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ON THE SCENE: Making a mess carving

October 3, 2011

“You guys are making a mess,” I said. “Does that bother you?”

Two meeting rooms off the lobby of the Northwoods Inn were indeed a mess. The rooms themselves were filled with an array of men, mostly older but by no means all, sitting around tables carving away on small blocks of wood. There was an overall hum of conversations broken every now and then by someone getting up to go over and talk to another.

My comments were addressed to two who seemed to be particularly adept at creating a small flurry of pale petals of wood that tumbled down to land in small heaps about their feet.

“Not at all,” said Jim Pierson.

“Hopefully when we get finished the results will not be a mess,” said Jim O’Dea.

“What are you making?” I asked.

“We are carving study sticks,” said O’Dea. “The purpose of these is to help one work through the different elements of the face.”

Jim O’Dea is one leading teachers of woodcarving in the United States. Last year he partnered with the Gary Smith, owner of the Northwoods Inn, to host the first Lake Placid Wood Carving Experience. It proved to be such a success that this year they extended the program to two weeks.

Study sticks are made of one and one-eighth square blocks of wood about 14 inches long. The purpose of the sticks are to provide the carver with a visual record of the steps he or she takes to carve a nose, an open mouth with teeth, a pair of eyes and an ear. A person will make an initial notch, below that a similar notch taken a bit further and so on until the particular feature is completed. Once that is accomplished, the student puts it all together by carving a profile of a face.

“I waited for this course for a year,” said Pierson, of Saranac Lake. “I heard about it, then saw an article about it in the paper and decided to come in.”

“How long have you been carving?”

“About three days,” said Pierson. “I started in Boy Scouts, then put it down, it was more like whittling, then I did a bit in Iraq, stopped, and now I am able to take it up again. To me it is a portable hobby. It is something you can take with you. It is relaxing and it is amazing what comes out of the wood. Sometimes you make a mistake, and you have to make it work.”

“There are no mistakes, they are truth changes,” said O’Dea.

“That’s right, based in what happens a new truth comes out,” said Pierson.

“In woodcarving there is no putting something back on, so when you lose a chunk then it calls for improvising, which is part of the fun,” said O’Dea.

“So how is it going for you?” I asked Pierson.

“I feel very lucky. I was the only one that signed up for the study stick so I am getting one on one instruction. These are world-class carvers. People are very friendly. They come around and give you tips. They are all very accessible.”

Meanwhile back out in the lobby local artist Sandra Hildreth was painting away on a bear carved by instructor Carl Brost that will become a part of the Saranac Lake Carrousel currently under construction.

“I have painted three of the animals that Carl has carved,” said Hildreth. “I just like to volunteer for community projects. I love animals. I normally paint landscapes. I like having a challenge and felt I could do this. I like to step out of my comfort zone and do something that’s of interest. I don’t have a lot of money, but I have a skill, so that’s what I contribute.”

“Our program is twice as long as last year,” said Northwoods Inn owner Gary Smith. “We are planning three, four and five day programs for next year all coming in on Sunday. We have world-class instructors. It’s a wonderful program. I enjoy being part of an effort to preserve the skills. My hope is to have 200 carvers next year, and that two of the instructors will be bird carvers.”

“I have carved five complete animals and assisted on three others for the carousel,” said Brost. I started carving in ’92. I was at an event and there were some carvers there. I thought what they were doing was very interesting. I always liked to draw, I was a sign painter, and thought I would like to try that so I bought a knife. The toughest thing I had to learn was how to sharpen the tools. Once I started carving I just loved it so I quit my job and I have been carving ever since.”

“Guys as good as Carl can start with a razor blade and sharpen it,” said John Wagner, “I just tried a different variety of hobbies and carving just drew me to it. I didn’t get a lot better at it, which is why I am taking this class.”

“It is just a matter of taking off everything that doesn’t belong,” said Brost holding up an Indian head for me to inspect.

“Sounds like something Michelangelo would say,” I said.

“Well, it’s true,” said Brost. “This is the opposite of clay as we take away while they add to it. Clay is much easier to use as you can change it. Carving is a great hobby. The hours just melt away. My only regret is that I didn’t start earlier.”

“You have never carved before and you did that?” I said to Jim Prince, who showed me a completed figure.

“Yea,” said Prince. “Pete LeClair is a very good teacher and he has a lot of patience. I had never been to Placid before and this workshop seemed like a good excuse to come up. I have totally enjoyed this weekend. I plan to come back.”

“I like the camaraderie,” said Reid Soransen. “We have people who have been carving for 20 to 25 years to those just starting, and you get one on one instruction.”

For more information about this and next year’s carving workshops, visit:

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This column first appeared in our print edition on Sept 23. To subscribe to the Lake Placid News, call 518-891-2600 and ask for the LPN.



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