The adjective grateful is defined as being “warmly or deeply appreciative of kindness or benefits received”. John Ballance’s love of woodworking has benefitted so many. John handcrafted a beautiful window seat in the new rectory for the Thornberg family’s dining area, has repaired countless projects across the church, including many wooden outdoor patio chairs and crosses, and built a closet for the choir. Within our sanctuary, John has created two portable nametag racks used for English and Chinese services; the advent wreath stand used at Christmas; the handrail on the westside of the sanctuary; the gospel book holder on the altar; replaced hinges of the Ambry box so that it can close properly; and has built tract racks in several pews that hold prayer cards. Most recently John built backstops for the fall carnival, used the last weekend in October. From his family to his friends, to visitors of our beloved church grounds, his craftsmanship is quite literally everywhere.
“I enjoy the process of putting things together and creating something new out of wood, seeing it all finished, then thinking back: how did I do that?” At the age of 7 or 8, John started working with his father in his garage. John’s father was a general contractor whose workbench included five essential woodworking tools that piqued John’s interest. A few years later, John took shop in junior high, but soon transferred to a new school that didn’t offer this opportunity, and so John kept to his dad’s garage. It was a love that wasn’t fully realized until years later, when his own children moved out of the family home. John grew up Methodist and met and married Nancy in 1970. Soon thereafter they had two children, Dennis and Stephanie. When John and Nancy bought their family home, John and his dad built his garage workbench, and the rest as they say is history. As the years passed, John made a few bits of furniture as they were needed, like a sewing desk, a closet or cabinet here, a desk or bookcase there.
I recently had the great privilege to visit John Ballance’s woodshop. A wonder of organization, John’s arsenal includes table, band, scroll and mitre saws; a drill press and an ornamental five-axis mill; a jointer and a lathe; a thickness plainer; and a few hand tools. Woodworking is not only a great love, but it is literally in John’s blood. The name Winslow has been in the Ballance family for generations: it’s both John’s and John’s father’s middle name. Nancy’s father was able to trace the Winslow name to ancestor Kenelm Winslow, brother of Edward Winslow, one of the early governors of the great Plymouth colony. Years later, on a trip to Plymouth, Massachusetts, John and Nancy visited the historic library’s visitor’s center. When John mentioned his middle name Winslow, the volunteer walked over to a bookcase and pulled out the Winslow Family book. John was surprised to see that a painting in the book of Josiah Winslow, Edward’s son, looked like John’s dad with long curls! As an apprentice cabinet maker, Kenelm learned his trade as a coffin maker and went on to become a master woodworker. John enjoys making the things Kenelm would have had to make as an apprentice, such as hand tools and planes, although he is glad to use the power tools “that make life simpler.”
“Wood expands and contracts. Metal and plastic feel cold. I like the warmth of the wood when I’m working with it, and once you’ve finished preparing it for its finish, it feels soft and a curved edge feels nice. It’s fun to blend pieces of wood together so that they function as a single piece of utility. You’re doing it with something that was alive at one time and will continue to move forever.” The most difficult project John has undertaken, both because of complexity and difficulty, is the display case that sits at the back of our sanctuary. A large portion of the wood used to make the display case is from the pew that it replaced, with the drawer fronts reclaimed from the seat and back of the original pew, along with the cross on the end. Everything else was made to imitate the design of the original pew, in white oak. What made this feat particularly challenging was its sheer size: it was too large to be assembled in John’s garage, and was put together in his backyard patio, while having to be created, stained and varnished in pieces, to be prefinished, transported then assembled. It took John five months to design and configure all of its pieces. In the end it took three trips to transport!
The love of woodworking continues throughout John’s family. John’s son-in-law had an interest in woodworking before he married John’s daughter, Stephanie. Using John’s garage, John helped his soon-to-be son-in-law make a silverware box as a wedding gift for Stephanie. His son-in-law continues the tradition of woodworking in his own house today. Like John, John’s son Dennis also developed an interest in woodworking in junior high school. To this day, when John makes a tool upgrade in his own shop, Dennis reaps the rewards of what is left behind.
Over the years, John has been an usher, a member of Our Saviour Center’s advisory committee, a vestry member, served on the endowment committee, and currently serves on the finance committee and heads the audio team. For all of the many gifts that John Ballance bestows on COS, his gift of creativity and the love of woodworking will contribute to the legacy of craftsmanship and beauty within our sanctuary. This Thanksgiving, all at COS are grateful for John’s forty-plus years of kindness and generosity of spirit.