Campus Uncommons:  Jim Barbour

Besides molding young minds in the classroom, the economics professor finds joy in creating wooden pieces in his backyard shop.

By Philip Jones

Jim Barbour has been shaping Elon students since the fall of 1990. He’s been shaping wood for much longer than that.

As an associate professor of economics and department chair, Barbour is no stranger to being a craftsman. He molds young minds, challenges them and watches them transform as they apply concepts learned in the classroom. It’s important, satisfying work. But it’s not enough for Barbour. While that work often yields remarkable results, it’s not something he can physically wrap his hands around. For that, Barbour relies on what happens in the backyard shop he built with the help of his son. It’s his turnery, the place where he’s handcrafted thousands of objects out of wood.

His tools range from historical to high-tech and include lathes, drill presses, saws and computerized laser cutters. With them he’s made everything from the cabinets in his kitchen, to boxes that hold engagement rings, to the heraldic staffs held by marshals as they lead graduates and faculty members during the processional at Commencement. Like many of his pieces, the staffs were made from wood collected on Elon’s campus. More specifically, they incorporate wood from an oak that fell during a 2000 storm.

“They’ll be here forever,” he says of the staffs, a legacy that makes him proud.

Turning, as it’s called, is in Barbour’s blood. He saw his father and grandfather do it, and he got his first hands-on experience when his dad had him repair a wooden toy he’d broken when he was eight years old. (Barbour still has that replacement part, by the way.) “It’s fun,” he says. “It’s just that simple.”

But it’s also something he needs. “To be able to reach out and touch something you made … that is something that I think we as human beings need. And I think that is something that we, as academics, don’t often get.”

To see some of Barbour’s creations, visit his website,

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