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Carvers Share Love For Craft

January 28, 2013

Staff photo/Janice Barniak: Weston Hirschfeld, of New Bremen, works on a piece of wood in his shop.

ST. MARYS — Locals Weston Hirschfeld, of New Bremen, and Gene Knox, of St. Marys, are woodworkers who turn patterns into art, but when it comes to process, the men use wildly different techniques.

While Knox carves in his cozy kitchen at a home in Otterbein, Hirschfeld, 17, works in a barn with a small electric heater on his parents’ farm.

Knox is a chip carver, and has been working at 20 years — longer than Hirschfeld has been alive. He begins his work by drawing a pattern in pencil directly on the wood, using a protractor and ruler, or printing a pattern from his computer onto heat sensitive paper and transferring it to the piece.

Chip carving doesn’t have the unlimited shape possibilities like the fretwork Hirschfeld does — every shape must have between two to six sides. Knox inserts a knife at an angle on each side of the shape with the intention they’ll meet at the bottom and the chip of wood can be smoothly removed from the piece.

Knox has his choice of only two woods that are soft enough to carve, but firm enough to hold the edge, bass wood and butternut. Bass is a white-blonde wood, bright and soft, while butternut, rare in Ohio, is darker with a more textured, marbled look.

He learned chip carving from a man he called the “Michael Jordan of chip carvers,” Wayne Barber. Knox said the most interesting part of his sort of carving is trying to figure out the patterns on commission work.

Recently, he was commissioned to carve a copy of a retiring officer’s police badge. The badge featured a copy of the seal of the state of Ohio on it, and rendering the design of the badge — which ended up approximately 16 inches high and 11 inches wide — was a tricky task.

“I had to do a lot of thinking on it,” Knox said. “I didn’t know if I could tackle it or not.”

Knox said to complete that kind of work he had to be careful to not let his mind wander to any background distraction like TV, because, as all wood carvers know, you can carve a piece off, but you can’t put it back.

“You just go by experience,” Knox said.

For Hirschfeld, carving is quick. Like Knox, he makes a pattern using the computer, then tapes the pattern to the wood he’s working on. If there’s a hole in the piece, he drills to have a place to put the tiny saw blade he uses for fretwork.

All the cutting he does, whether it’s fretwork or the more difficult, puzzle-like intargia, is done mechanically, with a saw. When he’s done cutting he sands his piece with a hand sander, and covers the wood in a glossy oil, then lets it dry.

Start to finish, a small cross can take Hirschfeld 30 minutes.

Hirschfeld said he isn’t worried about cutting himself with his tools.

“I could cut my nails on this,” he said, turning the piece of wood around the blade.

The more intricate of the two arts, for him, is the intargia, where some pieces are foregrounded while others recede, sometimes involving as many as 800 pieces of wood to cut.

“The creative part would really be in choosing the wood,” Hirschfeld said, noting that a recent piece had 15 different species of wood involved.

While both men sell in booths at craft expos or on commission, Hirschfeld said he’d found another outlet by doing religious work.

He said his most recent spiritual piece was The Last Supper, and he has a Palm Sunday and another inspirational scene planned.

The carvers’ works can be viewed until Feb. 15 at Arts Place on East Spring Street in St. Marys.

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