When he was in his late 20s, Al Holmes went looking for trouble, literally. A fence contractor from Davie, Holmes found that when hurricanes hit, the work dried up, but there was money to be made in cleanup efforts and also when the National Weather Service paid for photos of hurricanes, tornadoes and other forms of nature's fury.
"I'll tell you what, it was a wild ride for a long time!" said Holmes, who now lives in Sebring, doing woodwork and looking after his elderly mother.
Holmes was never injured, but he "went through a lot of cars." When chasing storms, the hail and debris caused significant damage to vehicles. "You go there and try to follow the storm," said Holmes. The National Weather Services points chasers in the general direction, but after that "you try to kind of figure it out," Holmes said, along with about 100 other chasers trying to do the same thing.
Holmes confirmed that tornadoes do, indeed, sound like a freight train. "It's the loudest thing you'll ever hear," he stated. He's also seen many horrors, the worst of which were scenes of death after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. One sight he'll never forget was the sight of a casino on stilts out on the Gulf that had been picked up and carried a mile down the beach before it hit another building big enough to stop it.
But a year ago, Holmes got tired of the traveling, plus he wanted to be close to his aging mother. Using the money he had saved doing cleanup work, he bought a piece of property in south Sebring and launched Big Al's Custom Wood Works.
Self-taught in woodworking, Holmes makes rocking chairs in King, Queen and double sizes out of pine or cedar; swings; benches; whiskey barrel mini bars with four stools; patio sets and more. He often uses wagon wheels to accentuate his designs, or two colors of wood for a butcher-block aesthetic appeal.
Sometimes Holmes harvests natural wood for projects, too. The process is a long one. He goes into the woods, cuts down the trees for the wood he needs and brings them back to his workshop. Next, the pieces go on the shaving bench where he shaves off the bark, leaving a little of the "parchment" on the wood to give it darker patches with character.
The natural wood pieces have to cure for about three months after being stripped. I have to keep them in the sun during the day and put them up at night so that there is no condensation on them, or mold will form, Holmes said.
Next, the parts go on the lathe. Holmes uses a mortise and tenon joint technique. The mortise is a drilled hole into which the shaped end of another piece of wood (the tenon) fits tightly. The pieces are also glued and secured with metal lag bolts for strength. A urethane coating finishes off the piece.
"I design every bit of furniture myself," said Holmes, whose most popular designs are his wooden rocking chairs, which can be custom-made to fit a person's body type so that it rocks perfectly. He will also personalize pieces with monograms, names, or words like "Grandma" or "Grandpa."
"The first ones I built for myself, and people bought them. So I built some more, and people bought them," Holmes said of the rockers.
Holmes mostly sells his wares at festivals like the Florida Flywheelers and the Avon Park Oktoberfest. Big Al's Custom Wood Works can be reached at 399-0469.