Lake Norman & Mooresville

Woodworking turns into passion for Mooresville man

Turned and carved bowls along with vases repose atop glass shelves at Andre Christine Gallery. They’re part of the collection Michael McNeilly, a woodworker, has amassed as his hobby has grown.

McNeilly hasn’t always turned wood. In fact, he hasn’t always been serious about woodworking. His attraction to the craft has been gradual, but now he spends as much time as possible in a garage workshop.

Perhaps he acquired some skills through osmosis. After all, his father enjoyed working with wood.

“Honestly, when I was growing up I didn’t share his interest. I thought he was crazy,” McNeilly said.

But McNeilly, 57, has embraced his dad’s hobby and endured his share of small nicks and splinters. “You wouldn’t be a woodworker if you didn’t have splinters,” he said.

Over the years, he has built furniture for his wife, Mary, and their two sons, now grown.

“If we needed a shelf for our house, I would build it. If we needed a stool, I would build it,” McNeilly said.

As his interest in woodworking grew, he decided to upgrade his skills. McNeilly owned a lathe, but had never set it up. In 2005, he enrolled in David Kaylor’s woodturning class at the former Ice House Center in Davidson. His life changed.

“That started me down the road to different types of woodturning,” McNeilly said.

He also joined the N.C. Woodturners Association, which he discovered is an excellent place to learn new techniques.

Along the way, McNeilly realized he could combine aspects of his occupation and hobby. He’s been an aviation mechanic for 36 years and been employed at US Airways for 27 of them.

“Lots of skills I have at work translate because I do sheet metal work. Some of the skills translate directly to woodturning and woodworking,” McNeilly said.

As he talked about the creation of bowls and other objects, McNeilly’s calm demeanor changed. He became animated, outlining shapes in the air, estimating sizes with his hands.

McNeilly prefers to create hollow vessels – objects with small openings hollowed out inside. He smiled as he described a favorite, a small vessel segmented into about 30 pieces.

“It’s about 1 1/4 inches high and about 1 inch in diameter,” he said.

To make something this size, McNeilly uses different tools and changes his mental approach slightly, but “the hand skills are the same,” he said.

Although he’s right-handed, McNeilly turns with either hand, depending upon the requirements of the wood.

Descriptions along the gallery shelves reveal McNeilly’s preference for turning maple. The wood takes detail well and spalting – the decay process – leaves lines of black, blue, white and sometimes pink.

“It (spalting) gives it character. It also gets burls – wild grain that’s much more interesting than straight grain wood,” McNeilly said.

He looks at a log, imagines what the piece may become, mounts it onto the lathe and begins to turn. There’s always the possibility the wood may split. If he’s unable to rescue a creation, there’s only one place for it.

“Sometime I just take it off the lathe, put it in a pile of sawdust and move on,” McNeilly said.

As the craftsman turns a piece of wood into a new shape, sawdust grows under the lathe.

When it piles up, McNeilly shovels it into a wheel barrow and dumps it into a ravine on his property near Stumpy Creek Park, where the shavings return to nature.

The majority of McNeilly’s work is not tossed. Instead, he applies a high gloss, seven coats of clear lacquer, or a very minimal finish to each vessel.

“The finish depends on the style, the type of wood and the look I want to achieve,” McNeilly said.

He values Mary’s opinion and refers to her as his best critic.

“She’s not afraid to tell me what I don’t want to hear,” he said.

As McNeilly concentrates on woodturning, there’s less time for playing disc golf – another hobby, with younger son, Austin – and building furniture.

The boys are not interested in woodworking, but Austin, 25, will stop by when he needs something. He recently built a coffee table for his apartment. While Austin did the work, McNeilly offered advice.

Perhaps another generation will discover a love of woodworking.