Carving eagles, hewing timbers for log houses or carefully piecing together their own furniture, thousands of people in the United States and elsewhere are rediscovering the quiet joys of working with wood.
Their handiwork ranges from the creative and artistic to the mundane and practical, from bird carvings so realistic they look like the work of a taxidermist to abstract sculptures. But whatever the end result, there's a common impetus, a love for the texture and warmth of this most natural of mediums.
At the forefront of renewed interest in the creative manipulation of wood is a growing army of carvers, the great majority of whom wield their knives and chisels only for pleasure, although some would like to develop their hobby into a profession.
Begun in 1953 by a small band of enthusiasts, the National Wood Carvers Association, headquartered in Cincinnati, now has around 15,000 members, according to its president, Ed Gallenstein. With 130 chapters in all parts of the United States and "members in 38 or 40 countries all over the world," says Gallenstein, the association's title should really read "International."
At the 12th annual International Wood Carvers' Congress, held last year in Davenport, Iowa, 5,849 individual carvings, submitted by craftsmen from various countries, vied for the best-in-show award.
Only 10 years ago Marple's, a Sheffield, England, cutlery firm, was thinking of discontinuing its line of carving tools. That was about the same time "we (the wood carvers' association) really took off," recalls Gallenstein.
Suddenly, the company found itself with more orders for carving implements than it could fill, and it has retained a major interest in carving and in other kinds of woodcraft.
Richard Dabrowski, vice president of Woodcraft Supply Corp. of Woburn, Mass., estimates that his firm is now doing about five times more business than five years ago. And, increasingly, "it's the more sophisticated tools that are finding a market, not only among wood carvers and whittlers," he says, but among all types of woodworkers.
Woodcraft Supply's retail outlet in Woburn carries a staggering assortment of woodworking tools, ranging from exotic shaped whittling knives to reproductions of colonial-era carpentry hardware. On a recent walk through the store, Ron Roszkiewicz, catalogue development manager for the company, noted some of the history behind many tools. The rifflers, for example, used for small detail work, are almost identical to those used by da Vinci; the basic shape of the adze, for smoothing beams, dates to the ancient Greeks.
Roszkiewicz, who left a career as a Russian translator to take up wood turning before finally joining Woodcraft Supply, identifies a number of reasons for the company's surging business.
First, he notes, "Traditional woodworking is coming back." The construction of log houses, for example, is one strong trend, particularly in Canada. Such work requires a special set of tools -- broad axes, for instance, and tools for grasping and moving logs.
Second, more people find they now have the leisure time for home projects that formerly would have been contracted to tradesmen. "The bulk of our customers," he says, "are people in their houses, in their basement workshops."