Priceonomics

Via David Roy; Wood That Works

David Roy’s kinetic wood sculptures are a symphony of movement.

Set into motion by a few cranks of a knob, intricate orbs spin, twist, and bob to create trance-inducing patterns. Constructed only from birch plywood, a few springs, and a pulley, the sculptures run continuously, on nothing more than kinetic energy, for 8 to 16 hours. No motors, batteries, or electronic components are enlisted: these babies are au naturel.

But the man who made them didn’t always consider himself an artist. A one-time physics major and mainframe programmer, David abandoned the sciences, threw practicality to the wind, and instead, started his own company, “Wood That Works.” Today, from a small Ashford, Connecticut wood shop, he sells his wares for up to $4,000 a piece.

Since taking a complete 180, he's found not only financial success, but a true calling in a field he’d never given much thought to.

The Wood Hacker

David, tinkering; via David Roy

As a child, David was fueled by curiosity. Perched beside his father, who built jet engines for a living, he followed, with starry-eyes, the trajectory of America’s first shuttle launches. From Erector Sets to electric motors, he perennially tinkered, and soon developed a love for working with his hands.

By the early 1970s, he’d earned an engineering scholarship to Boston University, where he later pivoted to chemistry and physics. “I was right where I thought I’d be at the time,” he says; “I always pictured myself going into the sciences or engineering.”

While in college, he frequently journeyed to see his high school friend, Marji, who was studying sculpture and art education at the Rhode Island School of Design. Though he’d never held much stock in art, the trips proved to be eye-opening:

“I was exposed to the artistic creative process from the inside for the first time. I was fascinated. I saw it as another type of creative problem solving, not all that different from my advanced physics courses but with a completely different goal.”

On one weekend trip, Marji exposed David to her newest creations: working “machines” made from wood -- including a giant plywood chain that turned when hand-cranked. Though Marji had just made them for fun and wasn’t interested in pursuing that type of artwork, David was fascinated.

“That was my idea of art: it was whimsical, it made me smile,” he recalls. “I had all these suggestions for mechanical improvements, and she just said, ‘Why don’t you make this stuff instead?’”

So, he did just that.

David and Marji; via David Roy

After graduating in 1974, David and Marji got married. While Marji landed her “dream job” teaching art, David settled into a role as a mainframe programmer, where he “spent a lot of time waiting.”  

“This was the era of stacks of cards and reams of green and white lined computer paper,” he clarifies. “The job was fairly boring with lots of dead time between submitting a ‘job’ and getting the results.”

He took advantage of his spare moments by sketching ideas for wood sculptures and small wooden toys; before long, the sketches implored him to create, and he soon found himself sourcing scrap wood from dumpsters and teaching himself basic carpentry skills.“I had very little knowledge, and the only tool I’d ever used was a handsaw,” he admits. “Marji took the lead and taught me how to make joints, boxes, primitive stuff. That’s how I got going.”

Spclacker (left), and Xylo: a few of David Roy’s earliest creations (1975); via Wood That Works

David took his first creations -- fairly simple wooden toys operated by hand cranks -- to local craft shows, where they sold well. He began to realize that if he were able to invest more time in woodwork and less in programming, he might be able to scrape together a living working with his hands. 

Once the seed for this idea was planted, he couldn’t shake it; only nine months into his database engineering job, he quit and launched his sculpture company, “Wood That Works.” Aside from building really great things, he had no discernible plan.

“Can You Make Them Run Longer?”

When David was at these small craft shows, it was essential that he kept his inventions in motion so that customers could see how they moved. “I had to sit there, spinning the toys the whole time with my hand,” he says, “and everyone would continually ask me, ‘Can you make them run longer?’”

Not one to back down from a challenge, David began to think of ways he could achieve this. Motors, batteries, and wires were strictly out of the question -- he wanted to keep his creations pure and organic. Instead, he designed a weight-driven mechanism, similar to that of a clock: the energy of a falling weight provides the motion, and in turn, the motion of the piece controls the fall of the weight.

