From a lighted manger scene with the holy family framed in simple, white silhouette to a Santa wielding an axe at the gnarly remains of an actual tree, the things that Sammy Bullins makes from plywood and paint add joy to Christmas for visiting children – and for Bullins.
Families stop by the home of Bullins and his wife CJ on Burkhalter Road just to look. Christmas lights are a big part of the display. But Bullins isn’t one of those people who spend thousands on many factory-made figures. He prefers to buy sheets of plywood and make his own with a table saw and a portable jigsaw in a tiny, crowded workshop behind his house.
Bullins doesn’t say “Ho, ho, ho!” exactly, but his deep, natural laugh emerges often when he talks about his hobby. One merry story concerns how the Santa in a plywood helicopter nearly went airborne.
“My mind started working, and I put me a ceiling fan on there,” Bullins said. “I put a three-speed switch to it, and what was so funny, I didn’t have it anchored down. ... I put it on the ‘3’ speed, and that front end started coming up.”
His laughter making him pause even now, he said, “I laughed over that thing for a while.”
Don’t worry. He disconnected the motor and secured the fan rotor in place with a screw.
Phrases such as “whatever comes into my head” occur frequently when Bullins describes his handiwork.
“I get something in my head and I go to Lowe’s and get me a piece of plywood and I come back and I draw it out,” he said.
While he spoke, angels and snowmen peopled the lawn behind him. One snowman is on skis and holds a yard tool handle as a ski pole. Putting real, 3D objects in the hands of plywood figures, or combining them with features of his family’s yard and house, is one of Bullins’ favorite visual jokes.
Another plywood Santa holds on for jolly life to the carport roof gutter while a reindeer kneels, holding a much too short ladder, below.
In the yard beyond other end of the house, cutout letters more than a foot tall shout “MERRY CHRISTMAS,” supported on a steel frame that remains there year-round. Right now it’s decorated with wreaths and chaperoned by a nutcracker-style soldier.
For all seasons
Nearby is one of Bullins’ more complicated characters, a child-size Christmas elf with protruding ears and an individualistic expression. Sometimes turning to coloring books for ideas, Bullins found the elf in one, started tracing it out on plywood, making the lines bold with a felt-tip marker before sawing. Then he painted, using small craft brushes as he often does.
The elf holds a secret, as Bullins revealed while leading a little tour.
“You can turn it around, and you’ve got it for St. Patrick’s Day,” he said.
Sure enough, on the reverse the elf is a leprechaun.
Near Bullins’ workshop stands more evidence that his hobby isn’t just for Christmas. The American flag, painted on plywood, the stripes a little longer and thinner than standard, the stars scattered more like those of a constellation, is emblazoned “FREEDOM” at the bottom. A small, bare wooden cross is attached over the stripes.
Right now, strings of lights, large and small, in several colors are draped across the flag. But the flag bespeaks something more than seasonal decoration. Here is folk art.
“To me, that cross is the one that gave us freedom,” Bullins said, laughter absent for the moment. “That’s why I put it on there.”
At his shoulder, a plywood cutout of a contemporary soldier stood saluting the flag. Look for the soldier nearer the public road around holidays such as Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. Two other soldiers hold wooden rifles then to guard the driveway, and the flag goes up on the gate frame.
“I’ve always got something right there on every holiday – Easter, Thanksgiving … big rabbits, turkeys…,” he said.
But Christmas brings visitors who knock on the door and ask to roam the yard and look, and children with their expressions are Bullins’ main motivation.
“Kids. I love the kids’ eyes when they look at some of this stuff,” he said. “They walk around in the yard, looking – you know, ‘Mama, look! Mama, Mama, Come here!’”
He has seven grandchildren of his own. A granddaughter who is now 23 was an early appreciator of her grandfather’s creations.
“Years ago she used to walk around in the yard and look, you know, and I said, ‘OK, honey, I’ll start making a little bit more for you.’ She still comes by every now and then and looks.”
A work-related injury about 12 years ago sent Bullins, who is now 64, into early retirement. He was working in plumbing construction in Savannah and lifted a four-inch cast iron pipe.
“My lower back went out, like you took a pack of crackers and just crumbled them, and it took them eight hours to put me back together,” Bullins said.
Years earlier, he did some woodworking of a more practical type, making things such as grandfather clocks, bed frames and gun cabinets. After two and a half or three years of inactivity from his injury, he looked for something to do, and the ideas started coming to him.
Each figure takes about one full day to cut out, sand and paint, Bullins said. He does not sell any of the items, but has given a few as gifts.
In recent years Bullins has added cartoon characters, such as Mickey Mouse, and other pop culture references. Maintaining his preference for “deer” power, one Santa drives a John Deere tractor.
Bullins likes to create a couple of new figures each year. He bought a Snoopy from Walmart, but plans to make a Snoopy from plywood next year. Another idea he has is to put a Santa in a fishing boat, fishing.
“Just anything my mind hits, I’ll make it,” he said.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.