Ray Douglas carves pieces of wood one chip at a time

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Shelly Birkelo
Thursday, September 4, 2014

BRODHEAD—In a workshop next to his South Dickey Road house, Ray Douglas starts cutting away pieces of wood with the blade of his chip carving knife.

Sitting in an old leather office chair, Douglas rests the block of wood atop his thigh, pushing down on the 1.5-inch blade with calloused fingertips. He begins cutting tiny pieces of wood from block, quickly brushing them away.

“I've always loved working with wood. I'm a carpenter by trade and grew up on a farm," he said.

After attending a couple woodcarving shows, the 61-year-old got his first exposure to the craft after he enrolled in a one-day carving class in Madison.

"I learned it wasn't as hard as it looks," Douglas said.

Later, while picking up some lumber for carpentry jobs and some carving, an employee at the Monroe saw mill asked Douglas what he was going to do with the carving wood.

When Douglas explained, the man invited him to join the Monroe Swiss Valley Wood Carvers Club, where members primarily do chip carving.

Since then, Douglas has carved several hundred pieces from Christmas tree ornaments to keepsake boxes. He has also joined the Rock River Valley Carvers of Wisconsin, participated in two shows and has won a couple of awards.

On Saturday, Sept. 13, Douglas will be the featured carver of the Rock River group's annual show and sale at the Rock County Fairgrounds. He plans to have a couple dozen pieces on display and for sale.

"If somebody asks, I'll show them (my carving) techniques," he said. "I want to tell people if they think they can't do it, they can. Eight years ago I thought I couldn't do this, but when I tried I could."

During fall and winter, Douglas spends days carving in his shop when he isn't doing carpentry work. He designs and creates projects from basswood and butternut wood.

One 3-foot circular wall hanging, which adorns his living room wall, took Douglas more than 300 hours to make.

"The patterns took a lot of fooling around and a compass,'' he said of the geometric, nature-themed piece.

"I wanted some bold cuts and lighter cuts so you could look at it at a distance or up close and there would be appealing deep and shallow cuts," he said.

Douglas said his cabinetry background offered no help when he was first learning to carve. However, his knowledge of wood and how wood grain affects projects did.

For example, "the farther north basswood is grown the better the carving wood it will be because it is slower growing and the growth rings are closer together," he said.

Douglas said he carves in a series he describes as an order.

"It's a cutting process. You just got to be gentle," he said.

A detail-oriented and patient person, Douglas enjoys the challenge wood carving poses.

"You're never going to learn anything unless you leave your comfort zone. And if you make a mistake that's how you learn," he said.

Over the years, Douglas has learned not to be so critical of his work.

"When I started, I wanted to correct my mistakes. At some point I eliminated a lot of my mistakes and got pretty good at it," he said.

It's natural for Douglas to make his next piece better than the last.

"When I'm done, I know I've put my best effort into it," he said.

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