New Brunswick

Retirees carve comfort birds to bring peace to people in pain, mourning

Eighty-year-old Bob Clowater sits in his basement surrounded by stacks of wood and the carving tools he uses to make wooden birds for people in pain.

‘It gives me something to do, something to look forward to,’ carver says

Comfort birds can help people deal with pain or the death of a loved one, carvers say. They can also be given to people with ADHD, autism or anxiety. (Sarah Morin/CBC)

An 80-year-old man sits in his basement surrounded by stacks of wood and carving tools. The room smells like cedar, and sawdust covers his knees.

Bob Clowater is making wooden birds to help people deal with pain or the loss of loved ones. The birds can also be given to people with autism, ADHD or anxiety.

They're designed to fit in the palm of your hand, so you can rub them for comfort. 

Clowater started making comfort birds three years ago and said he's made about 50 since then. His friend Brian Dykeman has made more than 1,000 over the past five years. 

Bob Clowater and Brian Dykeman have carved hundreds of comfort birds for people across North America who are in pain. 1:10

"It gives me something to do, something to look forward to," said Clowater, who started carving after he retired 19 years ago from the Department of Transportation, where he ordered parts for vehicles and construction equipment. Dykeman started carving around the same time. 

"I either wanted to do that or painting," Clowater said.

He ran into a friend at a craft show who invited him to try his hand at carving. 

"I went and I started carving and I've been doing it ever since."

Bob Clowater started carving in 2002, after he retired from the Department of Transportation. (Sarah Morin/CBC)

Clowater and Dykeman are part of a carving group with 14 other retirees who meet to carve on Monday nights. 

Besides comfort birds, they also carve wooden cats, dogs, owls, and bird brooches. But they enjoy carving the birds because they take less time to finish and they make other people feel better. 

"It just gives you a good feeling that it's going to help somebody, and that's the big thing," Clowater said.

"I read a story about one gentleman, his wife was very sick with cancer, and he gave her the comfort bird and she had that in her hand all the time — day in and day out. When she died, he set it on top of his television and he keeps it there year round."

Brian Dykeman has been carving wooden comfort birds for about five years. (Sarah Morin/CBC)

Paul St. Pierre bought a bird a couple of years ago from Clowater at the Fredericton Boyce Farmers Market. He said holding the bird helps distract him from being anxious or angry.

Rubbing a bird "is like thinking about something else when you have a headache," St. Pierre said. "If you think of something else, then your headache goes away." 

Dykeman has shipped comfort birds across North America and said he keeps getting emails back about how effective they are, and how much they mean to people. 

How comfort birds are made 

Dykeman said a man in Pennsylvania came up with the idea for comfort birds in the 1980s. 

"He got some publicity in one of the carving magazines … and it's been mushrooming ever since," Dykeman said.

Comfort birds are designed to fit in the palm of your hand, so you can rub them for peace. (Sarah Morin/CBC)

Comfort birds can be carved from soft and hard wood — sumac, butternut, birch, maple, oak and cedar to name a few. 

Carvers start by cutting out the general shape of the bird from a block of wood. Then, they use an electric carving tool to round off the hard edges. After that, they sand it down and apply mineral oil to make the bird smoother.

Once the oil has dried, usually in about four hours, the birds can be painted with food dye or polished. 

"It's a real pleasure when I start to do a carving and I get the finished product," said Clowater. Once he's finished a carving, he likes to run upstairs and show it off to his wife, Carol. 

"If I'm doing it here, I take it upstairs and I show Carol and I say, 'Here, how do you like this?"

Clowater lives in Penniac, about 20 minutes north of Fredericton. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

They've sold the birds to family, friends and people at the farmers market for $15 and donated some to Hospice Fredericton.

The birds don't just bring joy to the people who receive them, the men said. Clowater and Dykeman also find happiness in carving them. 

"It is satisfaction when you see the final painting and your bird mounted on a base or whatever and you stand back and look at it," Clowater said. "It's hard to explain what the feelings are in it." 

Dykeman has shipped comfort birds across North America and said he keeps getting emails back about how much they mean to people. (Sarah Morin/CBC)

About the Author

Sarah Morin

Reporter

Sarah Morin is a reporter with CBC New Brunswick based in Fredericton. Story tip? sarah.morin@cbc.ca

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