RALEIGH — Deep in the bowels of the Raleigh Convention Center, David Benson crouches inside the shell of a giant nut.
Maybe it's the sparks from his welding tool, or the heavy mask he wears to protect his face, but Benson looks like a mad scientist at work in an underground lair.
This is no experiment. Unless Benson finishes his task on time, thousands will be disappointed next week when Raleigh gathers to ring in the new year.
Benson, a Raleigh sculptor, has set up a temporary workspace in Truck Berth 2 to perform surgery on the city's famous acorn.
The 1,250-pound statue sports a dent in its copper exterior, courtesy of the April tornadoes that sent tree limbs flying through parts of downtown.
Each year, Benson accompanies the acorn as it is hoisted by a crane and dropped as part of the First Night Raleigh festival on Fayetteville Street.
The preparations started early this year.
Benson used a welding rod to fasten metal bars that form the acorn's skeleton. To climb inside the hollow interior, Benson peeled off one of the acorn's copper panels, exposing a part of the nut he hadn't seen in years.
No one understands the intricacies quite like Benson. He designed the piece and donated it for the city's Bicentennial in 1992.
A few years ago, Benson's ex-wife urged him to give up his duties and find something else to do on New Year's. Not happening.
"That's why she's my ex-wife, I guess," he said.
Benson's ties to Raleigh go beyond his work as a sculptor. He also owns Third Place, a coffee shop in the Five Points neighborhood.
Before that, he owned the Spirit of Silver, an artisan jewelry shop on Hillsborough Street. But Benson knows he will always be best-known for his skills with an acorn.
On Dec. 29, 1991, the acorn was escorted from Benson's home studio in Five Points by a parade of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, a man in a squirrel outfit and carloads of admirers.
More than 20 years later, the statue remains a quirky symbol for the City of Oaks. And Benson is still its proud caretaker.
The acorn sat on a trailer in the underbelly of the convention center one morning last week. With its innards exposed, the statue did not look close to being ready for its big moment.
Benson seemed unfazed. He's already cleaned out leaves and dust that piled up at the bottom of the acorn, which stands throughout the year in downtown's Moore Square.
One thing he left: a dusty can from a Coca-Cola that he drank while working on the piece in 1991.
Once he stabilizes the metal frame, Benson will go to work reattaching the copper exterior. He'll scrub and polish the nut with a special substance to give the new panels a slightly worn look.
And Benson will keep close watch when the acorn begins its annual New Year's ascent, eager to make sure his prized creation is treated with proper respect.