Jim McGuire makes unique and beautiful fretwork using the most surprising of tools, a scroll saw. Each of his works is crafted by hand.
“I hear people say, ‘Oh they make that with a laser,’” he said. “That’s not true. Every piece I make is individually cut by hand using my scroll saw.”
Laser cutters operate using a computer program with no human hand, or skill, needed, unlike McGuire’s art made with his scroll saw.
A scroll saw is a small electric saw used to cut intricate curves in wood, metal or other materials. The fineness of its blade allows it to cut more delicately than a power jigsaw, and more easily than a hand-coping saw or fretsaw.
Viet Nam Veteran
Born and raised in Chicago, McGuire graduated from the University of Southern Illinois in 1966 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, and minors marketing and psychology.
“Eleven days after I graduated college, I was drafted,” McGuire said. “I graduated June 15 and on July 1, I was standing in a chow line at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. My college deferment expired and they were waiting for me.”
McGuire served two years in the Army; one year in Viet Nam.
Moving to Southern California
He met his wife, Arlene, when he would visit his mother at her workplace.
“She worked in the same office as my mother, we started dating,” he said.
After completing his service, McGuire went to work for 3M Corporation in Chicago.
“I worked in industrial sales,” he said. “It’s an excellent company. I really liked what I did.” He worked for 3M for 38 years before retiring in 2004.
McGuire and his wife, Arlene, were married in May 1972. That same year, they moved to Southern California where he was transferred. They have been married for 47 years.
The couple started out renting an apartment in Canoga Park, then purchased a home in Granada Hills. They moved to the Santa Clarita Valley in 1987, and bought a home in Canyon Country so their children could live in a better school district. They have two daughters, Shannon and Barbara, and one grandson.
A passion for fretwork
Fretwork is decorative, open patterns carved in wood. The art of fretwork began more than 3,000 years ago with fretted inlays on furniture in Egypt. It has been popular in North America and Europe since the mid-1800s. Fretwork of the 1800s and early 1900s was done with hand fretsaws or foot-powered scroll saws.
“I’ve been working at it for close to 40 years. I started doing fretwork when we were living in Granada Hills,” McGuire said. “It’s a lot of fun, and very enjoyable.”
McGuire’s passion for fretwork began on a chance visit to the L.A. County Fair when he watched a demonstration of an RBI scroll saw. The man who demonstrated the saw turned out to be the owner of the company.
“I started talking to him and then I told my wife, that looks like a lot of fun, I’d like to get one of those,” he said. Arlene gave her approval of the purchase.
“I started out playing around with the saw, making some fairly simple things,” McGuire said. “I started out making letters, people’s names … that kind of thing.”
McGuire upped his game when a friend told him about pattern for a wolf head and a magazine dedicated to the art.
“I’ve made many different pieces since then, if you can name it, I’ve probably cut it,” he said. “It’s great mental therapy. You can go out into the garage and get a chunk of wood and start cutting and forget about everything else.”
McGuire has joined the Orange County Scroll Saw Association, a chapter of the Scrollsaw Association of the World.
The internet has been a boon for McGuire, who belongs to several online scroll-saw groups. He found people through his online groups to make patterns for him.
“I have communicated with people from India, Eastern Europe, South America, South Africa, a lot of people from Canada, Ireland, England, Brussels, Australia … there are many talented people who make patterns,” he said.
Scroll-saw patterns are an art form in and of themselves, said McGuire.
“They require both positive and negative space, so the whole thing doesn’t just fall apart after you cut it out,” McGuire said. “These are very talented people. Some say, ‘Just send me a picture,’ and they can make a pattern of it.”
Arts and crafts fairs
McGuire and his wife travel to about five art and craft fairs a year to sell his creations. Prices for his work range from $8 to $125 depending the size and difficulty of cutting, what I mounted it on, the kind of wood.
“It’s a way to get out of the house and mingle with people,” he said. “We’re both retired so it gives us something to talk about.”
McGuire said each of his works is unique. His extensive inventory includes sports team logos, welcome signs, animals, crosses and other decorative designs.
“I do a lot of football team logos, they get a nice reaction,” he said. “I display those out front to attract the male customers.” Custom welcome signs for people who own vacation cabins or second homes in Frazier Park and Pine Mountain are also popular.
“I get custom orders to make welcome signs with the family name, those are fun to do,” he said. “Things like ‘The Smith’s Cabin, Established 1989.’”
McGuire usually brings his scroll saw to the craft fairs so people can see how he creates his work.
“People appreciate it more when they see how the pieces are made,” he said. He can also create some custom works on site.
“It’s been an enjoyable hobby. It keeps me busy,” he said.