Willard William Hall '73

Crafting lamps of wood
October 1, 2006
Willard William Hall '73

Megan Morr

Billy Hall is an artist, musician, and windsurfer. He has worked as an analytical chemist, carpenter, logger, migrant worker, and enzymologist. Through all his career changes, however, one passion has remained constant: a fascination with wood.

"When I was a kid I was always nailing together something," he says. "I would make these crude wooden boats to float in our pool."

Today, Hall has gone from crude wooden boats to one-of-a-kind wooden lamps that sell for $300 to $5,000. Both the lamp bases and shades are handmade--the bases, using traditional techniques; the shades with a method Hall perfected after years of trial and error.

Each shade is made from a single piece of wood, which he meticulously shaves ever thinner until it's only about a millimeter thick. When the lamp is turned on, the shade glows reddish orange, and knots and other textures jump to life, giving the impression of a pulsing lava flow or swirling gases on Jupiter. Hall calls his lamps "glowing wood sculptures."

After graduating from Duke with a degree in chemistry, Hall worked as a chemist in Research Triangle Park for several years. He saved up enough money and set off on a two-year, cross-country adventure in his van. At a campground out west, he met a man who taught him how to make beautiful little wooden boxes.

When the money ran out, Hall returned to Durham and got a job as an enzymologist at Burroughs Wellcome. In his spare time, he made jewelry boxes out of cedar. He was so successful at selling his boxes that he eventually left his day job to concentrate on woodworking.

One day, while correcting a mistake, he sliced off a potato-chip-thin piece of wood. As it fell, he noticed light coming through it. "I held it up to this spotlight. It was glowing this beautiful red. I thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool to make a lampshade out of wood?' "

Years passed before Hall acted on the idea. "I could never wrap my mind around how to do it." Finally, a middle-of-the-night epiphany inspired him to try turning a piece of wood on a lathe until it was thin enough to see light through. The result? "Disaster. It shrank. Warped. Fell apart. Absolutely refused to get thin enough."

But he didn't give up. He began studying with master wood turners. At the time, he was living in Charlotte, and Hurricane Hugo, which hit the city in 1989, supplied him with plenty of wood to practice on. When he ran out of red oak, he started in on pine.

"The first time I used pine it was ten times better than anything else I'd done because it's more translucent," he says. After two years, he succeeded in making the kind of lampshade he'd been dreaming of for years. Today he can make a lampshade out of any type of wood.

First he creates a rough-turned bowl and dries it in a kiln. Then he puts the bowl on a lathe and perfects and polishes the outside. Finally, he turns off the overhead lights in his studio, shines a spotlight on the outside of the shade, and begins shaving off the inside. "Gradually it starts to glow," he says.

"One of the hardest things to do is make sure your wall is very uniform, because, if it's not, you'll see black lines where it's thicker. It's a matter of mastering these Tai Chi-like movements with really powerful tools."

After fifteen years of making lamps, Hall says he can't imagine ever tiring of it. "There's an infinite number of possibilities for creating new shapes and new effects," he says. "You could spend your entire lifetime and not discover them all."