Carving Out a Life
How a Hemingway couple found new purpose through woodcraft
By LIBBY WIERSEMA
The water tupelo is a sturdy survivor, unphased by flood, resistant to splitting, uniform in texture and moderately strong. In practiced hands, the wood can be cut, seasoned, chiseled, smoothed, and polished into something beautiful and useful – say, a bowl. Give that bowl consistent care, and it will last a lifetime and then some, passed down through generations to become a timeless symbol of endurance. It also makes an apt metaphor for a marriage, specifically one in which the carving of wood into vessels is a cherished pastime shared by life partners.
In a far-flung corner of Florence County, Carroll and Cindy Lawrimore live a life brimming with riches that cannot be tallied with a calculator. The expanse of land they call home – just a stone’s throw from the corner where Carroll was born in 1951 – is a quiet place outfitted with a tidy brick home and three outbuildings that collectively serve a special purpose. Beneath the roof of one are slabs of lumber, stacked neat and tall. The next, an airy, saw-dust spangled space, shelters utility tables, an assortment of hand and power tools, and some tired upholstered furniture that outlived its human usefulness to find favor with a pair of snoozing dogs. And in yet another building is the point of it all: a spotless showroom displaying the Lawrimore’s array of hand-carved dough bowls and trays, some large enough to make a bed for a full-grown German shepherd – or a whole hog fresh off the pit.
“It’s called a hog tray,” confirms Carroll, who has mastered both the art of the smile and the turning of massive chunks of trees into handsome serving pieces. “It will hold a whole smoked hog or you can use it for a Lowcountry boil. The size is just right for feeding a crowd.”
He waves a hand as if summoning a pig to appear out of thin air. Of course, that does not happen, but there is a hint of magic here. In fact, most everything in this room is about to disappear. Through word-of-mouth, social media and print publications, the Lawrimore’s business, From Trunks to Trays, has garnered a lot of buzz. Having learned of the craftsman who wields saw and chisel to free works of art from the trunks of downed trees, eager buyers (many of them beach vacationers) snapped up nearly all their inventory earlier in the week for pickup later today. After 38 years of farming land in Hemingway – and subsequent time spent satisfying what he thought was an insatiable itch to fish – Carroll finds himself in the unlikely roles of artisan and businessman with a high-demand product.
“When my mother died, I inherited the family dough bowl passed down for generations,” he said. “But there was a problem – it had a hole in it. So, I found somebody who I thought could fix it or show me how to do it myself.”
That person was Buddy Davis, an old friend of Carroll’s and a legendary local carver of tupelo dough bowls. To Carroll’s disappointment, Mr. Buddy (as he is called by the Lawrimores) took one look at that bowl hole and pronounced the family heirloom a lost cause. But he offered one caveat: He would teach Carroll how to make a bowl of his own. A wind whipped up, the treetops swayed, and the sun shone down upon the two men. For in that moment, the trajectory of Carroll’s retirement took an unforeseen turn. After many long hours of apprenticeship, the first Lawrimore dough bowl was born in August 2015.
“The more bowls I made, the more fun I had,” said Carroll with a laugh. “Before long, it had gotten out of hand.”
Carroll was hooked and even Cindy, a full-time family nurse practitioner, found herself with a new side gig. But after nearly 42 years of marriage, she has learned to anticipate surprises where Carroll is concerned. As a teen fresh from Iowa, Cindy met her match on a blind date that was pure Hemingway at the time: batting tennis balls to one another in the parking lot of Johnsonville High School. But it was love of the non-sporting kind that won the day, with Carroll falling head over heels. As it turned out, the simple life appealed to them both, so they decided to live it together.
“The morning we got married, I played piano at church, went to pick up the cake, then went back to the church for the wedding,” Cindy remembered with a faraway look. “We used the two poinsettias and candelabras that were already there as decorations. I didn’t know enough to be nervous.”
That elicits a giggle from Carroll, who concedes there was an adjustment period. As happens with many long marriages, the couple fell into an easy compatibility that is readily apparent in their current enterprise. There is a relaxed division of duties in the creation of these bowls and trays. First, Carroll draws a pattern on the wood, then cuts it out, scores it and chisels it to create a concave. Cindy steps in to do the multiple sandings, first with a power tool then manually until the entire surface of the piece is silky smooth. She and Carroll share oiling duties, repeatedly drenching the thirsty wood with food-grade mineral oil until it gets its fill. Then, Cindy applies a final coat of beeswax oil to enhance water resistance and give each piece a gorgeous luster.
“Oh, I don’t really do that much – it’s mostly Carroll,” she modestly insists. “Any success we have is because of Carroll’s talents and Mr. Buddy. We are both grateful for him.”
Cindy’s favorite place is the showroom, a cool, open space with chapel-like acoustics and air infused by a congregation of various woods, their aromas mingling to create a distinctive, sweet incense. Moving from table to table, she points out the various characteristics unique to each glossy bowl and tray. Some are tightly grained while others bear showy, fluid swirls. Some are smooth as glass, and others are “wormy,” with tiny pits inflicted by former inhabitants. Most striking is the varied palette of burnished, earthy tones.
“Wood is a lot like people,” Cindy noted, her eyes a bright blue contrast against a sea of brown. “Some wood is light in color, some dark and others are in-between. All are beautiful, though.”
The favored water tupelo is in good company. Sycamore, chinaberry, cypress, red gum, pecan, black walnut, sweet gum, river birch – the names of the various trees represented here roll off Carroll’s tongue like a prayer. He favors maple for its hardness. Cindy favors cherry for its color. Both agree that an heirloom quality bowl or tray can be fashioned from any of these woods, which are thoughtfully sourced from the Hemingway area.
“We made connections with reputable loggers who come to the area and gladly take what they can’t use,” explained Carroll. “We sometimes will harvest a tree from our own property, but we also get calls from people with storm-damaged trees. If it’s a wood we work with, I’ll go pick it up in my truck.”
That truck has a bed big enough to hold massive tree butts, which are basically the bottom portion of a felled tree. Though not much use to most logging operations, they are valuable to wood carvers like Carroll and Mr. Buddy, who at age 92 still manages to do some occasional carving. Once the loggers load them onto Carroll’s truck, he hauls them home where they are tipped out of the truck bed to await the arrival of a mobile lumber saw that will slice them into slabs of a workable size and thickness. The fresh cuts are then moved to the first shed, where they are stacked and sheltered from the sun for a lengthy seasoning of 2 to 4 years. The lumber will also do some spalting here, that is, it will develop dramatic, fungus-induced streaks along the grain of the wood. Once the wood dries, the fungus is stabilized and poses no risk to humans; the evidence of its presence is a distinguishing feature unique to each finished product. To monitor moisture, Carroll uses a meter, looking for levels of about 10 percent – a sign that the wood is ready for carving. Once the bowls and trays land in the showroom, the wood from which they were fashioned has undergone quite the transformation – from living thing to forest refuse to work of art – through a complex process spread over the course of many years. But like a good marriage, the hard work Carroll and Cindy put into their creations yields a joy that makes every bit of it worthwhile.
“I never, ever get tired of it,” said Carroll. “To me, it’s not work if it’s something that makes you happy.”
For images of current inventory, visit From Trunks to Trays on Facebook. Purchases may be made online or call (843) 933-0310 to make an appointment to visit the showroom. Order four months in advance for holiday gift-giving. Shipping is available.