Tactile Treasures

Jerry Miller’s life has was always about art — teaching, painting and turning scraps of wood into wall hangings — but a chance purchase of some brass hinges moved his woodworking into another dimension.

He didn’t know it at the time, but 

 buying some “beautiful old hinges” at an auction literally moved Jerry Miller’s woodworking into a new dimension. It was one of those serendipitous moments, for Miller and also for future admirers of his Random Simplicity Series. Fans of those wall-mounted works of art, and also his later River Rocks Series, consider them not only a joy to the eye, but also a tempting invitation to touch.  

Unlike some exhibits of painstakingly hand-sanded wood pieces polished to perfection, “Please Don’t Touch” signs are not part of Miller’s displays. When an admirer feels an irresistible urge to reach out and touch one of his creations, Miller considers it a compliment. In the case of the Random Simplicity pieces he actually encourages touching because the panels are movable so the wood designs can be repositioned to make new configurations. 

Once an artist, always an artist

At the time he created his first Random Simplicity piece, Miller was no stranger to creativity. He had earned a bachelor’s degree in art, a master’s degree in art education, and a doctorate in visual arts education. He dedicated his life to teaching art, spending 30 years at Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg, Mo., where he became head of the art department. The 66-year-old woodworker retired from that position in 1999.

Miller’s connection with wood started in a high school shop class but would not become his primary creative medium for many years. “That was the only course I ever had in wood. I went to college and majored in art and really didn’t do anything in wood for a long time,” he said. He worked in oil, mostly painting landscapes. 

In graduate school, Miller took a sculpture class. There he started working in wood and decided he liked it better than painting. But with a full plate of teaching, and eventually administrative responsibilities, leisure time for woodworking was at a premium. 

“I did maybe four pieces a year,” he said. “I did a lot of wall hangings with non-objective design. In a lot of my early work, I just took scraps of wood, sanded them out, and made a design. I didn’t have a lot of equipment to work with, so if I could find scraps that were already cut, I’d work off that. I got better as I moved along,” he said. “As I got better, I got more intense.”

Simplicity by accident

It was in 1979 that those “beautiful old hinges” of brass opened up a new world of conceptual design for Miller. When he bought the hinges while browsing at an auction, Miller said he had no idea what to do with them, but eventually they became an important part of his first Random Simplicity piece.

 “It was kind of a pivotal piece for me,” Miller said. 

Miller crafted the piece out of walnut. He began with walnut-veneer plywood, then fit curved and vertical walnut pieces together on top of it to make a design. The piece was 44" long and 17" tall with a 2" deep walnut frame border. He used the brass hinges to add movement to his creation.

 “That was the first one I did that had movable parts,” he said. “You could change the design by moving things.” He explained that the combinations are infinite. “You can move them end to end, you can move them up and down or you can turn them upside down. I always number the parts, so they can be put back together if somebody really gets them mixed up.” 

In the mid-1980s, Miller took his movable wood art to another extreme when he decided one summer that he wanted to create something for the university.  

With the university’s approval, he created a large movable wood work — 18 spinnable squares of wood, each with its own design, mounted in a metal frame erected along a campus sidewalk. Passers-by are not only able to admire the work, but also to stop and turn each of the wooden squares that Miller crafted from walnut and two kinds of mahogany. 

The university’s physical plant staff helped Miller build the steel frame, and he used the university’s power saws because his own shop saw wouldn’t handle the “heavy cutting.”

At first, school administrators worried about students carving their initials into the wood. “I told them, ‘no they won’t,’ ” said Miller. He proved to be right. In all its years, no one has defaced it. 

 Over the last two decades, the wood has been refinished twice. Two years ago, Miller took the work down and refinished it himself. 

A couple of generations of students have passed the nameless piece each school day. 

“It’s played with quite a bit on campus,” Miller said. “You can turn the pieces so that the design fits together and flows, or you can do every other one. They do all sorts of things with it.”

TWO OF JERRY’S MOVABLE ART WORKS that invite participation are “Random Simplicity #12” (top) and “Shifting Image #5” (bottom).

River Rocks Series

Miller’s River Rocks Series has the same magnetic effect on people as do the Random Simplicity wood pieces. 

Observing the mesmerizing beauty of randomly arranged rocks in a riverbed, Miller got to work on his own rendition which he calls a three-dimensional snapshot of a stream bed. “The River Rock Series doesn’t have moving parts, but I see people wanting to touch them,” Miller said.

To weave that sort of woodworking magic, Miller hunkers down in his basement shop for some multi-tasking, often working on different phases of the project simultaneously. 