After several failed attempts of kinetic sculptures (including a “6-foot tall monster that hardly moved”), David realized that wall-mounted works were more readily sellable. His first piece, “B.W. Cornwallis,” featured a rolling wheel that was kept in motion for 20 continuous minutes on a rotating frame, using less than one pound of weight as the power source:

B.W. Cornwallis; David Roy, 1976

At the time (the mid-70s), the American craft movement was experiencing a revival: small art and craft galleries were popping up all over the U.S., and trades like glassblowing and woodworking were regaining popularity.

Fairly close by to David and Marji, the wholesale craft market in Rhinebeck, New York was where every craftsman vied to be. Teeming with wholesale buyers and art collectors, the show was a prime opportunity for exposure and sales -- but artisans looking to hawk their wares had to apply for admission. Two times in two years, David applied and was rejected.

So, he went back to the drawing board. Throughout 1976, David holed up in a tiny cinderblock shed in upstate Connecticut and experimented with a vast array of mechanisms and designs. “I built dozens of failures in there,” he says. “It was hot in the summer, freezing in the winter, and always crammed.” 

In 1977, armed with a new collection of wall-mounted kinetic wood sculptures, he applied once more and finally succeeded.

David and Marji selling early creations; via David Roy

“The show was a revelation,” he says. “Buyers came in droves, and were placing huge orders -- ‘I’ll have 3 of this, and 4 of that.’ I had always thought I’d have to grow up and get a real job; this made me realize I could make it as an artist.”

Whereas David had been selling his small wooden toys for $5 to $10 each, his kinetic sculptures commanded $125 a piece. In all, over a span of a few days, he’d backlogged several hundred orders. “They were hungry for new creative work,” he says, “and we had something no one had seen before.”

The couple’s first order of business was to build David a real work studio. Painstakingly, over the course of nine months, they taught themselves construction skills, bought a plot of land, and built not only their own studio, but their own home. All the while, David spent long nights churning out sculptures and shipping them to shops across the world. 

Evolving Designs

By 1979, David grew a desire to apply his knowledge of mechanism design to creating more “complex works” that gave off the illusion of unpredictable motion. He began taking more risks, and with these risks came rewarding visuals:

Kaleidoscope (David Roy; 1979)

“Kaleidoscope was the first sculpture I designed to create an optical moiré pattern. To give the viewer time to recognize the moiré pattern, the wheels had to counter rotate for several revolutions at the same rate of speed. To give the eye a rest and to create a second pattern, the wheels had to slowly stop and then reverse direction.”


Serpentine (David Roy; 1979)

“Serpentine was my first completely unpredictable sculpture. (I can't say "random" because technically a machine can't produce truly random motion.) The patterning part is a powered double pendulum. I had played with this type of motion in some of my first hand driven kinetic toys but figuring out a mechanism to drive the motion was a challenge. The wheels had to be free to rotate most of the time with just an occasional push when they started to slow down. None of my prior mechanisms could do this so I had to design something completely new.”

Monarch II (David Roy; 2013)

Variation Sun (David Roy; 2014)

In 1982, shortly after his second daughter (or, his “toy testing department”) was born, David was approached by a toy company representative and asked to contribute some designs. Here, he was introduced to a little gadget that forever changed his sculptures: constant-force springs. When fully rolled up, these springs are “relaxed;” as they are unrolled, “the restoring force comes primarily from the portion of the ribbon near the roll.” The geometry of that portion of the spring remains constant, and as a result, the force is constant. 

Small in size and highly efficient, David had little trouble incorporating them into his sculptures, and they soon replaced his weight-driven mechanisms. Today, all of his designs use constant-force springs.

David in his workshop; via David Roy

Ultimately though, David downplays the importance of how his creations are powered. 

“Many people ask me where they can buy the mechanism,” he says. “The concept they miss is that the whole sculpture is a giant mechanism. What you’re seeing is like the inside of a clock; it’s not a little mechanism making that happen. Every piece you see has a purpose in keeping it in motion.”

