Stepping up to the challenge
By Brad Jolly - Assistant News Editor
Like a curving staircase, Toby Wilkins’ life has included a few turns, but they’ve ultimately led to a satisfying life’s work.
Wilkins, a native of Athens, Tenn., was a student at Tennessee Tech majoring in geology “for no definite reason” when he chose to drop out in 1975. He told his parents he was going to become a carpenter, and he remembers his mother saying, “Well, if you’re going to be a carpenter, be a good one.”
He first worked as a laborer carrying logs with a crew building log houses and would “hire on” to various construction jobs, all the while learning as much as he could. Then he returned to college, this time at East Tennessee State University, in 1985 and got a bachelor’s degree in construction technology in 1987.
In 1987-89 he was the superintendent of a construction site, and in 1991 he went into business for himself as a general contractor. “Then it hit me maybe 15 years ago that all I really wanted to do was be a carpenter,” he said.
By “carpenter” he means “finish carpenter,” responsible for features like trim and staircases. And it was staircases that became a specialty. “Staircases,” he said, “they’re interesting. I like doing them. I can do them by myself. They’re a challenge.”
“I never worked with anybody on staircases,” Wilkins said.
He remembered when he was first asked by a customer if he could build one and he said “sure.”
“I went to bookstores and got books on how staircases go together,” he said, and he built his first one. He has now done about 30 of them. He has built them here, in Kentucky and even in New York City.
“With each one I learned a new trick,” he said.
Oak, maple, walnut and cherry woods are the usual materials. The tape measure is “the main tool.”
“Rafters and stairs are the carpenter’s pride,” he quoted, and it is staircases that seem to be his special pride. “Every single one is different in details,” he said, “though they may look the same. I love the challenge, artistry and variety possible in creating staircases.”
He said the cost of staircases can range from $1,500 for a basic one to as much as $10,000. “The cost,” he said, “depends on what you want.”
He’s paid by the hour and the customer buys the materials. Wilkins stays involved in the order to ensure that it’s right and no extra trips to the building supplier are needed.
It’s clear that he likes a challenge, like the gingerbread trim he put on the porch of a Jonesborough house that had been “modernized.”
The owner “showed me an old photograph and said, ‘Can you put it back?’ ” He had the photo enlarged and returned the porch to its 1910 look.
He is pleased with the restoration work he did on a room in Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church. “You can’t tell where the new starts and the old ends,” he said.
He also did the curved altar steps at St. Mary’s Church.
He built a staircase, panel walls and mantels for a 4,500-square-foot addition to an 1820 plantation house in Virginia. This was a “dream job” he said on his website. “A person nowadays doesn’t get the opportunity to do work like this very often.”
He also created the massive, elegant staircase at the Limestone home of Jim and Marlene Braddock. He steamed and bent the white oak molding to fit the curve of the staircase, for once needing some helpers.
“It was interesting,” Mrs. Braddock said. “We all gathered around for the bending. It took about five of them.”
He said the work on that staircase took seven or eight days, with the first day spent “thinking it out.”
Wilkins did the imposing staircase in the lobby of the AmericInn in Jonesborough, as well as all the finish carpentry. “There were about 100 men working in the lobby at once,” he said. “That was a whole different environment.”
These days he mostly works alone.
“I work on historic buildings and re-creations, renovating and making traditional architectural details,” he says on the website. “I take pride in excellent craftsmanship and creating beauty from natural materials.”
And he includes a favorite quote from songwriter Guy Clark: “Anything that’s worth cutting down a tree for is worth doing right.”
Wilkins’ website is http://tobywilkins.weebly.com/index.html or Google “Toby Wilkins Custom Carpentry.”
Published July 23, 2012 in the Johnson City Press. Photos by Ron Campbell, used by permission.