Wole (pronounced “Wally”) Ajala can make a squirrel out of a plank of wood in one minute flat.
It’s a skill he demonstrated Friday night at STEAM Junction, downtown Burlington’s makerspace, where he showed off his father’s 1936 treadle-powered scroll saw and the numerous toys, tools and art it can make.
At the age of 6, while living in his native Nigeria, Ajala started helping his father and grandparents by pedaling an ingenious food-powered lathe and scroll saw machines, which led to an interest in woodworking that’s only grown over the past 55 years.
“I like working with my hands and the creativity because from childhood my grandparents, they would give you a piece of wood and see what would come out of that piece of wood, so it kind of is a challenge that I love,” he said.
A display table in the middle of the makerspace showed off animal puzzles, a church collection plate, chess pieces, Styrofoam sculptures, a cutting board, and even an old record turned into a clock with carved out animals, all made with a scroll saw.
Ajala teaches mathematics at Hillside New Tech High School, a magnet school in Durham, where he incorporates woodworking into the curriculum through projects that use statistics and geometry.
“I’ve been teaching math now for over 40 years, so I use a lot of geometry and calculus, and do a lot of integrated application to see that there’s a relationship between art and science and mathematics, because some of my students say, ‘Am I going to use this?’ and I say, ‘Yes, you’re going to use it every day because even in woodwork I use math,’” he said.
When he’s not teaching, Ajala does charity work in his home city of Greensboro.
In 2006, he started the “Make and Donate Clinic” where children learn scroll saw techniques to make wooden toys to donate to the U.S. Marine Corps for underprivileged kids or disaster relief efforts.
The program’s goal is to create and donate 5,000 wooden toys per year, though Ajala lets the kids keep some as well.
In addition, he runs a mobile workshop that will soon be solar-powered to operate at least 10 scroll saws and taken to public schools and outdoor events for easy access. Right now, it’s being used to help feed and teach the homeless in Greensboro.
Ajala is driven by the empathy his parents and grandparents instilled in him, as well as the desire to share his passions with others.
He told the crowd at STEAM Junction on Friday night that his next venture is to get woodworking classes back into schools, where students can learn to make things with their hands again, and learn a skill that could one day become a great love, as it did for him.
“I’m looking forward to getting the city involved to make it more attractive for the kids, and then they’re on board, because they can make a living out of this. … If there’s a way the city can actually create [a space] for people like us to have a location where kids can come in and learn the skill, that would be awesome,” he said.