There’s a moment when Jeff Jacobs demonstrates his carved wooden birds at farmers markets that always makes onlookers gasp. “I tell them: ‘No glue,’ ”Jacobs says. That’s when they realize his intricate wooden hummingbirds, each feather articulated like the individual plumes of a peacock in full fan, were carved from a single piece of wood.
The resulting creations are examples of fan carving, a folk art that originated in Eastern Europe. On Saturday mornings at Eastern Market in the District, and some Wednesday afternoons at the Clarendon farmers market, Jacobs brings his workbench and demonstrates his craft. He slices the bird’s wood plumage into thin blades to make the feathers, spreading each one out one by one, creating a fan effect. “I’ll sit there, cut birds and demonstrate stuff — that’s really the fascinating part of this process. But if nobody shows up and nobody buys, it’s okay, because I’m working.”
The soft-spoken Arlington County native, 59, works as a carpenter specializing in finish work (he spent 10 years focusing on interior handrails), crafting the birds during his off hours. The multistep process includes carving the wood into its destined shape — usually a hummingbird — then burning the edge of the wooden plumage for a dramatic visual effect when fanned. Jacobs soaks the wood in water before carving the feathers so that it will bend without breaking. “I tell kids there’s a difference between wet and saturated. When you take spaghetti out of a box, it breaks. But if your mom cooks it, once it’s saturated, it bends.”
Finally, after the feathers are fanned into their final shape, the bird is dipped in lacquer. When dried, Jacobs’s hummingbirds typically sell for $65 and up; larger birds, including doves and eagles, start at $75. Jacobs works out of a meticulously appointed work space in his garage, joking that he bought his home, near the heart of Columbia Pike’s business district, solely for that purpose. “Effectively, I bought a two-car garage with a detached house.”
Jacobs started carving fan birds 25 years ago, after observing Michigan lumberjack and artisan Glenn Van Antwerp demonstrate the craft at the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Mall. “I walked by this guy thinking, ‘Oh, that’s cute, popsicle sticks glued together,’ but I glue wood together all day long, I’m a carpenter, so I kept walking. I don’t know what caught my attention, but I realized — no, something else is going on here. Sticks glued together? There’s no glue, it’s one piece of wood — and I was hooked.”
It was a hobby Jacobs would pursue for many years, bringing the birds along with him as hostess gifts. It’s only in the past two years that he has started to demonstrate the craft and sell his birds. “I’ve known how to do this for 25 years,” he said, “but I thought, I’m getting older, this might be something to do when I get older.” Jacobs also occasionally demonstrates another talent at local farmers markets: playing his concertina.
The Arlingtonian started his career in woodwork and carpentry by chance. After attending Oakridge Elementary and Gunston Middle School, Jacobs attended a private high school in Connecticut before returning to Arlington. A stint in college convinced him he wasn’t interested in pursuing academics, and the artistically inclined young Jacobs was briefly adrift, trying various jobs before settling on carpentry as a profession. One older mentor persuaded him to go into a trade profession because, he said with a slight smile, “I think a lot. And that’s not always helpful.” Jacobs also cites his conversion to Christianity as a nudge toward carpentry.
A deciding moment came during a stint remodeling a travel agency on U Street, next door to a construction site — a large hole in the ground. “Over by the window were these guys in three-piece suits and my boss, a college grad, nudges me: ‘See those guys in the suits? They all wish they were down there.’ I knew what he meant.”
Jacobs has only recently branched out from hummingbirds and doves to a larger bird — the eagle. He shows a visitor a recent creation that he’s tweaked with wire legs drilled into an additional piece of wood. The line of the eagle’s head, slightly bent, is parallel to the wood in which its wire legs are nestled — as though, like its creator, it has found the right space to touch down.
Jacobs said many of his birds take on a similar appearance. “My birds have a feel of landing,” he said. “Flaring to land.”