Former Insurance Exec Took a Risk on a Magical Method

A vessel unto himself
Joel Hunnicutt can make wood that looks like glass. Photo by Matt Rose

Alchemy was the medieval “science” that sought the transmutation of base metals into gold. In his own way, Joel Hunnicutt appears to turn wood into glass. There might not be an official term for that — other than amazing.

Twenty years ago, Hunnicutt was living in Siler City, North Carolina, where he was a partner in a small insurance agency. After he and his wife purchased a century-old house, he bought some books and tools with the idea of making repairs and perhaps building some bookshelves. Then he signed up for a furniture-making class in a nearby community college. What happened next changed his life.

“It was so fascinating to see this hunk of wood spinning on the lathe and changing shape right in front of me,” says Hunnicutt. “The immediacy of the feedback really suited my temperament. I was getting results right away.” He promptly bought his own lathe and proceeded to spend every night and most weekends working in his shop.

Basically self taught through books and online forums, Hunnicutt soon discovered he was more drawn to constructed work than simply wood turning. In constructed work, several pieces of wood are glued together before the work is put on the lathe. Hunnicutt says in one of his 20-inch-tall pieces, for example, there might be as many as 250 portions of wood, each cut to the nearest 1/16th of an inch.

The effect of a maverick lacquering process “is much like in the theater where a gel is put over a light to turn the whole stage red,” says Hunnicutt.

Many of his designs are inspired by those found in ancient pottery. “There have been fantastic vessel forms produced for thousands of years … in Greek, Egyptian, Persian, and Chinese cultures, just to name a few,” says Hunnicutt. He studies these, looking for new shapes. “When I see a form that I respond to, I design a new piece with the lines of the ancient piece in mind,” he explains. “I have to couple this with the physical realities of the material I’m working with, and then start thinking about negative space and color and how those elements will alter the original design.”

Even though he learned all these skills on his own, he knew there were countless other wood turners constructing similar works from multiple pieces of wood. To thrive, he needed to be unique, so he began experimenting by alternating coats of lacquer with coats of color. “The effect,” he says, “is much like in the theater where a gel is put over a light to turn the whole stage red.” When finished, the vessels appear to have the luminosity of glass.

“I was becoming more and more interested in the wood shop and less interested in insurance,” he says. But with an insurance man’s foresight, he managed to sculpt a niche in a riskily saturated market. It wasn’t long before he was selling his works — and, not long after that, enthusiastic gallery representation allowed him to go full time. “My partner in the agency wanted to make some changes,” he says. “It was a good time to make the leap.”

Joel Hunnicutt, Ariel Contemporary Craft Gallery, 19 Biltmore Ave., Asheville. For more information, call 828-236-1660 or see

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