“First, I have to make a bunch of rocks,” he said. For one of his larger River Rocks designs, he starts by making at least 50 rocks. “By the time you get them all fit together, you need to have some left over because they don’t all fit just the way they should.”

Creating the realistic look of the stones in his River Rocks Series took some time and trial-and-error learning, Miller said. He first cuts out a rough shape on a bandsaw. Next comes sanding, which Miller has turned into almost an art form itself for all his pieces. For hardwood stones, he uses a disk sander to carefully round out the edges. 

 “If it is a softer wood, I go right to this stage,” he said about his next step. “You can get all kinds of flap sanders. You can use them on a hand drill, but I put them on a drill press.” He begins with a very coarse paper, holding and turning the wood until it reaches the desired roundness. Next he begins a labor intensive process of sanding with finer grits.

 “I go through about five grits of different flap sanders until the last one is a very smooth one,” Miller explained. “After I put a coat of oil on it, I may go back with a fine paper and sand it again by hand.” He uses Watco Danish Oil for finishing, applying several thin coats until the stones retain the luster he wants. 

While he works on the rocks, he also makes the frame that will hold them. During this process, Miller begins mentally figuring how he might arrange the finished rocks. He often wings pre-project planning and design work, depending on his feel for the work at hand. “I work both ways, depending on the detail of the piece,” Miller said. 

Placing the rocks into the frame requires a few steps. 

“You have to start somewhere,” he said about picking a starting place for the first rock. Once that decision is made, Miller holds a rock into place while he drills a hole through the frame back. Next he holds the rock in place again while drilling through the first hole and into the rock. The rock is then fastened with a #6 steel screw or cabinet black screws. Each rock goes through this process. 

His goal in placing the different-sized rocks is to have as little, or none, of the frame underneath the rocks showing. In some of his River Rocks pieces, he has placed a decorative object among the stones — a piece of driftwood, a tiny child’s toy or something else. For these pieces he places the object into the frame first, then works around it.

CUTTING, SANDING AND POLISHING are the primary steps for preparing the rocklike pieces of wood that will go in each River Rocks Series. 

Sales & retirement

Although retirement has given Miller more time, he feels no pressure to set any production goals. All his marketing is done by word of mouth.

He usually puts in a full day of woodworking but, “It’s not like I have to do it,” he said. “I sell some things, but it’s extra income. I’m retired, and I have other things I like to do. I like to drink coffee with my friends in the morning, and I have a yard that needs some work once in a while.” 

Miller’s work sells for between $1,000 and $2,000 for larger pieces, and $200 to $400 for smaller ones. Some of his larger pieces have been purchased by businesses and a church in his area, but most have been bought by individuals. 

Miller’s shop

Miller works in a shop area that is in a walk-out basement convenient for moving lumber and projects in and out. A double door opens into a concrete area underneath an outside deck that is about 10' x 10'.

“I get out there to work on the dirty work,” he said. “When I want to do some cutting, I take my table saw outside.” He also does his sanding outdoors. 

 Miller’s tools include a floor model drill press. “I use it a lot with the flap sanders for making rocks,” he explained. He also has a 14" bandsaw, a 12½" planer, and a vac that he moves around from tool to tool. He uses his router with a table stand to make dovetails for the movable Simplicity panels. 

“I have sanders of all kinds. I also have a bunch of hand chisels and a carver’s mallet, and sometimes I just go to that,” he said, “because I don’t like the power equipment and want a little more control with the hand tools.” A Lancelot attachment and an Arbortech cutting tool are also part of his collection.

Advice for new woodworkers

Patience: “You have to be patient with wood. Now, I don’t have patience with everything. I don’t have patience with computers. But with wood, I have all the patience in the world.” For example, “If you are going to sand wood, you have to go through the grits. You have to start with a coarse grit, then go to a finer and finer grit. If you don’t have the patience to do that — then don’t work with wood.”

Safety: “Maybe it’s just the teacher in me, but I’d tell people that if you are tired, quit working. I still have all my fingers, and I want to keep them. When I get tired, I know I am tired, especially when I’m working with power equipment. I quit because I know there is an accident waiting to happen.”

Woodworking: “I enjoy the wood, I enjoy the woodworking. There is something I find very pleasurable about taking a piece of rough wood, working it out, watching the grain come out. Watching the design come out, then getting it sanded down smooth. It feels great, looks great.”

Miller and his wife Joyce live in Warrensburg, Mo., and have two grown children.

Earl Stresak

Earl Stresak is a Branson, Mo., freelance journalist who specializes in articles on outstanding woodworkers. By day, Stresak is a newspaper reporter who covers local issues and stories. 

Back to blog Back to issue