WITH each pass of the knife, more and more detail emerged out of the piece of basswood.
A nose, eyebrows and slight curve of a smile appeared on what was once a flat wooden surface. An expression of amused happiness slowly took shape.
Curly-cues of wood shavings flew as Edwin McClure worked with his simple carving knife.
The Franklin resident has been carving wood for more than 70 years and has helped teach hundreds of people to do the same. He’s part of a group of Johnson County men and women who are dedicated to preserving the historical aspects of simple woodcarving.
Using the same rough knives, chisels, files and saws that carvers have employed for hundreds of years, they can turn a block of wood into a sculpture with intricate detail.
“As I’m carving something, I’m developing a skill that I can pass on to someone else. That helps keep this alive,” McClure said.
A vital piece of keeping woodcarving tradition alive has been community clubs that allow interested people to share and learn from other carvers.
Franklin’s group, the Chipmates, meets every Thursday at the Franklin Cultural Arts and Recreation Center to work on carving.
McClure plans a group project to start each session. Participants can follow along with him, asking questions if they run into problems. Others bring their own work to get advice and bounce ideas off other members.
“We try to help people learning skills and enlarging the skills they have,” McClure said.
The club has about 10 regular members, though group sizes can swell and dwindle throughout the year, McClure said. People come from Trafalgar, Bargersville and Martinsville to take part in the weekly sessions.
Fellow Franklin woodcarver Eldon Rebhorn has been working with wood for more than 70 years. He got started on the farm he grew up on, taking scrap pieces of wood and working on them with his jackknife.
As an adult, he blended traditional carving with woodturning, using a lathe to spin a piece of wood and shape it. He works mostly with exotic woods, tending to take a more stylized take on design and form.
“The creative part is the best,” he said. “I never want to copy anyone else’s design, so I create my own.”
Rebhorn started attending Chipmates meetings shortly after moving to Franklin.
“It’s a good exchange while we get together. We have different styles, but we can appreciate what each other is doing,” he said.
Often, club members will rotate to other area woodcarving meetings.
Columbus resident Larry Carter took a series of classes from McClure when he started carving eight years ago.
Now a member of the Hoosier Carvers, the oldest woodcarving club in Indiana, he will sit in on sessions and share knowledge with different groups throughout the area.
“The clubs are basically where I learned to carve. Talking with other people, and seeing what they’re doing, really creates some fellowship. That’s what I like about it,” Carter said.
McClure has been carving wood for more than 70 years. As a boy, he used a pocketknife to carve balsa wood into miniature battleships.
As an adult, he was trained by a New York art teacher to help lead a church youth group in woodcarving.
“She got me going on a bird about the size of a goldfinch. Then I’d go to the library, find magazines, read books, find a carving club. My interest grew from there,” he said. “Over time, you develop a little more skill at this part and that part.”
Sitting at a bench in his Franklin home, McClure pulled out his tool box and prepared to start his next project.
His first step is to put a Kevlar glove on his left hand, to protect from errant knife strokes. Another Kevlar guard goes on his right thumb, which he uses to push the blades.
From there, he has dozens of simple tools from which to choose.
His carving knife is a thin, squat blade with a thick handle. Though it looks unimposing, McClure keeps it sharpened to a razor’s edge. Other knives have curved or angled blades.
“These can make particular kinds of cuts that the straight knife can’t get to,” he said.
Chisels are used to gouge out slices of wood. Files smooth out faces, hands and other details. Small hooks help him touch up the tiniest sections of his work.
All of the tools are methodically organized and separated to prevent chipping or damage to the edges.
“You don’t want to booger up that edge,” he said. “You work hard to get that edge.”
McClure has accumulated a collection of whimsical works of art over years.
One sculpture depicts Mr. Toad, Ratty and Mole from the “Wind in the Willows.”
Another shows a magician attempting to pull a rabbit from his hat. A look of surprise is carved into his face when his trick conjures his mother-in-law instead.
An intricate floral display is done in the style of Renaissance-era cathedrals, modeled after the style of Windsor Castle and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, England.
Each piece is made from basswood — the standard for carvers.
Taken from the common North American basswood tree, it has a light, even grain, resulting in a neutral colored wood.
“You almost have to study it closely to see the layers of grain in it,” McClure said.
Using three large pieces of basswood, he created a raised display of a potter’s hands throwing a bowl on a wheel.
“It’s a hobby that I can do with my hands while something else is going on,” McClure said. “That’s what is so great about it.”