Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

December 26, 2012

W.Va. man's wooden creations a step back in time

BILL LYNCH,The Charleston Gazette
Associated Press

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Not everybody is looking to get rich. Junior Sowards isn't really looking to break even or make a buck with his remarkable wooden creations, though he thinks he needs to do something with them.

They're starting to take up quite a bit of space.

"I looked into trying to sell them at Tamarack a little," the Culloden native said. "But I'll probably just give them away."

In his spare time, and there's been a lot of it since the 75-year-old Sowards retired nearly 15 years ago, Sowards makes wooden models of cars, trucks and heavy equipment. He makes his own designs.

"I just draw them out on a flat piece of paper."

He gets the bulk of his materials from behind a nearby grocery store.

"I use plywood bean crates," he said. "The stuff they put vegetables in, then throw out."

He cuts the wood into whatever shape he needs, then glues it together to form a tractor or bulldozer.

Sowards imparts a lot of detail on his models. They come with many moving parts. Wheels turn, shovels scoop and the beds of some of his trucks raise and lower.

Almost all of it is made from wood, including the bulldozer blade cylinders, which are hollowed out wooden dowels. The bulldozer tracks are individually cut and held together with pin-size nails — a very judicious use of metal.

Everything is painted by hand, and a few of his models are motorized.

"I get DC motors out of junked toys," he said, explaining that secondhand parts sometimes provided a better effect.

"You don't want them to go too fast."

His models look like old-fashioned playthings, like something found at a general store 50 years ago. But though Sowards' models may look like the real thing, they are not meant for the sandbox, like a yellow Tonka dump truck.

"I wouldn't call them toys," he said, smiling and shaking his head. "You can't really play with them."

Except maybe very gently.

Sowards doesn't consider himself a craftsman or an artist.

"I'm more of a jack-of-all-trades, master of none," he said.

But he's always been a handy guy.

"I used to be a shade-tree mechanic," Sowards said. "When they started putting computers in all the cars, that's when I chopped my tree down and called it quits."

Sowards said he's always dabbled with one thing or another. He used to do metalwork, and for 34 years made his living building fiber drums for Sunoco.

"We built them to replace stainless steel drums."

Sowards retired from Sunoco in the late 1990s. In 2001, his wife, Rita, died.

"We were married for 46 years," he said. He remarried a few years later, to a widow who lived nearby.

"I've known Linda since she was 12 or 13 years old," he said. "She lived just right across the way, in this house her father built back in the 1950s."

They'd been friendly for a while, but one night, Sowards decided he didn't feel like cooking and didn't feel like eating alone. He called her up and asked her if she wanted to go get something to eat.

"And we ain't looked back since," he said.

That was nearly 10 years ago.

"It's been just wonderful," Sowards said. "This second-time-around thing, I would never have expected that."

Sowards said Linda has always encouraged him and supported him.

"She's the one who got me into this in the first place," he said.

Five years ago, Linda, tired of watching her husband sitting around, told him he needed to find something to do with his time. He took up woodwork.

Sowards acknowledged that between the tools, the projects and the materials, it all takes up quite a bit of space — and as he completes new models, there's a little more clutter. "He's taken over my living room," she laughed. "But I don't mind. He enjoys it."

"I guess I'm just looking for the right people to give them to," he said. He points to a few that are already spoken for.

"The tractor-trailer there," he said, "I'm giving that to a 4-year-old boy."

A grandson.

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