Ismon Callicutt says his best teachers have been his own mistakes and those of others.
This week he was at New Garden Friends Meeting correcting a mistake of a few years ago when he worked on the new sanctuary. He was back replacing two flawed outside doors made of poplar.``Poplar isn't as good in the weather,' he explains. ``It just swells.'
He's got on his khaki Dickies work clothes and his soiled cap. His hammer hangs from a leather holster. His folding tape measure sticks out of his right back pocket. His plane, a 1929 model, sits on the grass beside a new door he's just fashioned out of mahogany.
Callicutt's been doing carpentry for 67 years, starting at 13 when he helped his uncle with woodwork on a farm near the Montgomery County town of Star. He learned by watching, doing and redoing.
Now 79, Callicutt is hard of hearing but still has a keen eye, steady hands and a fierce desire to complete not just a good piece of carpentry work, but a perfect piece.
To call Callicutt a carpenter really doesn't do him justice.
``The word we use is craftsman,' says Mike Keeling, who works with Callicutt and is one of his biggest admirers.
Callicutt has added decorative touches to houses and buildings all over the Piedmont, and he's just completed what may be his masterpiece.
The addition to the Greensboro Historical Museum opened to rave reviews this month. Museum visitors have marveled at the elaborate trim and mill work in the reception center and the warm, inviting mahogany walls and matching trim in the auditorium.
Callicutt did the work, with an able assist from Keeling.
Officially, Callicutt's retired, but there just aren't many people around who can do decorative woodwork. So his old employer, Hodgin Construction Co., keeps calling him back.
``He's just that good,' company president Rick Hodgin declares. ``He takes great pride in his work, and he's also a real gentleman.'
The woodworker astonishes visitors to construction sites because they don't expect to see an elderly person doing such hard labor - and doing it with such relish.
That was apparent Wednesday at New Garden Friends, which is next door to the Friends Home retirement complex, many of whose residents are younger than Callicutt. The new door that Callicutt and Keeling had in place looked perfect. Callicutt, though, wasn't satisfied. He kept whipping out his ruler and measuring and remeasuring.
Finally, he said: ``Going to have to take about three-eighths out of it, Mike.'
He helped Keeling lift the heavy door back to the ground. Callicutt then started shaving the edge with the plane that he purchased 61 years ago for less than $10. He stopped briefly to hurry off to his 1967 Ford van to fetch an electric-powered plane.
Callicutt then alternated shaving the door's edge with the more modern plane and the old one. He bent over often to examine the length of the door with his bare eye, looking for unevenness.
``He's so particular,' Keeling said. ``It's either going to be perfect or it's not going to be put up, and that's the truth.'
Hodgin Construction teamed Keeling, now 40, with Callicutt seven years ago. Keeling thought he knew something about carpentry until he met Callicutt.
``He's the best I've known,' he says. ``It is unbelievable what I have learned. I don't believe I could have learned it any other way.'
Callicutt came to Greensboro in the 1930s with a lumber company that relocated here from Star. He and his wife, Edna, live in the home they built themselves in Pleasant Garden, where Callicutt also did the trim work on Pleasant Garden United Methodist Church.
Some of Callicutt's tools look older than him. On the museum job, a collector happened by and saw ancient chisels and saws in Callicutt's van. He wanted to buy them. Callicutt wouldn't part with them.
Callicutt does own power tools, but even those are nearly antiques. His electric saw is a '64 Black and Decker.
He worries that decorative carpenters are disappearing because so much of today's carpentry work is pre-fabricated. And there's another problem.
``Wood is not as good as it used to be,' he says. ``It's all so young. It's hybrid timber. It grows so fast.'
His favorite wood is mahogany, which he used abundantly at the museum. It was a tough job doing those auditorium walls. When the architect and museum officials came for the final inspection, Callicutt and Keeling watched nervously. Flaws would have to be corrected.
The inspection team looked and looked. Finally, the architect said, ``Sweep the floor,' and gave them a pat on the back.
The job was perfect.
After completing the mahogany doors at New Garden Friends, Callicutt is going to Forest Oaks Country Club to work on another kind of wood - persimmon. That's what golf woods are made of.
``I'm going to play a couple of games of golf,' he says. ``It has been so hot lately I haven't been able to play.'