Photos by Gabriel Nieland/Texan Mosaic Staff
At 80, Coach Frank Barker continues to go the distance. At this time of year on most afternoons you’ll find him standing on the South Plains College track at 2:30 p.m. sharp with a stopwatch in his hand.
Barker is an assistant track and field coach at SPC. He has been for about 12 years now. He came here after retiring from Levelland High School. He coached track and field there for 39 years.
He specializes in coaching long-distance runners and “throwers.” For those unfamiliar with track and field, Barker explains throwers are athletes who compete in events such as discus, shot put, javelin, and hammer throwing.
When Barker is not on the track, you’ll probably find him in the woodworking shop behind his house. He built it himself.
“This is where I spend a lot of time,” he says.
From the outside, the shop stands weathered but sturdy. The porch is stacked with piles of wood in all shapes and sizes. There’s also a big collection of aging wooden spindles.
On the inside, every square inch of space is covered with wood scraps, projects in various stages of completion, and tools – some electric, some not.
“Woodworking’s just something I’ve done all my life,” Barker says.
He’s happy to share photos of some of his past projects including a toy train, lamp, clock, and hope chest. There’s also a large china cabinet he made for his son. He’s also a woodworker.
Naturally striped tiger wood planks are stacked just inside the door. These, he says, will become jewelry boxes with sliding tops. A wooden train locomotive sits nearby. He says one of his grandchildren broke a wheel on it and he’s deciding how to fix it.
He picks up one of two small wooden trees that sit on the lathe nearby. These, he says, will become Christmas tree ornaments. They’re made out of aspen, which he gathers himself in Colorado.
Today, before track practice, Barker has promised to show how he uses his lathe to make wooden pens. A few of the finished pens, made out of various types of wood, are currently being used in the SPC athletic offices in the Texan Dome.
Barker says he’s been making these pens for more than 20 years now. He says he probably makes several dozen a year. Each one is slightly different.
“That’s going to be really beautiful when I get it done,” he says, pointing to a small rectangular block of purple heart wood.
The pen Barker is working on, or “turning,” this morning, he says started as a block of composite wood featuring blue and orange stripes.
“It’s still a little bit thick,” he says, as he rounds the edges.
The reason it’s called “turning,” Barker explains, is because the wood turns on the electric lathe while he uses hand tools to narrow and shape it.
“I’ll have to take it down a little bit more,” he says. “Then, I’ll taper the ends so you don’t have a big chunk of wood that you’re hanging onto.”
As he works, the sawdust begins to pile up, and he describes some of the many other tools around him. There’s a big mitering saw used to cut at 45- degree angles, and a bench top lathe used to turn spindles like the ones stacked on the porch.
Most of the tools, he says, are categorized. He points out several of the toolboxes that he built himself.
“Down here I have sanders and sandpaper,” he says. “And then the one you’re standing next to is all the nail guns.”
Some of the most treasured tools in Barker’s shop are old. Barker says his grandfather ran a construction company. He worked with his grandfather growing up, and he always had something to build on the family’s farm when he was 10 or 11 years old.
“He gave me a saw that he used when he was a kid, that I still have,” Barker says, carefully taking it down from an upper shelf. It’s a hand saw. He shows where the date has worn off. “And I use it to this day,” he says. “I’ve had it sharpened.”
Now, with chisels in hand and lathe in full motion, the blue and orange striped rectangle of wood is close to becoming a pen.
“The thing that takes the most is sanding it,” he says. “Because I have to go through, I’ll start off with probably 100 grit, then 120, then 320, then 400, then 600.” Grit, he explains, has to do with how rough or smooth the sandpaper is.
In addition to sanding, Barker says other steps in the process include securely placing a brass cylinder inside the wood to house an ink cartridge. He varnishes it using a rag to press wax into it as it spins on the lathe. Finally, he uses a press to push all the pen parts together.
Each pen, he says, takes anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour to make. Sometimes, he says, wood splits on the lathe. “It’s easy to put too much pressure, and stuff like that,” he says. “Your tendency is to get into a hurry. And if you get in a hurry, you’re in trouble.”
Is this more than just a hobby? The answer is probably yes and no.
“I like piddling with it,” he says. He admits woodworking is a great way to work off frustrations after a tough practice. And out of all the projects he makes, what’s his favorite? “I think making toys for my grandkids,” he says.
But Barker recently sold quite a few aspen Christmas tree ornaments at a craft show, and he often sells the pens. He unwraps some small wooden boxes, which he can use to present each pen if a customer wants it. He can also brand “handcrafted by Frank Barker” on each box.
Is there any correlation between coaching track and field and woodworking? Barker thinks so.
“The correlation is that you can see the end result,” he says. “You can see your work brought to fruition. And it’s just fun. You see that kid that finally makes a breakthrough and runs fast. You’re going, ‘Ok, that’s just fun.’”
By 2:30 this afternoon, Barker will be back at SPC with a stopwatch in his hand. SPC Head Track & Field Coach Erik Vance says he doesn’t know much about Barker’s woodworking, but he does know about Barker’s coaching.
“Coach Barker has a wealth of knowledge when it comes to coaching,” Vance says. “I doubt I’ll ever approach his years of experience.” He says SPC athletes are fortunate to have him around.
On January 28, the SPC men’s and women’s track and field teams did well at their third meet of the season. SPC placed three in the top five of the men’s 600 meters and placed third in the 800 meters. SPC placed fourth in the women’s distance medley relay and seventh in the 800 meters.
Both men’s and women’s teams return to competition on Feb. 10 at the Texas Tech Jarvis Scott Open.
“Somebody asked me how much longer I was going to do this,” Coach Barker says. “And I said as long as it’s fun, I’ll still come do it.”
With that, Barker is clearly referring to track and field. But, taken out of context, he could just have easily been talking about woodworking.
For now, both are right on track.