A paradox of passions: Despite failing vision, Buck Wilson handcrafts wood furniture
March 19, 2017
In the past, he sold sophisticated equipment he had not yet invented.
Today, he handcrafts intricate furniture pieces although he's nearly blind.
He made millions, and now works for free.
Such is the paradoxical life of Robert "Buck" Wilson.
In 1969, Wilson launched Automation Electronics Corp. in Oakland. The firm manufactured automatic call sequencers — think, "Your call is important to us. Please stay on the line and your call will be answered in the order it was received."
"We were named one of the top 500 fastest-growing companies by Inc. Magazine three years in a row," Wilson recalled.
He hadn't even created a prototype when he sold the first machine.
The sale was to an obstetrician/gynecologist with five incoming lines and one nurse to answer all five, plus she had to help the doctor with patients.
"The doctor said the phones just kept ringing," remembered Wilson. "I said I think I have a solution that would put calls on hold, deliver an announcement, and indicate the oldest call. I was dreaming it up as I stood there!"
Wilson said he'd charge the doctor $1,500, and the doctor said he wanted to try out the machine — the machine that hadn't been invented yet.
"I went back to my office and spoke with my engineer. We developed the unit and built it," continued Wilson. "I delivered it in two weeks and the doctor loved it."
That invention became the standard for businesses with large volumes of incoming calls, such as airlines and 911 centers.
"We also put one in the White House," added Wilson.
At the height of its success, AEC had gross annual sales of $20 million.
Wilson's passion in those days was three-fold. He loved his wife, work and golf. He played golf in 28 states and 14 different countries.
"I often played nine holes before I went to work in the morning," he said.
Wilson retired in 1990. He and his wife moved to Nevada County to be near his daughter and son-in-law. He was widowed in 2009.
"Colleen and I were married 56 years. I still love her," said Wilson, who continues to wear his wedding ring. "I needed a secretary, so I told her, 'If you'll come to work with me, I'll take you out to breakfast every day for the rest of your life.' And that's what I did."
With no prior experience and no help save the advice of a brother-in-law, Wilson built his first piece of furniture in 2004 at the behest of his daughter.
"My daughter Gail came over one day and said she'd seen a table at Lake Tahoe that she really liked. They wanted $10,000 for it. I said, 'Let's take some pictures of it. We'll buy a lathe and we'll make that table,'" recalled Wilson.
At 11 feet long and 42 inches wide, the impressive table seats 15 people.
"That worked out pretty well. Then Gail said, 'We also need a round table' so I made that one," continued Wilson. "It's 67 inches in diameter, with an 11-inch diameter pedestal that I turned on the lathe."
After that, Wilson's creations were limited only by his imagination… and the imaginations of others who made special requests. Friends have asked him to create everything from cane lingerie chests to jewelry armoires to ranch tables. He customized every closet in the family home with shelves, drawers, hanging rods, and other accessories. He also built a massive entertainment center that spans one wall of the house. All of Wilson's 10 grandchildren receive specially-designed bedroom sets when they marry. All told, he's handcrafted nearly 100 items. He also creates decorative cutting boards with excess wood.
"I don't make any money at all. I only charge for the materials. It's my way of giving back to people and making people happy," he explained. "A contractor asked me to make the cabinets for houses he's building, but I said 'no.' I don't want to build things for other people for profit."
LABOR OF LOVE
When anyone asks Wilson to build furniture or another creation, he asks three simple questions: what kind of wood do you want, what size do you want it, and when do you want me to start?
"The pieces I make are nicer than anything you can buy at stores today. Those are made of particle board or veneer. Mine are sturdy and built to last," said Wilson, who prefers working with mahogany or cherry wood. "I put my things together with glue and pocket screws, then add plugs to cover the screws. Pocket screw assembly is a patented technique where you drill a hole on an angle and pull the pieces tight."
When he lost his wife and his eyesight began to fail due to macular degeneration, Wilson moved in with his daughter and son-in-law. His 600-square foot workshop adjoins their south county home. The shop houses a wood-turning lathe, band saw, table saw with a built-in router, planer, joiner, cut-off saw, belt sander, hand router, and various other hand tools.
"I also have a compressor so I can spray finish all my jobs," Wilson said proudly.
Wilson said he's glad he's found such a rewarding hobby.
"I used to play golf every day. Now that I'm nearly blind, I had to have something else to do," he explained. "When I have a project, I go work in my shop. Otherwise, I sit around and watch TV and that's not productive."
With his daughter and son-in-law's help, Wilson ensures every piece is perfect.
"Because of my bad eyesight, I have them come out to the shop and inspect my work. If they find a flaw, it upsets me because I didn't see it. If I can't fix it, I'd have to start over. But that hasn't happened yet," he smiled.
Wilson spends six to seven hours working in his shop each day. He said he'll keep hand-crafting one-of-a-kind pieces and making others happy.
"I enjoy it when people come to pick up their stuff and I see they like it and it's what they wanted," said Wilson, who will be 90 in September. "I don't know how much time I have left. As long as I can do the work, I'll continue."
Lorraine Jewett is a freelance writer who lives in Nevada County. To suggest a business news feature story, contact her at LorraineJewettWrites@gmail.com.
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