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Woodwork wonders: Airman develops craftsmanship

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Paul Coover
  • 379th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron

“Right now, it looks like garbage,” said Senior Airman Kyle Gibbons, 379th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron defender, as he stared at the project he has been working on for weeks. “But when it’s all said and done, I think I’ll be happy with it.”

In front of him, Gibbons eyes several strips of pallet wood that he’s pieced together to create a rough rectangle about the size of a cafeteria tray. Dried glue has oozed out of each seam, and the wood itself is pocked with impurities and stains.

Gibbons can see beyond all that. He imagines a finished product that is aesthetic and polished, but only because he has developed the skills to manifest such a result. That ability – to craft art from throwaway materials, to bring order out of chaos – is a talent he has worked his life to develop.

Gibbons’ woodworking tools are at home, so here he’s using a cigar lighter to char lines into the wood, slowly tracing invisible paths, back and forth. The flame for the device, repurposed as it’s been, is unwieldy, and Gibbons initially struggles to find a rhythm for his movements. The burn marks are lighter here, darker there, until Gibbons gets a sense of the task and visibly relaxes.

“I got the hang of the lighter,” he says, and he gets to work.

Gibbons’ talent is evident in his woodwork, which has become an unexpected vocation when he’s home in New York. It’s also evident in his service in the U.S. Air Force, which brought him here, to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, and to which he remains committed due to the order and structure his job both requires and provides. The roots of Gibbons’ talent, however, reach much deeper.

Gibbons was born in upstate New York, the third child in a family of four children. His parents instilled in the children a belief in the value of both work ethic and service, and all the children learned household chores around the house from early ages. They’d help take care of the property, and when money was tight, they learned to earn and pitch in.

When Gibbons was in middle school, he sat in a classroom and watched on television as the twin towers fell in Manhattan. He listened as a teacher talked with – not at – the children in the class, and about the way the country had changed that day. Gibbons graduated high school a good student, four-sport athlete, and struck by those memories of sitting in class on 9/11 and the emotions that stirred in him, headed to community college to become a teacher.

But in a struggling economy, his family needed him more. He stepped back from his own education to assist his family by picking up a second full-time job.

Gibbons worked most days from 8 a.m to 3 p.m. at a farm stand selling produce, then from 4 p.m. until midnight at a local pizzeria – jobs chosen in large part because they allowed him to bring both money and food home to his family. He added odd jobs wherever he could: cleaning houses, taking care of animals for friends, bartending.

He provided for his family, helped his sister graduate high school, and worked his way up in the pizzeria until he was essentially running the place, but the one thing that eluded him was a sense of stability. No matter how hard he worked, there was always an uneasiness about the future. For years, he stayed the course. When the pizzeria sold to new ownership, he was forced to change paths once again.

His work ethic finally led to two turning points, almost concurrently. He began working at a small artisan company focused on fine craftsmanship of handmade goods, where he found a sense of control, precision, and a methodical way to put his attention to detail to profitable use. It was an antidote to the hustle of the rest of his life. He started small, and began creating his own products, teaching himself woodworking skills that would soon become a passion.

At the same time, a family friend asked him to help maintain a 16-horse boarding facility, where he was introduced to multiple members of a local Air Force base. Shortly thereafter, Gibbons’ friend was deployed with the Air National Guard, and a spark was lit.

“The way they talked about it,” Gibbons says now, “they had a purpose.” 9/11 had instilled in him a desire to make a difference; if he couldn’t teach without a college degree, he could defend the country with a rifle in the meantime. Almost as significantly, the profession offered the sense of stability he sought as well.

Gibbons enlisted into the Air Force in 2019. Upon his return from Basic Military Training and technical training to join the service’s security forces, he began woodwork in earnest.

In between military activations to train in small arms and tactics, an activation to Washington D.C. to assist with civil unrest, and then to provide security during the COVID-19 crisis in New York City and Albany, Gibbons created KJG Woodworks, a business specializing in custom slab wood furniture and personalized decorative pieces. So thorough is his process that an entire work-week may be devoted to crafting a single custom table for a customer. 

The two career paths are divergent on the surface and similar at their core. As a security forces defender, he plays a role in ensuring others’ safety in uncertain environments. As a woodworker, he can provide for himself and his family selling crafts he alone shapes and controls.

Both jobs require discipline and attention to detail. Both require a willingness to engage with uncertain situations and to bend the variables to create a certainty of outcome. Security is the non-negotiable product of Gibbons’ military service, no matter the operating environment; quality and artfulness are the required components of his woodwork, no matter the difficulty in creating perfect results from imperfect natural materials.

At Al Udeid, Gibbons takes a step back from his project. The charring is nearly complete, and he sets to work sanding out the imperfections – though not all of them.

His style is to highlight the natural aspects of a piece of wood: the warping, twisting and splitting that remind the viewer of the organic nature of the medium, while adding and subtracting as needed until the final design or utility is achieved.

What days ago were roughhewn lumber scraps is now a smooth and cohesive item. From bits of wood that had been tossed aside; a sheet of sandpaper discarded in a pile of scraps, a friend’s cigar lighter, a military-style multitool, Gibbons took these disparate items and created a single lasting art piece. He’ll leave it behind when he heads home, a token of his time and contribution to Al Udeid.

While deployed, Gibbons stood as sentry for 12 and even 14-hour days, through the Middle East’s heat and wind, because he saw it as a path forward for himself and for his country.

In his hand, Gibbons holds his nearly-completed woodworking project. The burned black lines have become stripes, the imperfect wood grain a reminder of the roughness of the place in which it was found, an impressive American flag the final result of Senior Airman Kyle Gibbons’ work and service.