By Emily Williams
For Ralph Hardwick, nothing sounds less pleasing than spending retirement sitting around and waiting for something to happen.
“I have two suggestions for anyone who is looking to retire,” Hardwick said. “One: Don’t have a mortgage. Have your house completely paid for. Two: Have a hobby.”
Hardwick’s hobby of choice found him 46 years ago, when he was in his late 20s. He and his wife had just been married and were looking to add another room onto their first home. Hardwick chose to do the work himself.
Finding an appreciation for woodworking, Hardwick continued to learn the tricks of the trade. Once his son came along, he began making toys.
“I look back on some of those and wonder what I was thinking,” he laughed.
Working for Southern Natural Gas Company, Hardwick was able to learn more about woodworking through a company organization that supported employee crafts.
Hardwick’s specialty is making models of transportation vehicles. Trains, planes and automobiles, each model is highly detailed and incorporates multiple types of wood.
His preferred wood will always be mahogany.
“Mahogany is just easy to work with and it is absolutely beautiful. You don’t have to stain it or anything, you just put a clear finish on,” he said.
But, seeing as mahogany costs a pretty penny, he is happy to work with just about anything he can get his hands on.
Hardwick said he spends most of his day down in his basement, which has been converted into a woodworking shop.
He normally creates models from plans and patterns, but he’s known to think outside the box when inspiration strikes.
“There is one train that I made that took creating about 3,000 pieces,” he said. “It took about six months of work to complete it.”
Part of the fun of making models, for Hardwick, is having to solve problems.
“For a lot of the smaller pieces, you have to engineer a way to cut it,” he said. One of the best lessons he learned in woodworking was that you may have to craft a wooden jig just to get the right kind of cut on another piece of wood.
After he’d been retired for a while, Hardwick realized his model-making was increasing and he needed to find a way to get rid of finished projects that had begun collecting dust around the house.
A friend suggested he look into selling his pieces at the Assistance League’s nonprofit gift shop, PrimeTime Treasures, which stocks a selection of products made by Alabama senior citizens.
Hardwick said that when he first called the shop, he asked the woman working whether he could sell some of his “toys” there. She quickly told him the store already had about seven people selling toys.
Hardwick didn’t take no for an answer, but took some of his pieces to the Homewood shop, where he was met with acceptance.
“The thing about my models is that they are not for children,” he said. “I do make some toys on occasion that are safe for children, but these are very fragile.”
Around the holidays, Hardwick sees his sales pick up significantly as people look for gifts. Though the holidays are kind to his sales numbers, Hardwick isn’t concerned about profits.
“I probably price things too low. In fact, the ladies at the league tell me I price them too low,” he said. “But if I priced them based on what I put into them, nobody could afford it.”
He added that, though the hobby costs him more than he makes, the pleasure of having a project that keeps him on a schedule and fills up his days is payment enough.
The hobby constantly challenges him, whether he is creating a design he imagined or a design someone requested after seeing his work.
Among the favorite pieces he created on request were models of a W.B. Baker and Sons delivery truck and a tanker that could carry the truck in its bed. He made five of each. The company was once owned by the family of the woman who commissioned the models, and she gave them out as Christmas presents.
Models that Hardwick commissions for himself are among his favorites. A retired colonel in the Army Reserve, he has an appreciation for military vehicles, but he couldn’t find many plans for jets.
“I remember asking someone why that is and he laughed and told me, for one, it’s an exercise in sanding,” he said. An exercise, Hardwick continued, because each wing had to be sanded into shape, and it took an inordinate amount of time to create a smooth curve.
Nevertheless, he has made multiple aircrafts and held on to one of his favorites, a WWII B-17. As with a few other select models, Hardwick liked it too much to give it up.
Woodworkers Guild Provides a Support Community in the
Craft and in Life
When Ralph Hardwick got serious about woodworking in retirement, he found more than just a hobby. He found a community of supportive people when he joined the Alabama Woodworkers Guild.
Hardwick has been a member of the guild for about 30 years. Founded in Shelby County in 1983, the guild serves woodworkers throughout the state, though Hardwick said the majority of members live in the Birmingham area.
The group is open to any woodworking enthusiast, even if they don’t own tools. It offers woodworking seminars, an annual juried show, which was held last week in the basement of the Hoover Library, and a ton of perks.
“One of the perks of being in the guild is that they buy wholesale wood and then sell it to members,” he said. “So, you get to purchase wood at a discounted price.”
The community also shares a wealth of knowledge, most notably regarding safety.
“I always say I must not be a good woodworker, because I still have all of my fingers,” Hardwick joked. He said that is thanks to guild members who share with each other the best and safest tools and ways to use them.
Guild workshops are where Hardwick developed his appreciation for the seemingly arduous task of constructing wooden jigs to guide pieces of wood more safely and precisely as they are being cut. They also are where he learned about table saws that shut off when they make contact with human skin – an expensive purchase, but one that is easily justified when you hear that one of your friends would have lost a fingertip without it.
In addition to helping him learn and grow in his hobby, Hardwick said, the guild offers him opportunities to serve the community.
The guild builds about 10,000 toys each year to donate to Children’s of Alabama, Greater Birmingham Ministries and other organizations that aid sick children. Hardwick has served as chair and co-chair for the project in the past.
“I remember when I was chair and I was trying to set up a goal for the amount of toys. I asked someone at the hospital if they could even use 10,000 toys,” he said. They told Hardwick they could use even 20,000 toys within the year, and the drive resulted in 19,000 toys.
The organization also has a group that builds and installs kitchen and bathroom cabinets for Habitat for Humanity houses.
Among the smaller service projects that have popped up in his time, Hardwick recalls making wooden puzzles for the Alabama School for the Deaf and Blind.
Hardwick said the community he found in the guild and through his hobby is important to him. He’s made friends he wouldn’t have otherwise met, many of whom also are retired and enjoy going out to lunch or running by the guild’s workshop on any given day.
“I don’t care if it’s golf or sewing or tennis,” Hardwick said, “you have got to have something to do when you retire.”
For more information about the Alabama Woodworkers Guild, visit wp.awwg.info.