For nearly two decades Sulphur native Ralph "Pie" Sonnier has been turning bits of wood into stunning replicas of vehicles ranging from stately classic automobiles to their more pedestrian relatives – tractors, road graders, big rigs and the like.
"I worked at Century Steps and I fabricated a lot of stuff out of iron," said Sonnier in an interview with the Southwest Daily News at his shop dubbed the Garage Mahal, "I built a lot of decorative molds there and I decided I wanted to work with wood."
Sonnier bought the tools he thought he would need, including a big lathe.
"I decided that what I wanted to build was little things," he said, "My shop is so small, I didn't want to build furniture."
In 1994, Sonnier got a subscription to Wood Magazine and that was the beginning of the love affair.
"One issue had a plan for a small wooden dump truck which I tried my hand at building and was very proud of the results," he said.
After building several dump trucks for friends and family, he began searching for other small vehicle plans. He hit the jackpot with the website toysandjoys.com which, he said, had several plans for 6-inch to 18-inch vehicles. He also referred to gattoplans.com for detailed exterior plans.
"Since the plans never gave details of the interiors, I started collecting die cast vehicles to use as a guide," he said. "Now I build the vehicles without plans by looking at the die cast examples."
Unless he has a 'honey-do' list, Sonnier works in his shop most days from 7 a.m. to noon and then, after lunch and a rest, he's back at it until 5 p.m. He said he can't really answer people when they ask how long a certain piece takes.
"I tell them that when people go fishing or go play golf, they aren't keeping track of time. And I don't either," he said.
Sonnier said he most often uses cast-off pieces of wood from his pals in the Lake Charles Woodworkers Club. He does not work with soft woods. His favorite woods are cherry and black walnut. He uses lighter woods like oak and ash to stand as chrome in his replicas. And sometimes he splurges on ebony to use as an accent.
"It's $30 for little piece," he said.
He finishes most pieces with clear polyurethane, except for certain vehicles like the John Deere tractor he painted green and road work vehicles that he paints yellow.
In 2007, Sonnier won first place in a national build-a-gift contest sponsored by Wood Magazine for his 1936 SSJ Dusenberg in the Best Miniature Replica division. He has also been featured in local newspapers several times, on Louisiana Traveler and for five of the last six years, his work has been part of the Works of Men show at the Henning Cultural Center.
Page 2 of 2 - He even got a call from Tonight Show host and classic car aficionado Jay Leno.
In response to solicitations for pictures from viewers, Sonnier sent photos of some of his wood automobiles to the Late Show. He said Leno called to thank him personally.
"I recognized the voice right away. I asked him to hold on while I told my wife (Joey) who was on the phone."
Sonnier said every step of the process is done with great care and pride – from visualization straight on through to the clear coat.
"Woodworking is a very relaxing and rewarding hobby for me," he said. "My finished vehicles show the beauty of the hardwoods blended with my love of cars and trucks."