The Times West Virginian

March 7, 2012

Holding a memory

By Debra Minor Wilson
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — It isn’t often you can hold a memory in your hands.

But Jon “Tom” Merrifield can.

One of his most cherished memories of growing up in Barrackville is seeing and hearing all the trains that passed through the small town on their ways to and from the coal mines.

To bring those days back, he can listen for the trains passing through in nearby Colfax. Or he can pick up the sleek black engine he created from wood.

He got interested in woodworking when his son took shop in high school back in the 1990s.

“I had no background in it or anything,” he said. “I’ve had no training. Everything I’ve done, I trained myself. I like to do this. If I can’t figure something out, I’ll make five or six mistakes until I get it right.”

But of all his creations, the black Barrackville No. 7 steam engine is his favorite.

“I have fond memories. Growing up in Barrackville, it’s all you heard of. I laid into it one time and started making it.”

It took him about six months, working off and on, to turn the “square block of wood” to the finished No. 7 engine. Many of the parts are tiny and the work was intricate and time-consuming.

“This train was the most challenging I’ve done yet. It was just a big square chunk of wood when I started. I had no idea how I was going to get through it. But I just worked on it.”

And it was tough work. Because the tank is tapered, he had to figure out how to attach the piston rings to it.

“I had to cut them, break them, put them back on and then glue them,” he said. “I couldn’t just slip them on.”

The Barrackville native was transferred to Ohio with Southern Ohio Coal Co. and returned home after he retired. He and his wife Regina built a workshop onto their Deerfield home.

“That’s when I really started doing things,” he said. He builds rocking horses, decoys, chests, jewelry boxes, even ink pens.

“I bought bigger equipment and started making bigger things ... cabinets, chairs ... and kept adding to my inventory.”

He doesn’t sell his creations. He doesn’t even give them away, except within the family.

He has all the equipment he needs to turn a block of wood into an intricate classic car or steam engine or working guitar.

The first car he completed — a 1937 Cadillac — is also his favorite automobile, he said.

“It’s the sportiest. I improvised,” he said. “See the tail lights? They’re golf tees.”

He likes making keepsakes for his children and grandchildren. He also makes decoys for Regina, who also collects crocks.

He’s also made a Lincoln touring car, a Chevy truck, a Sinclair tanker truck, a Ford roadster, Ford truck, and Model A and T Fords.

He rarely paints his creations.

“I like to leave the wood. See how pretty the grain is?” he asked, pointing to a multi-tone car made of cherry, oak and mahogany.

He got some mahogany for free from a local lumberyard, he said.

“It has to be perfect. If the grain is off just a little bit, they discard it. So this was discarded. I was looking at a gold mine and the guy gave it to me.”

He’s got it all ... smaller lathe, larger lathe, bandsaw, router, sanders, buffers. He can make just about anything.

His next project is a working construction crane. He’s started making the cleats for the track.

Each link in the cleats has five cut sides, he said.

“And I have to make two tracks,” he said with a rueful laugh.

“I like the feeling of getting something done. The challenge. I’ve made lots of mistakes, believe me. But you just start over. That’s how you learn.”

He makes pens from wood or even antlers, and will give those away as keepsakes.

He can play classic rock but is learning to play classic Spanish guitar (not on the one he built, though).

“I don’t think there’s anything today to compare with these cars today,” he said of the vintage autos. “They’re sleek. They’re classic.”

So he’s probably cut himself once or twice.

“Oh, yeah,” he said quickly and with a laugh. “I’ve had some close calls.”

But nothing as close to the time when he still lived in Ohio.

“The saw threw a piece of wood out. It went through the storm door, the kitchen, living room, down the steps and got embedded in the drywall.

“If I’d have been standing behind the wood, it would have gone through my stomach. I’ve been hit before, but not by anything with that velocity.

“The most fun part is going in your mind how you’re gonna do it. I don’t get too far ahead of myself. I stay with what I’m working on. If I get ahead of myself, I just mess up.”

Email Debra Minor Wilson at dwilson@timeswv.com.