Lyle Wheeler has fun with being the World Gee Haw Whimmy Diddle Champion, which is determined by the number of times the traditional wooden toy’s propeller can be made to stop and reverse directions in 12 seconds.
Not that the Millers Creek artisan isn’t serious about competing for this world title during the Annual Heritage Weekend at the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Folk Art Center in Asheville. He’s a five-time world whimmy diddle champ.
However, Wheeler now has an even bigger claim to fame.
Last month, one of his hand-crafted ladderback rocking chairs was named overall winner in Our State magazine’s fourth annual Made in NC Awards. It also won the home and garden category.
Judges chose the chair the very best out of about 400 entries in five categories—food, drink, style, craft and home and garden. Entries were judged based on quality (50%), innovation and creativity (25%) and how well they represented North Carolina and used locally-sourced products (25%).
This year’s winners will be officially recognized on Nov. 23 at the Made in NC Awards Celebration at the Mast General Store in Winston-Salem. They’re listed at http://madeinncawards.com.
Wheeler, a fulltime chair-maker for 30 years, crafted his winning rocker out of different types of hardwood from second and third generation lumber mills in Wilkes County and elsewhere in western North Carolina. These are his usual materials.
“We have a great abundance of high quality hardwoods in western North Carolina,” said Wheeler, adding that he only buys straight-grained wood because of its strength and appearance and pays close attention to wood grain orientation when positioning and assembling chair parts.
In this and other ways, Wheeler’s standards for a good rocking chair are a combination of function and form.
Wheeler is careful about how he shapes the curve of a rocking chair’s two runners because this affects the “radius of gyration,” which is how it rocks.
“You don’t want it to feel like the chair is throwing you out…. The radius of the curvature should help it rock smoothly and easily. You also want the curvature of the two arms to facilitate getting out of the chair,” he explained.
“You want the back broad enough so that it catches you just between the shoulder blades and is curved so it contours to your torso. You want the front of the seat to be in the bend in your knees when you sit.”
Wheeler said these and other functional considerations in the rocking chair he submitted to the Made in NC competition are based on average dimensions. When he builds a custom rocking chair, he bases everything on a particular customer’s body configuration.
As for form, the six slats in the back (which account for the “ladder” in ladderback) of the winning rocking chair are made of spalted maple. This is maple wood with eye-catching black wavy patterns, which are stains caused by fungal decay. Spalted maple has been likened to truffles because it’s so hard to find.
The seat is made of woven hickory bark, which are strips of the cambium layer of hickory woven while they’re wet and therefore limber and then tighten up when dry.
The winning chair’s four octagonal posts are made of walnut. Its octagonal rungs (horizontal connectors between the vertical posts), two runners and arms are red oak.
Wheeler follows traditional methods of post and rung construction passed down from Colonial times and specializes in the tools, technique and style of the period 1860-1890.
After Wheeler moved to Wilkes County in 1978, he sought out and learned from old-time chair makers in the Wilkes area like Raymond Reavis and took a chair making course around 1983.
Wheeler is a longtime member of the Southern Highland Craft Guild and said the credibility of this organization has allowed him to be a fulltime craftsman. Among other products, Wheeler has made over 60 great wheel spinning wheels for spinners and fiber enthusiasts.
He does educational demonstrations for the Southern Highland Craft Guild, based at the Folk Art Center. The guild has partnered with the National Park Service for over 50 years and represents over 900 makers in 293 counties of nine southeastern states. It sells members’ work at two Guild-owned stores and sponsors the Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands each July and October.
Wheeler has been teaching chair-making at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Cherokee County for over two decades.
Before Wheeler became a chair-maker, he worked for years as an engineer in industrial microwave technology.
He grew up in rural northeastern Pennsylvania in a family with generations of woodworkers and blacksmiths. He was inspired by a grandfather who was a noted toolmaker to take up blacksmithing, took several blacksmithing classes at the John C. Campbell Folk School and is a blacksmithing instructor there. Wheeler is current president of the North Carolina chapter of the Artist Blacksmith Association of North America.
He was in charge of the juried heritage crafts tent at MerleFest during the first 20 years of the event, has demonstrated his work at the Brushy Mountain Apple Festival since 1983 and has played a prominent role in other demonstrations and exhibits in Wilkes for many years.
He demonstrates at the N.C. State Fair and Moses Cone Mansion near Blowing Rock on the Parkway and is available for other craft shows, festivals and fairs.
Made in NC judges were Morgan Benshoff, retail marketing specialist for the Our State Store; Lisa Cooper, Mast General Store president; Richard Geiger, Visit Winston-Salem president; Jon Carfagno, Hickory Museum of Art executive director; Whit Winslow, N.C. Wine and Grape Council executive director; Jim Noble, Noble Food and Pursuits executive chef and owner; Huston Julian, Alexander Julian and Julian’s CEO; and Christina Spillar, manager of Quintessentials, registry and gift retailer in Raleigh.