Craftsman turns scraps to masterpieces

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jarrod Grammel
  • 23d Wing Public Affairs
Every person who leaves Moody Air Force Base, Ga., will likely receive something handmade by one man and a volunteer in the Moody woodshop.

The man works in a large, open warehouse-like room filled with tools, blocks of wood and half-finished projects, the smell of sawdust and finishing chemicals in the air. As he turns on a large machine, the man picks up a block of wood marked in the shape of Georgia and begins to refine the shape until it's true to life. On the other side of the room lies blueprints and a few cuts of wood that will soon become a massive shadow box.

Juggling often times 10 projects at once, John Fischbach Sr., 23d Force Support Squadron recreation aide, is the sole woodworker at the Moody woodshop.

"I enjoy it," he said. "I love it. A lot of people come back and tell me [the people who received the gift] loved it. When people are happy, I'm happy. I try to do the best job I can."

One look at him and it's not difficult to see that he's someone who works with his hands. By the end of the day, his shirt and pants are often sprinkled with sawdust. He wears a bandana and has a long handlebar mustache that's almost completely white. His hands are rough and full of callouses.

On his left hand is a reminder of the dangers of complacency in his profession: the tip of his index finger is missing from an electric saw accident.

"It's kind of like riding a bike or a horse. You fall off and you get right back to it," he said, rubbing the tip of his shortened finger.

But one accident isn't going to stop him from doing what he loves. In his more than 35 years of experience, he's had other minor accidents like small slices and nicks from electric saws and sanders.

Fischbach said it's hard to pinpoint when his interest in woodworking first began. His brother did some woodworking in high school where they lived just south of Tampa, Fla., and he built the family a kitchen table among other small projects. When the brothers were younger they would build forts and clubhouses.

"I used to go to building sites, where they build houses and take two-by-fours and pieces of two-by-fours, and we used them to make tree forts and things like that," he said. "We used to dig trenches in the ground kind of deep. Then we would get two-by-fours and plywood to lie on top, and then cover with dirt so nobody would know about it."

As he got older he began watching woodworking shows, learning little by little. He said "I'm mostly self taught: just trial and error, mistakes galore."

Then, while on active duty and stationed at K. I. Sawyer Air Force Base, Mich., in the late 1980s, he set up a woodshop in his garage on base housing. It was in this shop he first began making shadow boxes for retiring members charging $25 as long as they supplied him with the flag.

A shadow box is a wooden case with a glass front used to display objects, often times medals, awards and the national flag, and is traditionally presented at the member's retirement ceremony. Although they are used by every U.S. military branch today, shadow boxes have their roots in a navy superstition in which it was unlucky for a retiring sailor's shadow to hit land before the sailor. Sailors would fill the box with whatever knickknacks and small objects they had accumulated throughout their career. This box came to be a shadow of the sailor, so as long as the sailor was carrying the box when he left the ship, he would be spared from bad luck.

Now, shadow boxes have become a standard item, although they've gotten much more complex and well made. In the Moody woodshop, Fischbach has made everything from small shadow boxes to massive and elegantly-shaped boxes.

In addition to shadow boxes, Fischbach makes everything from vintage Moody Field signs, engraved blocks of wood carved into the shape of Georgia, to shot glasses made from bullets used in one of the aircraft stationed at Moody. But he doesn't just stick to a small list of standard items. He will try to build almost anything if somebody asks for it.

Rose Meyer, 23d FSS picture framer and engraver, works hand in hand with Fischbach on a regular basis. When a customer comes in with an idea, she works with Fischbach to design and plan the project. She then uses a computer program to create a model. When the plans are complete, Fischbach cuts out the wood and prepares it for Meyer to engrave. The final step is for Fischbach to add the finishing touches by staining or finishing the wood.

"I haven't ever heard of anybody coming in here with an idea of something he couldn't do," said Meyer. "I know people brought in things that he thought would be difficult, but I've never heard him tell someone that he couldn't do it. He will always make a good effort to make what the customer wants."

Even though customers sometimes come in with complicated and elaborate ideas, with unrealistic timelines, Fischbach said he enjoys working on the complex projects.

"People come in with certain things they want, and trying to design them so it will be feasible and look good [is a challenge]," he said. "But that's the thing I like about it. I get to use my noodle. ... That's what's challenging, and I love it."

For Fischbach, working in the Moody woodshop isn't just a hobby or a job for money. In addition to working full time there, he also has his own shop at his house where he builds everything from toys for his grandchildren to furniture for family members and friends.

"I know he does a lot of woodworking outside of the job that he does to help other people," said Meyer. "Like recently, he's been redoing a bunch of screens and windows for someone for an old house they're restoring. I think he just does that, not necessarily for money but just to help people out. He's a real nice guy."

Fischbach said he also helps out children and parents with various projects for youth organizations like cutting wood for Boy Scout's Pinewood Derby Cars.

The skilled woodworker's helpful attitude and friendliness can be overshadowed by his quiet, yet polite demeanor at first.

"He's great to work with," said Meyer. "He's taught me a lot about woodworking since I've started working with him. You couldn't ask for a nicer guy. He's always willing to help out.

"I think he tends to be kind of quiet until you get to know him well, then he's a jokester," she added. "He always has us laughing over here."

Although, Meyer has known Fischbach for about four years, he hasn't been working in the woodshop continuously since he first began there in 2006.

After being cut from the woodshop, he started working full time in a department store, until shortly after that he was offed a job on the base again.

Then in 2011 he decided it would be best for his health and happiness to leave the department store and take up full-time hours at the base, working at multiple locations like the auto-hobby shop and plaque shop. In 2013, when the previous head of the woodshop left, he took over.

Now he runs the woodshop, only with the help of his wife Gail who volunteers there. She can often be seen smoothing the edges of shadow boxes or adding finish to any one of the many projects they work on there.

Fischbach also holds safety classes the first Saturday of every month to teach people how to use the equipment safely and properly. He said once someone attends the safety class they are free to come in and use the equipment to build whatever they would like. If anybody needs any assistance or has questions, he said he's there to help.

For now he continues to perform his craft and help those who want to learn woodworking. After 35 years, half a finger and thousands of projects, he has no plans to stop doing what he loves.