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Woodworker to the Stars

Woodworker to the Stars
By Bob Filipczak

The folks who work for NASA can be pretty intense. They are focused on the single, shared goal of putting astronauts in space. It's rumored that, back in the 1960s, a person stopped and ask a janitor at NASA what he was doing. "I'm helping to put a man on the moon," was his response.

It's probably no wonder then, that some of this intensity would leak into NASA employees' hobbies. Scott Phillips, who works at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, has the space shuttle on his mind a lot, both at work and in his workshop. Scott's role at NASA is to help build the propulsion systems for our space shuttles. In his workshop, he builds model space shuttles out of wood.

It all started innocently enough, says Scott. He had always done woodworking, ever since he was a kid. When he joined NASA out of college, he would be recruited from time to time to make a plaque for various occasions. He started with pine and moved on to hardwoods, especially walnut. Somewhere along the way, he wondered if he could make a model of the shuttle out of wood.

The first one was pretty crude, Scott admits, but he refined the technique and improved with every one he built. Now, 15 years later, he figures he knows what he's doing. With his first model, he didn't have a lathe, so creating the

STS-93 Crew with a Commemorative Shuttle Model Scott built with woods from around the world. This Model was autographed by the Crew.

tanks and booster rockets was particularly tricky. As time went on, he built a collection of tools, including his current favorite, a Delta 14" band saw.

A few years later, when he was dating his wife, she commented that he had a lot of the shuttle models around his place…25 to be exact. He didn't believe it until they went back and counted them up. There were exactly 25.

So he started giving them away. Over time, he started getting requests for them, to commemorate special occasions, retirements and the like. So, he started getting fancy. The design remained the same, but the woods started getting exotic. "The challenge that keeps me going is certainly not building the model. That's repetition. The thing I really work for is the blending of the various woods together," says Scott.

Each shuttle he builds now includes a blend of 17 different woods. And each one is unique. Each is given a serial number, a signature, and it's own web page. So if you get one of Scott's shuttle models, you can look it up on the web, show your friends and get a complete specification of all the woods included in the project.

Scott uses exotics like cocobolo, ebony, and zebrawood and blends them with local woods like cherry, walnut and osage orange. He glues them up and blends them for each piece of the shuttle. The booster rockets, where each one has to be exactly like the other one, are the toughest.

"I've learned a lot from wood. Wood is a medium that really lets me express myself. I know that people who don't work with wood may not understand that. But each wood to me has a certain sense about it." So the challenge is mixing a wild variety of woods and making them look good together. That's where Scott's craftsmanship becomes art. "I have yet to find any wood that didn't blend well with another wood."

So last week, Scott finished a commission for a shuttle for a NASA guy who was retiring. This retiree was celebrating 40 years with the organization. Do the math. This was someone who started with NASA when NASA was just getting started. So when Scott hands over one of his unique, artistically crafted models, there's a sense of pride that comes with time and experience and love. "The love that it takes to put it together and finish it and then the sacrifice of giving it away," says Scott, "people don't understand that."

Except, of course, maybe woodworkers like you.

(c) 2002, Woodworkers Journal. All Rights Reserved.