Stallings is a man slightly out of step with the present, a throwback to an age of art and skill, the son and grandson of carpenters who took as much care in building a name as any structure. When he quotes a price he stands by it; when he does something he knows why he is doing it.
And then there are the Grammy Awards – but more on that later.
Stallings has placed custom molding, doors and windows in homes across west Georgia, but he is best known for his work renovating historic structures. He has brought back to life the intricate woodwork of the First Baptist Church, the Martha Munro building at the University of West Georgia, and most recently the restored railroad Depot on Bradley Street.
He recalls “literally begging” to go to work with his father, Winton Stallings, as early as 6 years old. Two years later, he was working with his father full time during the summer, helping to dig house foundations by hand and working with skilled carpenters. He learned more than the trade from his father; he also learned a philosophy for life:
“Daddy would always ask me ‘why’ — why did you do something that way. I might have the wrong ‘why’ because I was young and inexperienced, but the worse thing I could do is not have any ‘why.’”
His shop is located trackside on Maple Street, inside a large space that once was an auto garage. The sawdust is as thick as beach sand in some places, and there are stacks of discarded pieces of Carrollton landmarks which serve as a kind of reference library of moldings and window casings. And the machines are a weekend woodsmith’s dream.
“Some of my equipment was my grandfather’s, some was my dad’s, some I bought,” he said. Many items date from the 1930s — powerful radial arm saws, bandsaws, a belt sander that can take pieces up to 37 inches wide, and a wood shaper he describes as “a router on steroids.” With it, he can stack a series of wood knives and carve just about any molding profile imaginable.
He demonstrates his skill in turning balusters on an ancient 1936 Yates-American lathe. He has to wrestle the tail stock in place, but soon the machine is spinning a piece of stock at hundreds of RPM. As he secures a chisel on the tool rest, faint lines appear on the wood – deep gouges, which soon become an intricate series of cuts that form an elegant pattern.
When renovating a historic structure, Stallings is often faced with the problem of replacing wood that has rotted. The original material used — heart pine — is no longer available, due to the loss of 150-year-old stands of trees, so he must use exotic species of wood, like sapele (sah-PE-lee), imported from Africa.
“I’m not going to use sapele or something like that just for the heck of it,” he said. “You’ve got to think about why you are using this material, as opposed to that material. There’s that ‘why’ again.”
Stallings and his crew are called out to sites across West Georgia and beyond, working for a variety of clients – commercial, residential and institutional. He often surprises clients when his jobs come in exactly for what he bid them at — it’s something most owners don’t experience when dealing with a contractor.
“You cannot build something in the fastest time possible, at the lowest cost possible at the highest quality possible. There’s got to be a balance between those three, and the best projects are the ones where the balance is understood from beginning to end by all parties involved.”
Stallings was heavily involved in the recent restoration of the Depot on Bradley Street, using the plans drawn for the 1910 additions to the building to reconstruct the ticket window and other fixtures. He said he felt close to the project because he knows that his grandfather and his great-grandfather both watched the original constructions when they were young.
Family life is just as important to Stallings as his woodcraft, but there is a surprising secret about him – he is a member of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus and has traveled the world with them. He has learned to sing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” in phonetic German (and a few other languages), and his rich baritone has helped the Choir win two Grammy Awards.
He calls it a “hobby,” but singing is another art Stallings has sought to perfect, beginning when he was a student in high school and continuing when he went to Georgia Tech. It is part of his craftsman character, and the legacy of the skills he learned from his father and grandfather.
Stallings’ children have taken up other pursuits, but he is content with the fact that when he retires, the disappearing art of woodcraft will disappear just a little more. But perhaps the philosophy he learned long ago won’t be lost.
“Every job I do is different, and I enjoy that. I like work that challenges my head and my hands. And if you put your heart into it too, then you might come close to doing the best you can.”