”

Over the years, Sandry has gravitated toward Arts & Crafts style furniture, and we’ve published several of his projects embracing this aesthetic. While he appreciates the work of Gustav Stickley, Harvey Ellis, the Greene brothers and Elbert Hubbard, Sandry has a particular fondness for Charles Limbert. The Limbert “bug” caught him when he attended the 25th annual Arts & Crafts convention in Pasadena.

“Sometimes I’ll do Limbert reproductions, trying to match every angle and dimension. Other times I’ll let functionality guide the design and add in cutouts and inlays reminiscent of a Limbert piece,” Sandry says. “Limbert used angles, curves and cutouts in a recipe that almost always produced a beautiful piece. He had a few flops, but to me that’s a sign that Limbert wasn’t afraid to experiment with new styles.”

Among his resume of projects, Sandry tends to feel that the one he’s just completed is often his favorite. But, a special example that stands out for him over the years is a master bedroom suite that includes a bed frame, dressers and nightstands. He’s also pleased with an Arts & Crafts-inspired triple entertainment center he designed and a Limbert Hutch that ran in our magazine’s June 2019 issue.

Sandry’s work demonstrates a high degree of skill. But of course, no one becomes a talented woodworker overnight. Sandry admits that it’s taken many years to gain proficiency with the craft. He feels the evolution of his skills started with the ability to make joints fit together well. Then, he focused on his project design skills, and last came the ability to apply finish well. Laying down a quality spray finish — his preferred form of application — has actually helped him feel much better about his projects overall. “Once you take the leap into that whole world (of spray finishing), you start to see better results with a lot less effort,” he says.

Often, designing a project is his favorite step of the woodworking process. When he 3D models a new piece of furniture, Sandry tends to set the drawing aside for a week or so before committing it to a cutting list. The time away from his rendering can provide fresh perspective.

“When you revisit the design, does it still look good? Sometimes we need to see a form multiple times to know if it’s right,” Sandry says. “Quite often the characteristics that separate a great design from a good one are relatively minor. Add a corbel, remove a backsplash, make an inlay smaller … Ahh, just right!”

A number of years ago, Sandry’s penchant for Arts & Crafts projects — and the associated high cost of buying pre-seasoned, quartersawn white oak lumber to make them — prompted him to build a lumber drying kiln. His shed-style kiln (a project you can read more about in our June 2017 issue) now enables him to buy air-dried or green lumber direct from homeowners or sawyers and then dry it the rest of the way himself. It’s a cost-saving effort that also helps him better control the quality of how his lumber is seasoned.

“It changes the whole way I look at my lumber supply,” Sandry says. “I don’t calculate down to the board foot anymore. I buy by the stack and not by the board.”

Arts & Crafts has even inspired Sandry to try his hand at another craft: leatherwork. When he wanted to sew leather cushions for a Morris chair and ottoman years ago, he took a class to learn how. But the class ended up being over-enrolled, which forced him to learn most of the sewing process on his own. That actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

“I practiced sewing piping and welting a few times, and I was hooked,” Sandry recalls. “There’s a real art to tuning and maintaining an industrial sewing machine, especially the old Juki and Consew walking foot models that I favor.”

While he might dry the lumber and sew the cushions for the projects he designs, writes about and photographs, one aspect of the process Sandry has decided against is sawing boards directly from the log.

“I debated about buying a band saw mill one year, but that same year a log rolled onto a sawyer friend of mine. He broke his pelvis, and it forced him to retire early,” Sandry says. “Right then and there my wife made me promise I wouldn’t get a lumber mill.”

But, provided he stays away from bucking logs, Sandry says his wife otherwise “heartily” embraces and encourages his woodworking. For a time she would even come out to the shop and help him with sanding.

“She doesn’t do that anymore,” he quips. But she does accompany him on many field trips to buy lumber, or attend conventions and browse antique stores for inspiration. Sandry’s woodworking has also sparked interest from his twin teenage sons. They occasionally build projects with him.

“If nothing else, it’s a special memory for me now and will be a special memory for my boys in 15 or 20 years,” he says.

With boards drying in the kiln, a supportive family and plenty of CAD drawings in the works, Sandry’s woodworking is an avocation that continues to offer new opportunities for both learning and enjoyment. There’s no question that he’s “all in.”

“If a chair needs a leather cushion, then all the better…let’s sew one. If a cabinet needs a leaded-glass panel, get out the soldering iron and let’s do this thing. And if someone reads about my work and is inspired to make something like it, well that’s just the cherry on top, my friend.”

Posted in: