WESTVILLE, Ill. | Most vestiges of the old country have disappeared from Westville, a former coal mining community in central Illinois settled by European immigrants.
Among the few that remain are the Lithuanian Cemetery on the south side of town and crude backyard grape arbors — the early settlers all made wine.
And then there's Nick Lipousky, a lifelong Westville resident and son of Ukrainian immigrants. A master craftsman, Lipousky draws on Old World as well as early American furniture techniques to turn out distinctive, museum-quality pieces.
Without using computers or lasers, he decorates his works with hand-measured and hand-cut geometric and curved inlays, among them animals, flowers and acorns. And he can carve, too.
Fifty years ago, he wondered if he could carve wood. To practice, he made an American-themed chair, carving an eagle, stars and other motifs from one piece of walnut for the back rest. For the seat, he used maple to make a large inlay of a buffalo. Lipousky doesn't stop with putting decorative inlays on the fronts or outsides of pieces he builds or refurbishes. He adds striking inlays to the backs and insides, too.
It's exacting work. And Lipousky has mastered it: You never feel edges or ridges when you move your hand across his inlays.
"He's just meticulous in his work," said Georgetown resident Kent Leasure, a stained-glass craftsman who has worked with Lipousky on projects. "I was honored that he had me do stained glass for him. He truly is a treasure. I'm not good enough to carry his toolbox."
Lipousky's toolbox is full of chisels, pattern files for detail and other hand tools. If he doesn't have a tool he needs, he makes one or refashions an existing one. He also labors in his garage workspace on older machines such as a planer, a sanding disc, drill presses and a wood lathe. He has a metal lathe, too.
Besides being able to work wood, Lipousky works with metals, drawing on his 35-year career as a machinist at the now-closed General Motors foundry in Tilton. There he worked in the pattern shop doing arc and helia arc welding, brazing, soldering and other jobs. He sometimes went into the foundry itself to repair parts.
"The floor was so hot it would burn your feet," he remembers.
He first started working with wood — he'd always been interested in it — as a student at Westville High School. Later he and his two brothers built their own homes in Westville, and Nick eventually built on his 1-acre property a shed, garage and weather station, too.
"I used to be a weather watcher for Channel 3," he said.
He, of course, took an Old World craftsman's approach to all of that and to his garden as well: He trims his evergreen trees to resemble topiary he's admired in photographs of estates and botanical gardens.
"They have even more detail than I can do because they use electrical tools and cherry pickers," he said.
With his hand tools and stepladders, he creates with his trees simple yet visually arresting forms; he simply said he likes being able to see the base and trunks of wood. He also has grown exotic trees in his yard, but they tend to die out.
Among the more interesting that survive are a white magnolia, a persimmon and a male and a female holly tree. Holly trees are native to the coasts, not the Midwest. Lipousky's is large and healthy. At Christmas, he gives away holly branches to friends and relatives and for church parties.
He hasn't taken pay through the decades for the scores of chairs he's repaired for friends and relatives. He also donates his wood work to his church, St. Mary's Catholic Church in Westville. For its adoration chapel, he built a tabernacle and six decorative window frames.
Lipousky also repairs damaged religious statues. For one of the Virgin Mary, he rebuilt her hands from plaster of Paris, showing his facility with materials other than wood and metal. One of his latest personal projects is the refurbishing of a pair of theater seats from an old theater in Champaign-Urbana.
Lipousky likes showing off the chair he's completed — and the one in progress to encourage others to do the same. Even seasoned woodworkers, though, likely could not achieve his results. After removing coats of red paint from the veneer seats, he designed and made decorative inlays, placing them in contoured parts of the seat rest and back.
"There's nothing that Nick can't do to a piece of wood," Leasure said. "It's almost not possible to do what he does."
Leasure believes his friend does the intricate and demanding work out of sheer desire and enjoyment. And though Lipousky's work is impressive and creative, he's a modest and private man who doesn't consider himself an artist.
"He claims he's not an artist, but he has the talents of an artist, and he can use them," Leasure said.