North Pittsburgh carvers turn wood into works of art

Members of Chisels and Chips Carvers gather around the table during a session at Parkwood United Presbyterian Church in Allison Park Monday, June 9, 2014.
Members of Chisels and Chips Carvers gather around the table during a session at Parkwood United Presbyterian Church in Allison Park Monday, June 9, 2014.
Photo by Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
| Wednesday, June 18, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

Dale Kirkpatrick long has had a fondness for trees, having spent his upbringing exploring Midwestern backcountry.

But it wasn't until the mid-1970s that he started learning to turn wood into works of art.

After accumulating a trove of reading material and taking lessons on wood carving, he has proved prolific, using his imagination to carve countless works ranging from Native American figures and angels to caricatures and faces engraved in wooden spools.

“I just like being able to create things with my hands,” said Kirkpatrick, 68, of Penn Hills, a retired computer systems analyst who maintains a website displaying his hand-carved works. He said he recently was asked by a relative to carve a sailor bearing an American flag for his son-in-law, who is retiring from the Navy.

Kirkpatrick shares his enthusiasm for carving with others who are part of a woodcarving group that meets once a month in Parkwood United Presbyterian Church in Allison Park for discussions and workshops.

The group, Chisels and Chips Carvers of North Pittsburgh, formed nearly 20 years ago. It has about 50 members, most of them retirees, and it offers introductory classes.

For many carvers who are part of the group, the activity has a calming effect and allows one to enjoy the scents and textures of wood. They acknowledge, however, that the craft involves much patience and precision. A piece can take weeks, sometimes months, to finish.

“It's very relaxing,” said Ed Barnett, the president of the group, who picked up the hobby after retiring as an architect. He recently finished carving several crucifixes out of a piece of mahogany and delivering them to patients at a local assisted-living facility for senior citizens.

Barnett, 76, of Penn Hills, joined the Chisels and Chips group about five years ago after spending years with another group in East Liberty. The grandson of a carpenter, he said he built furniture and kitchen cabinets for the home where he and wife first lived after they married in the early 1960s.

“I just like the detail,” he said. “I have always liked the natural grains and imperfections that nature provides.”

Workshops, exhibits and juried shows for wood carving hobbyists abound, and one of the biggest annual shows in Dayton, Ohio, known as Artistry in Wood, draws thousands of carvers each year.

Many carvers use basswood, which grows across the country and has a texture that retains detail better than some other woods.

In Western Pennsylvania, the craft is less prevalent than in the central and eastern parts of the state, Kirkpatrick said.

Some carvers have turned the hobby into a livelihood.

Bob Stadtlander, who gave a talk at the last Chisels and Chips gathering on June 9, picked up carving as a diversion after graduating from college more than 25 years ago. He eventually grew so interested that he took time off from his day job as a quality control engineer in the mid-2000s, to devote more time to it.

“It ended up being five years” Stadtlander, 51, said.

The northeastern Ohio resident teaches woodcarving classes, traveling as far as Nebraska, and his works have appeared in juried shows.

He runs an online woodcarving supply store.

Carving can be expensive ”if you want it to,” he said, but spending as little as $50 would prove sufficient.

“All you need,” he said, “is one good, sharp knife.”

Jake Flannick is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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