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    A Cut Above | Spring 2014 Out Here Magazine

    When his employer left the U.S., this furniture builder carved out his own job

    Jerill working on one his custom pieces
    Jerill Vance created his own job as a woodworker when his former employer moved his job overseas.
    Out Here

    By Noble Sprayberry

    Photography by Clayton Spangler

    Raised in West Virginia, Jerill Vance learned to build from his family. They shared the load whenever a relative needed to put up a house or a cabin.

    "My grandfather was the type who, if you bent a nail you'd go back and straighten it out and reuse it," says Vance, who turned early construction lessons and attention to detail into a passion for woodworking.

    For 32 years, however, shaping wood was only a hobby. He worked full-time as a technician in the research and development department of a chemical plant. Then, the company moved the department overseas, leaving Vance unemployed in 2009.

    He was 55 years old. He lived in Culloden, W.Va., a rural community with few employers. And, he wanted to work. So he started his own business.

    Now, Vance's custom furniture (jerillvancewoodworks.com) leaves customers such as Susan Weinstein happy. A bench made of oak and built with fitted, wood joints — not screws — sits in the space between her front door and fireplace.

    And, there's no other bench exactly like it, because Vance built it to suit her unique needs. She is about 5 feet 3 inches tall and her husband, Mike Millay, is 6 feet 4 inches tall. Finding furniture that suits both of them often proves challenging.

    "I wanted to be able to sit and put my shoes on with my feet on the floor," she says. "And, Mike can still stretch his legs out, so it works for him too."

    Vance built the bench a bit shorter than normal, and it was sized to just fit the door-side spot. The couple chose oak for the bench, so the piece would complement their other furniture.

    "We've had it for two years," Susan says. "It's perfect."

    Vance's transition from chemical plant technician to craftsman was helped with skills that he had been working on since he was young.

    When he was in his early teens, he helped his grandfather, Jesse Lee, build a house and a cabin. And, his father, Harry, also often put his own construction skills to use. For the younger Vance, the work was never a chore.

    "I helped because I wanted to," he says. "I really enjoyed it, because at the end of the day, after putting in some physical work, you could actually see your accomplishments."

    "I helped because I wanted to," he says. "I really enjoyed it, because at the end of the day, after putting in some physical work, you could actually see your accomplishments."

    Even when working for the chemical plant, he honed his woodworking skills, often selling and competing on the craft show circuit.

    "I worked on things that I could sell and most of those were gift items," he says. "That seemed to be the kind of thing was easy to sell and moderately priced. Around the holidays it was relatively easy to get customers to buy."

    And, he had success with items such as wooden pen-and-pencil sets in custom boxes, as well as wooden earrings and pendants. In 1993, he won a Best of Show award at a craft show in Mason County, WV.

    The chemical plant, though, continued to pay the bills, and the work also provided skills he would find valuable in woodworking.

    "I developed a way of looking at a problem and a way of solving it," he says. "It just makes it easier to work my way through an issue and come to a solution."

    THE NECESSARY TOOLS

    Once the job left, though, the hobby turned serious.

    "I elected to go back to school and get a degree in woodworking," he says. "I wanted to teach woodworking, and, of course, you needed the credentials."

    For two years, he drove more than three hours one-way to the New River Community and Technical College in Lewisburg, WV. He spent the week studying, returning home on weekends to a very supportive wife, Belinda. Now, Vance produces custom furniture from a shop on his 50 acres of hilly West Virginia land.

    "Because it's custom, I can do one piece about every three weeks," he says. "I do them one at a time; they're not mass produced."

    He kiln dries much of his own wood, often from native trees. He uses power tools to cut the wood to the dimensions necessary for each item, and then he uses hand tools to shape the finished product.

    "What people really want are custom pieces that fit their decor, and most people prefer a country or common style," he says. "I've done everything from a custom quilt cabinet to a table I'm doing now made from recycled barn wood. Their father had built the barn."

    A regional craftsman, he believes in giving customers exactly what they want.

    "There are never two pieces exactly alike," Vance says, "and that's what appeals to me."

    Noble Sprayberry is a Georgia writer.

     

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