Hunched over in a canvas camping chair, a man carefully burns his signature onto a work of art using a clear sheet of plastic.
He straightens up, pulls off the dark green welder’s goggles protecting his eyes and grins widely. “Another one for the collection,” he says, as he carefully places the still-smoking block next to a dozen other pieces.
Burned into the block is a detailed, hand-sketched eye.
Nickolas Maynard, a University of Massachusetts Amherst alumnus and mechanical engineer who graduated in 2003, has been burning wood since he was a child. But instead of using an electric woodburning pen, Maynard prefers a more unorthodox method.
“These are basically big magnifying glasses,” Maynard says, holding up one of the clear panes of plastic. “They focus the sun onto the wood, and on a day like this, it burns pretty quickly.”
Maynard gathers scrap wood and wooden furniture that has been discarded from around campus, sands them down, removes any surface lacquer and chemicals and uses them to perform his art. Of the different types of wood he uses, Maynard’s biggest headache is oak.
“The grains are too big, look,” Maynard says, pointing at a spot on a thick block of oak. “It makes the lines uneven and a little wavy.”
By using scrap wood, lenses and the sun, Maynard can quickly and inexpensively sketch and burn a custom-made design while a student watches. Usually, he receives and completes about 10 to 15 commissions a day, with pricing set at, according to Maynard, “whatever the customer thinks is fair.”
During his normal work week, Maynard is a mechanical engineer for Belcan Engineering, a corporation that provides engineering consultancy services. But one sunny day a week, the engineer sits in his chair on the grounds between the Student Union Building and the parking garage, sketches designs in pencil and takes requests from curious students.
“These are all handmade?” asks one student, turning over a wood block with the Arabic characters for “grit” burned onto its front.
“Yep,” says Maynard, not looking away from burning his latest work: a hand, with two fingers extended in the “V for Victory” gesture. The faint smell of charred wood hangs around him, as small wisps of smoke curl off the tip of one of the outstretched fingers.
Maynard says this is his way of giving back to the UMass community.
Though most of his work is made up of smaller pieces commissioned on the spot by passersby, Maynard also takes larger and more detailed requests. One of his latest works in progress is a large woodburning of the UMass crest, etched by solar power into the top of a discarded table.
Maynard plans to sell the crest for $500 and donate a quarter of the proceeds to the UMass Alumni Association.
Ron can be reached at [email protected]