Billy Cox spends most of his afternoons forming a block of wood into something useful.
Each tool, whether it’s a knife, straight-blade or gouge, has a certain place in a chest sitting to his left. The soft drone of country music mixes with the fresh smell of cedar and fills the air on Shelby Street near the floodwall where Billy lives.
The 71-year-old took up carving and whittling after he lost his vision about 30 years ago while working for the Frankfort Plant Board as a repairman.
An electrical malfunction at the utility caused concentrated lye to partially freeze in a pipe at the water plant in 1979, and Billy and Donnie Moore, a co-worker, were called to make repairs.
“Donnie and I were going to drill a little hole in this plastic pipe to run a fish tape down to try and unstop it,” Billy recalled. “That’s when the thing sprung loose and threw the caustic soda in our face.”
Billy was blinded, and Moore, who has since passed away, lost about 20 percent of his vision.
Billy had to endure a number of eye surgeries and examinations over the next year. With nothing to do, he sat on his back porch with a pocketknife and a block of cedar and began whittling it away to nothing.
Before the accident, Billy never considered whittling as a hobby.
“It never entered my mind,” he said. “I was too busy trying to take care of my family and make a living. I didn’t have the time.”
It took a couple years before he actually set out to complete his first project – a spoon.
“I wanted something simple, and the spoon was the simplest thing I could think of.”
He didn’t keep his first spoon, which took him about 20 hours to make. His aunt received it at a family reunion, and her children still have it.
Billy didn’t keep the second spoon he made either. That one went to his daughter-in-law.
“Well, really, it takes about 20 or 30 of whatever I make to go through the family before there’s any stockpile or backup of anything.”
Billy’s spoons have gradually gotten better. He says he can whittle a spoon in a few hours now.
The spoons he makes today are still crude – by his own admission – but “three to four hundred percent better” than the first several he made with his pocketknife.
Billy’s wooden utensils have gotten better as his skills improve. He taught himself how to whittle and how to feel the creation rather than see it.
Another factor is his ever-growing toolset. The little pocketknife was good for the first spoons, but Billy needed the proper whittling tools.
“We went to Shakertown, and all these little craft shows and talked to the people who were there making things, and they’d tell me about how this tool would do this, and that tool would do that,” Billy says. “A gouge would help me gouge the bowl out of the spoon, the better knives, how to keep them sharper. That sort of thing.”
He started ordering tools from a catalog and shopping at specialty regional stores. Billy now has a shaving horse to keep his block of wood in place; a plethora of knives, gouges and chisels; and a $400 sharpener in his basement.
“It has about seven, eight, 10 wheels on it and does different grades of sharpening.”
Each tool has its place in Billy’s tool chest. He always puts a tool within an inch of where he picked it up.
The new tools also helped Billy expand his creations. While still whittling spoons, he began trying his hand at dough bowls, rolling pins and cutting boards.
The bowls require either linden or buckeye wood for their sturdiness. Billy visits a Mennonite family in Casey County to get the special woods for his bowls.
For the cedar, he goes to local sawmills and buys about 100 board feet at a time.
While Billy’s developed his ability to work blindly, he can’t avoid slips and nicks.
“You know, sighted people get cut, but after you use (a tool) so long, you know where the tool is. The dangerous thing of it is when the wood does something you don’t expect it to, like cut out. Your tool will cut out and if you don’t have control of it, you’ll more than likely get cut.”
He can’t estimate how many times he’s cut himself. Accidents still happen frequently enough that he uses duct tape instead of Band Aids.
“Even in my little traveling bag I carry a roll of duct tape.”
Billy sells his woodcrafts at Shakertown and festivals around the area. His most expensive product – a large bowl – can fetch up to $70 depending on the wood he uses.
“Now I have started getting into walnut and sassafras, catalpa, and those things. They’re harder to get a hold of, so they’re worth a little more.”
Each creation is branded with Billy’s signature.
“I think I wrote my name 50 or 75 times before it got to where it was legible,” Billy says.
Pauline, his wife of nearly 52 years, brands each one.
Life at home for Billy is relatively easy, he says. Pauline doesn’t require much of him, but he helps in whatever ways he can.
“She just lets me whittle or basically whatever I want to do,” Billy says. “I do try to help her with the heavier things. I do peel quite a few potatoes.”
Whittling for Billy is therapeutic. When it’s nice outside, he sits on his back porch for hours at a time. During the winter or rainy days, he whittles in an average-sized room in his basement.
No matter the weather, Billy has music on the radio. He listens to country and “long-haired” music, but wishes a jazz station would come to town.
“I’d like to get a station that handles the Henry Mancini-type music or something like that, but whenever I can get it on the radio, there’s so much static or it’s so far away, I can only get it every now and then.
“Of course the radio, to me, is like television to sighted people.”
Billy spends some time at the senior center with others who create more intricate carvings.
He’ll stick with the spoon – he’s made thousands in his lifetime.
“Now those fellas, they carve animals, birds … they carve all the time, yet I do the spoon day after day, week after week, year after year, and I’m still not tired of it.”
“Frankfort Faces” is a series that highlights people from within the Frankfort and Franklin County community. Each feature follows one of the city’s most unique personalities and includes a story, photos and video, which can be found by clicking the TV icon attached to the story online at state-journal.com.