Local designer creates one-of-a-kind spiral art
By Susie Ouderkirk
Las Cruces Bulletin
“For everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season, turn, turn, turn.”
The Byrd’s hit from 1962, written by Pete Seeger and pulled directly from the Bible, could be the soundtrack to Sidney Williamson’s life. The former diesel mechanic, design engineer and plant manager spends a lot of hours turning wood, and what he creates is heavenly.
Williamson and his wife of 29 years, Mary, own a very unique company called Spirals by Design, which creates handmade, one-of-a-kind spiral columns, corbels, beams and arches, as well as engravings. He even designed and built the machine he uses for the turning process.
“In 1999, I designed and built a small hand crank machine that included a plunge-router, some gears, a chain and a gearbox,” Williamson said. “I basically built a hand crank, slow r.p.m wood lathe that used a router to cut the wood instead of different shaped chisels.” As he turned the crank on the machine, the wood would turn and the router would slowly move down a rail to the far end of the machine, “nibbling wood as it moved.”
When the router got to the far end, Williamson would stop cranking, raise the router and reverse it to return to the starting position. “I would lower the router slightly lower than the first cut and start cranking again,” he said, and he’d continue the process over and over until the wood was the desired diameter. The machine could cut wood up to about 28” long and up to 6’ in diameter, and by changing gears on the machine, he could change the grooves and cut all the way through the wood. The results looked like wooden springs.
“I called these spring-looking wood spirals ‘hollow spirals.’ I still have the first one I made with the hand crank machine,” he said. Over the next few months Williamson dabbled with his hand crank machine, making plant stands, balusters, wood chains and candlesticks that he gifted to friends and family. But the unusually beautiful and unique spirals were destined for mainstream popularity. A local lumber company approached him to cut a couple of eight-foot hollow wood spirals for a builder to use in the front entrance of a new home. He took on the project, “as more of a quest” rather than as a money-maker, to see if he could create larger spirals.
With a determined fire, Williamson cleaned out his garage to make more space, bought a longer steel I-beam and lengthened the original hand crank. After some drilling, welding and assembly, the machine was ready. Hour after hour, Williamson cranked the machine back and forth, slightly lowering the router with each pass. After about 10 hours, “I was covered in sawdust; I was exhausted, my arms were sore, my back and legs hurt,” but the column was finished (except for the sanding, which alone took an additional two hours.) “Needless to say, the second ‘hollow spiral’ was even less fun than cutting the first column,” he said. Upon delivery of the two hard-gotten spirals, the customer asked for two more for the fireplace. Williamson reluctantly agreed. His fireplace spirals were so well received the homeowner wanted three more for the bar countertop and even more for the entrance area. By this time, Williamson should have been enjoying the rich spoils of his hard work. But alas, “I probably made about $1 per hour on that first job,” he said.
But the spirals seemed to be calling to him, and he knew if he wanted to continue to make them, he would need to automate the process “for my own health.”
Over the next eight months, Williamson put his engineering background to good use (he currently holds four patents on mechanical and electronic bathroom scales) and designed a fully automatic, computer- controlled “Spiral Machine,” which is seven feet wide, 15 feet long and about seven feet tall. It can hold up to six routers at a time and weighs approximately 2000 lbs. He can put a table on top of the machine and cut flat designs and shapes and engravings. In November 2001, Williamson and his wife rented a forklift and moved the machine out of the garage and into a 5,000-square-foot shop and started their business, Spirals by Design, LLC.
After 15 years of running the machine, the only improvement he has made is upgrading the routers from 3.25 horsepower to 5 horsepower.
Williamson uses many tools of the common word worker, including a large band saw and a thickness plane, but he’s made several tools from scratch that allow him to do what other woodworkers can’t. He also works with metal, mostly to fabricate his own equipment, and he made the spiral wood molds used to cast the cement spirals around the old Downtown mall area.
For most of his spirals, Williamson prefers Western Cedar, which lasts longer and cracks less than fir or pine here in the southwest. The work he creates for indoor design can be stained or finished with any type of woodworking product, but outdoor wood should be treated with some sort of water sealer every few years rather than a clear finish due to the strong ultraviolet rays, he said.
Williamson’s work speaks for itself with its elegance and striking beauty. The cost of his spirals depends on the amount of time involved. To cut a typical 8 inch column runs from $80 to $200, and the cost to cut a standard corbel is from $12 to $18.
Sid and Mary Williamson want each customer’s experience to be “easy, fun and gratifying,” the Spirals By Design brochure says. “We hope to inspire your imagination.” See more of the unique work at the website:. The shop is located at 1212 S. Espanola St. and the Williamsons can be reached at 496-5831 or by email at spiralsbydesign@ gmail.com.