The Current

How wood carving is chiselling away at its image as an 'old man's' hobby

Wood carving competitions have noted a slight shift in demographics since the pandemic, suggesting that more women and young people took up the hobby during lockdown.

Wood carving felt like 'dying art' but is now seeing renewed interest, says one carver

A series of birds carved out of wood, sitting on a table.
Entries at the 2023 Canadian National Wildfowl Carving Championship in Waterloo, Ont., in June. The competition attracted carvers of all abilities. (Amanda Grant/CBC)

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Carving a duck out of wood may not be everyone's idea of a good time, but wood carvers are hopeful that their beloved hobby seems to be attracting more women and young people. 

"I imagine that a lot of people think it's an old man's sport or hobby, and it's not actually," said Anne Forler, from Kitchener, Ont. 

"There's a bunch of kids down there that are doing some work … there are a couple of women in our club and hopefully we can encourage more."

Forler spoke to The Current at the 2023 Canadian National Wildfowl Carving Championship in June. The competition in Waterloo, Ont., drew carvers of all abilities from all over the country, to show off their birds and share tips and trade secrets.

This particular event focuses on birds, from ducks to songbirds to birds of prey. Some are decorative, and some are decoys — the type of wooden birds used by hunters to tempt prey. Antique versions of those decoys can be big business: a rare 19th-century decoy of a red-breasted merganser sold for $856,000 US in New York in 2007.

A bird carved out of wood, sitting on a table.
Some entries at the competition are decoys — the type of wooden birds used by hunters to tempt prey, while some are decorative. (Amanda Grant/CBC)
A series of birds carved out of wood, sitting on a table.
The competition also features carvings of songbirds. (Amanda Grant/CBC)

Competitions like this one have noted a slight shift in demographics since the pandemic, as wood carving became one of those hobbies people took up during lockdown. Entries to the competition in Waterloo doubled between 2019 and the next event in 2022. In May, the Atlantic Carving Show and Competition had its first entries in the youth category.

Vicky Theis has been carving for 30 years, and up until recently was worried about the craft.

"It felt like it was a dying art and there were less and less members. But now we're starting to pick up — the younger people are starting to come back to hobbies," said Theis, from Kitchener, Ont. 

One of those young people is Ciaran Pruett, a teenager who has been carving since around the beginning of last year, and was drawn to its tactile nature. 

"I love just delving in with it and changing a block of wood to something that can be admired," said the 16-year-old from New Hamburg, Ont. 

"Really all you need is maybe a carving knife and somewhere to look up patterns to go with and get a piece of wood — and you're flying."

A teenage boy stands with a carved wooden duck in an audiorium. There are more ducks on tables behind him.
Ciaran Pruett, a 16-year-old carver from New Hamburg, Ont., has been carving since around the beginning of last year. (Amanda Grant/CBC)
A carved wooden duck being held up by one hand, in an auditorium.
Pruett entered a hooded merganser, made in the style of a contemporary antique. (Amanda Grant/CBC)

Pruett was one of a handful of youth entries at the Waterloo competition, but he's been encouraging other teenagers to give it a try — if only so he'll have a bit more competition. 

"So far, there hasn't been many other people in my age group that's been competing. And I've been trying my absolute best to get more people out here and give it a shot," he said.

A family affair

Traditionally, carvers used hand tools to reveal what's hidden in blocks of cedar, but the choice of tools and materials has changed over the years. Many carvers now use wood grinders — which look a little like a dentist's drill — to strip away wood with precision. A hard wood called tupelo, native to Mississippi marshland, is the material of choice for many experienced carvers. 

The carving itself can take days, weeks or months depending on style and technique. 

Forler is in her 50s, and started to learn about wood carving about 10 years ago from her dad, who is now in his 90s. She didn't expect to enjoy it as much as she does, and hopes other people consider taking it up. 

"It's relaxing and it's fun when you get past the learning point and — the stressful learning point," she said.

"The time I've spent with him doing the carving, that's been amazing. And I think it's just made us closer. It's just really cool."

A woman stands holding a wooden carving of a bird, with other models of birds on shelves behind her.
Anne Forler spends time carving with her father, who is in his 90s. (Amanda Grant/CBC)

It's often a family member who introduces people to carving. Teenager Pruett was introduced to the hobby by his grandfather, Peter Fortune, who is one of the organizers of the Waterloo competition. 

Fortune taught his grandson all about carving, and this year, Pruett entered a hooded merganser — a type of duck — in the style of a contemporary antique. These are newly carved decoys, made in the style of decoys from decades and even more than a century ago. Carvers use various techniques to make their decoys look older — Pruett used things like fireplace dust to give his entry the aura of an antique. 

"I love carving birds because you get to see the different anatomy of it and learn different things," he said. 

"But I would 100 per cent carve different stuff as well," he said, adding that the competitions also features categories like wood-burning art, and carvings of other types of figures too. 

'The essence of the bird'

For master carver Ken Hussey, decoys of birds were how he got into wood carving in the first place.

"I used to hunt at Long Point, and I saw the older fellows had all these nice wooden decoys and I had plastic that was bouncing around on the water," said Hussey, from Brantford, Ont.

A man sits at a bench, carving a block of wood
Master carver Ken Hussey enjoys the sense of community at competitions and carving events. (Amanda Grant/CBC)

He decided to try to make his own decoy — and 30 years later he's one of Canada's best. Hussey swept the board in the expert category of the Contemporary Antique Decoy Class at the 2022 competition.

A good decoy "has to have what they call the essence of the bird," he said. "It has to look like that bird sitting relaxed on the water. A feeding bird is really nice, [or] when it's turned around, preening."

While there's a solid market for wood carving sales at artisan shops and craft shows, Hussey said he enjoys the human connection that these events offer. He comes to competitions to meet old friends, including former students he taught to carve wood.

"We're hermits, we're in our basement ... we sometimes come out to teach, but most of the time we're stuck in our lonely little space by ourselves, maybe with a radio," he said.

"It's very important for carvers to get together. There is quite a community."

Audio produced by Amanda Grant.

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