Matt Wilkinson makes life-size, fully functional carvings of hand tools.
Matt Wilkinson’s artistic career started with an 18-inch Rigid pipe wrench.
It was 30 years ago. He had just gotten a job with the gas company and spent his days with a field crew, digging ditches to install or repair gas lines. One day, his eyes fell on that wrench, one of the tools of his trade. “I thought, I could probably make that,” Wilkinson says.
So he did. With a pocketknife in one hand and a chunk of walnut in the other, he fashioned a full-scale, fully functional replica of the tool. He took it to the state fair, entered it in the fine arts and crafts competition, and took home first place in his division.
Wilkinson realized the possibilities for his newfound medium were endless and set about making more wooden tools. Working from his garage workshop at his home in Ashford, in Boone County, he has made wrenches of various sizes and designs, a caulking gun, channel locks, chains, drills, planes, pliers, pocket knives, saws, screwdrivers, squares, and more, all produced with the same painstaking accuracy.
His wrenches appear to be embossed with brand names and numbers, but he creates these details with tiny screwdrivers he has sharpened into chisels. His hacksaw blades have fine, sharp teeth—the result of hours of meticulous work with a tiny file. Lay one of Wilkinson’s carvings side-by-side with the original, and it’s only the wood grain that gives the imposter away. The copies are so accurate, he can replace any of the pieces from the original tools with his carved copies.
But to truly appreciate Wilkinson’s work, one must see it in action. Crank the handle on his butternut bottle jack, and the jack begins to rise. That’s thanks to the handmade wooden valve hidden inside, which fills the chamber with mineral oil.
For years, Wilkinson mostly shared his work with family and friends. At their urging, he submitted his work to Tamarack in 2016. The jury accepted his work into its collection. Then, in July 2017, Wilkinson submitted a carving of a Stihl chainsaw—complete with a lifelike chain, ripcord, and removable part covers—to Tamarack’s Best of West Virginia Open Juried Exhibition. The piece won the competition’s People’s Choice Award. After that, Tamarack gave Wilkinson a permanent display.
He spent the winter completing a piece for this July’s Best of West Virginia exhibition, his biggest carving yet—a jackhammer, crafted from holly, walnut, and butternut, propped up in a base made from a crosscut cedar stump. But he has already moved on to his next project, a re-creation of an antique hand drill. “It is complicated, but that’s what I enjoy about it,” he says. “The more complicated, the better.”