As a young child, Jim O’Dell, MD, spent hours with his grandfather in his basement, making bird houses and bird feeders.
“My grandfather, who was a woodworker, was one of the most influential people in my life,” Dr. O’Dell says. “He probably cringed at the crude things I made, but he certainly never let me know it.”
No one, however, is cringing now. Dr. O’Dell, Stokes Shackleford Professor and vice chair in the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) Department of Internal Medicine, and chief of the UNMC Division of Rheumatology, Omaha, has been perfecting his woodworking skills since those early days. More than likely, he’ll retire from his distinguished medical career long before he pounds his last nail into a piece of wood.
“Many of the woodworking projects I’ve done will be around for a long time and appreciated long after I’m gone,” Dr. O’Dell says. “Woodworking gives me a connection to my grandfather, fills a need I have to make things with my hands that have permanence and is a way of letting other people know that they’re important in my life.”
Rocking Chairs to Shoe Racks
Even while in medical school, Dr. O’Dell built practical items, including bookshelves for his college dorm room. But it wasn’t until 1979, after he and his wife started their family, that he truly returned to woodworking.
“I began building rocking horses, miniature kitchens, bear chairs, wooden trains and cribs for dolls,” says Dr. O’Dell. “Woodworking is all about having the right tools.” At the time, he had a limited number of tools and typically made his children’s gifts out of cheap lumber, such as pine. “In some ways, those gifts were more special because I had to create them without a lot of fancy tools or expensive wood,” he continues.
Now armed with an assortment of sanders, table saws and drills—he believes woodworkers can never have enough tools—his skills and projects have advanced. He built a deck for his home, a clubhouse in the rafters of his garage with his son and a 200-square-foot workshop that’s attached to his garage.
On a smaller scale, he builds cedar chests and collapsible TV tables made out of oak or walnut for wedding presents. The list of what he builds seems endless: puzzles, jewelry boxes, bookends, deck furniture, doves, Christmas ornaments, hexagon-shaped tables for his son’s board game café, and T-stands and shoe racks, also made from wrought iron, for his daughters’ clothing boutiques.
While serving as ACR president between 2011 and 2012, he made more than 40 cutting and cheese boards for his executive committee and key ACR staff as thank you gifts. Now it’s become an annual tradition to make them for his chief residents and departing fellows. But he no longer uses soft pine. He works with expensive, exotic woods, including bloodwood, zebrawood, African padauk, wenge, cocobolo and purpleheart.
“My time is a lot more valuable now,” Dr. O’Dell explains, “so if I’m going to make something, I will make it out of really high-quality and interesting wood.”