Today, most of his pieces run continuously for 8 to 16 hours -- but he’s tinkering on a conceptual work that keeps going for 2 days. “It’s probably a bit much for most people,” he admits, “but I think it’s pretty neat.”

The Value of Technology for Artists

As an artist with the mindset of an engineer, David has always stayed up to date with technological advances, and it’s tremendously helped both his creative process and his ability to promote his artwork. 

When the Apple Macintosh personal computer came out 1984, he instantly recognized its utility in art, and purchased one. For the previous decade, he’d drawn out his designs by hand

on paper, put them down on pieces of wood, and cut out the shapes with a handsaw. The Mac, used in tandem with Adobe Illustrator and a LaserWriter printer, allowed him to precisely draw his designs, scale them to size, and expedite his creation process.

He’s since traded in his handsaw for a CNC router (computer-controlled cutting machine), and has enlisted programs like Adobe After Effects, Strata Design 3D, and Working Model to visualize his creations in motion before building them. 

To this day, David works alone, and as a man who’s demand far outweighs his supply, he’s limited only by his speed of production. These tech tools, he says, have helped scale his output without compromising quality.

Adobe Illustrator screenshots of one of David's mechanisms; via David Roy

Similarly, computers have provided the sculptor with a broader means of sharing his work. “People don’t buy these unless they see them in motion,” he says. “We used to film them in the shop, and send out video tapes to people -- then the Internet came along.”

In 1994, David purchased 5MB of data space from his local Internet service provider, taught himself how to code a website, and put his designs on the web. To demonstrate his products’ motion, he made animated GIF files and posted them up; as technology advanced, he evolved to using Quicktime.

When YouTube launched in 2005, it provided David with an easy, free way to embed videos on his site. “I didn't even think of YouTube as a social vehicle at the time,” he admits. “I thought of it as a place where I could host a video and not pay for the streaming. It was practical.”

Since then, David’s videos -- which demonstrate his various works in motion -- have been viewed some 5 million times, and have garnered thousands of comments from people all over the world.

While this has undoubtedly helped his exposure, it’s hard for him to say how much it’s bolstered his sales. “It’s totally unpredictable,” he says. “Sometimes, I’ll go a week or two without making a sale, then I’ll make three or four in a few days. I’ve learned not to worry when things aren’t selling, and not to think things are going crazy when it’s selling.”

Though he constantly gets requests for custom pieces, he doesn’t build them -- mainly because it’s not practical. Every time he makes a new design, he spends six months finding weaknesses, making sure everything functions properly, and ensuring he can deliver a quality good. “I make what I make,” he says, “and people can choose to buy from that.”

In total, he estimates he’s sold around 3,000 sculptures in an array of 300 designs.

The Advantage of Staying Small

'Variation wave' mounted on the wall; via David Roy

By staying open to new ideas, and by following his creative impulses, David has managed to build himself a what he calls “a dream career.”

“There has never been a plan,” he says. “It’s always been about keeping myself open to new ideas -- whether it’s art, a computer, a new spring, or the Internet.”

As he relates tales of how other artist friends hired large teams and launched big businesses, David seems content with where he is; while they toil through paper work, sales, and fiscal decisions, he remains intimately involved with the creation of new art. And when the 63-year-old’s acquaintances talk about retirement, he’s incredulous: “Why would I want to do that? I’d just do that same thing every day that I do now.”

Despite temptations to grow Wood That Works into a larger enterprise, the Roys have kept it a boutique business, with an odd twist: while the one-time engineer is the sole artist and designer, his art teacher wife handles logistics and codes the business webpage. 

“We switched roles,” he laughs. “She became the computer nerd and I became the artist.”

This post was written by Zachary Crockett. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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To learn more about David Roy and his sculptures, check out his website, Wood That Works. To check out Marji’s handiwork and projects, visit 3D Cuts.



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