Joey Seltzer and his Woodturning Art
Joey Seltzer turned what some view as a disability into a gift that has expanded his life and career.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Mark Steelman
For Winnabow entrepreneur Joseph “Joey” Seltzer, woodturning not only helps him turn wood into works of art, it has also transformed his life.
Seltzer, 25, has been turning wood since he was 14 years old. Today, scores of his custom-made wood ink pens can be found in gift stores in Wilmington. His pen variety includes wood and acrylic and even a unique fountain pen made of a .30 caliber machine-gun shell augmented with cocobolo wood. He is “beta testing” carbon-fiber pens as well.
Pens are but one of the products his woodworking business, Custom Creations in Riegelwood, sells to people and merchants in the area. Wine stoppers, letter openers and letter-opening sets, razors, tables and chairs are a few of the pieces Custom Creations produces. Each of their wood-turned creations is intricate and aesthetically pleasing with deliberate lines, curves and textures. And if someone wants something that Custom Creations hasn’t made it yet, not to worry. Seltzer will design it.
Seltzer’s passion and ability for turning wood has been a long time in the making.
His mother, Donna Pothier, noticed his strict attention to detail early on in his life. She says as a small child he spent a great deal of time organizing his Matchbox cars by color, make and model. When one went missing, he knew it.
She recalls his early recognition of the alphabet as young as age 2, his seemingly photographic memory and his giftedness with numbers. Furthermore, the young Seltzer loved to build.
“Anything that had to do with building or creativity I was into,” he says.
LEGOs were integral. As he explains his fascination with construction, his mother tells of how he could replicate large-scale LEGO structures as seen on the box without the accompaniment of written instructions.
At 13, Seltzer was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a developmental disorder affecting socialization and communication skills. Physicians were at first inclined to think Seltzer had Autism Spectrum Disorder, but as his behaviors and other factors were observed, Asperger’s became the evident diagnosis.
On October 14, 2005, Seltzer joined Kids Making It, a woodworking program based in downtown Wilmington. When he first walked in, he had little knowledge of woodworking, but he soon found he loved it.
“It’s relaxing,” he says. “I like all woodworking. It’s extremely therapeutic. I can put all my emotions into a piece of art.”
Seltzer spent several years overcoming social anxieties and shyness. He says he was “very antisocial” as a kid, and even after some time making things as a part of Kids Making It, he remained “the quiet kid.”
“I didn’t have many friends growing up,” he says. “I really didn’t come out of my shell until after high school.”
It took time, but Seltzer slowly transcended his anxieties. He spent time apprenticing and teaching younger students how to turn wood at Kids Making It. “I made new friends and I actually talked to people instead of ignoring them,” he says.
He enrolled in a private high school in Virginia geared to helping students with autism. He delivered a speech at graduation to hundreds of fellow students and onlookers, which was a prime indicator of how far he had come.
“I was a whole different person,” he says.
Seltzer earned his associate’s degree in Business Administration and Certificate in Customer Service at Cape Fear Community College (CFCC). He served as a CFCC Student Ambassador, which helped him overcome shyness even more. He found that he was most relaxed when he talked to people about his woodworking.
And Custom Creations was born.
There is no shortage of imagination in each of the Custom Creations pen designs. Seltzer incorporates such color schemes as cotton-candy pink, galaxy turquoise, lavender and a host of shimmering crystals. Colors, however, do not take priority over wood.
“I like the wood better because it has more character,” he says. “I usually try to go with the flow of the wood.”
A Custom Creations pen might feature one of many domestic or exotic woods, including battleship teak (from the deck material used on the U.S.S. North Carolina), Cape Fear River wood and Bethlehem Olivewood (from the Holy Land). Seltzer made his first pen, “Mom’s Pen,” out of Brazilian cherry at age 14.
Using a series of chisels for rounding and digging, as well as a tool called a bowl gauge for making curves, Seltzer devotes his skills to the “delicate process” of woodturning. Since making pens requires the rounding of wood into circular and cylindrical shapes, he stresses the patience needed for the craft. He and his Custom Creations business partner, Paul Robbs, have many times resorted to what he has dubbed the “hammer of disdain” to destroy misshapen pens.
With a line of art deco pens, a classical series of fountain pens with nautical designs (such as those seen at Manifest Designs) and Lava Brights acrylic pens (they look like a lava lamp), their creations have pleased shop owners.
A little over a year ago, Seltzer’s pens started selling at Occasions…Just Write in Wilmington. He remembers walking in the store about three years ago and showing off his collection. Now he has a display devoted to his pens.
“It’s been a win-win for both of us,” says Peggy Mahan, owner of Occasions…Just Write.
“He’s always been a pleasant man to work with, and he has a lot of supporters in town.”
With the combination of woodturning, education and support from friends and family, Seltzer has defeated obstacles once looming as an effect of Asperger’s Syndrome.
“You don’t use it as a crutch,” he says. “I don’t look at it as a disability but a gift —everyone is good at something.”
Seltzer continues to work with Kids Making It, citing the level of impact founder and owner Jimmy Pierce, as well as his woodworking teacher, Jeffrey Davies, known to the woodworking community as “The Welsh Woodturner,” have had on his life. He volunteers to help younger students at Kids Making It and also helped to inspire a Kids Making It $500 scholarship through CFCC for students in high school and college. He will continue with his craft and hopes to one day provide jobs in Brunswick County with Custom Creations.
“If you love doing something, you do it!” he says.
Find Custom Creations’ Facebook page at facebook.com/015CustomCreations or give them a call at (910) 352-6715.