Spuds and duds

Like a lot of guys of my generation, I was a Cub Scout. At least I was one, officially. In reality, I wasn’t much of one at all. I don’t recall ever getting any kind of badges, except the ones for showing up and breathing, nor did I gain any observable skills. But I did have fun.

My den mother was Laurie Williams – we all called her Aunt Laurie, and she was a doll. She was energetic, organized and sweet. And most importantly, she had the patience of a saint, if not the lot of a martyr. I mean, let’s face it: Filling your house with a bunch of pre-adolescent boys – even for an hour a week – is as daunting as doing stand-up comedy at an Al Qaeda training camp.

Nonetheless, Aunt Laurie did a great job. When we showed up, she always had specific things planned. As I recall, they were mostly craft projects, and challenging ones at that. In fact, they were so challenging, I never did them well. Unfortunately, that’s because crafts require two things I didn’t have at the time – patience and an attention span. But even if I never had anything tangible to show for my efforts, I was left with a lot of fond memories – my fondest being the Pinewood Derby.

The Pinewood Derby was a miniature car race, where two cars at a time ran side-by-side down a ski-jump-shaped course. And since we were craftsman-in-the-making, we had to make the racers ourselves. They came as a kit with a rectangular pine block and a set of wheels, and we had to shape its final form.

It was an all-American boy’s dream-come-true since we had to work with our mothers’ worst nightmare – a pocket knife. This was my first full-fledged adventure in carving, and as I recall I did about as good a job on my thumb and index finger as I did on the wood.

No matter; I finished it. I painted it candy-apple red and put a bright-yellow lightning bolt on each side. The lightning bolts were totems, of course, the idea being they’d somehow imbue my car (which I named, most originally, Big Red) with the speed that’d make it a surefire winner. It turned out no winner at all. And while at first I thought it looked like it’d been designed by Raymond Loewy himself, after the derby I realized it looked instead like a bright-red potato.

But here’s the thing: While I never gained any craft skills from my Cub Scout endeavors, I did gain an appreciation for them and the values to be had by doing them, however poorly. At the least I realized how much work goes into successful crafting and how persistent and patient a person must be to produce good work.

Return to wood

Over the years I’ve tried a myriad of crafts and while I’ve never mastered any, I’ve learned a lot, have enjoyed myself, and have regarded each new one as a great adventure. Ironically, in light of my Pinewood Derby failures, my most recent adventure is wood carving.

This time, with an extra 55 years’ experience, I approached carving more sensibly and systematically. And with the internet, it’s easy to do. If you want to find out about something, it’s there. All you have to do is find it, compare it to others in its class, and it’s almost impossible to make a poor decision. Luckily, there’s an entire world of carving I never knew about, but readily discovered on the net.

First, I needed to get the right tools. I know cheap tools are worthless, since they never work or hold up well, but I also know you can pay a small fortune for tools that are beyond what you really need. So what to do? Simple. I looked up starter sets at various woodworking suppliers; then I checked their reviews on various other sites. After I had a good idea of what I needed, what was well-made, and what was in my price range, I put in my order. Moreover, with the tools, I ordered a Kevlar glove: As the website said, a glove is a whole lot cheaper than a visit to the emergency room.

with dubious results

Next, I needed instructions. I found a bunch of websites, downloaded information, and kept studying it till the tools arrived. Once they did, it was time to actually carve something.

I started with basic designs and letterings – really simple stuff – just trying to figure out how to use the tools. It was harder than I thought, and my results were only so-so. But I carved every day, and every day I improved at least a little. I made good use of the tools – and even better use of my Kevlar glove.

Finally, after a few weeks, I decided to attempt something more complicated, something artistic. Having no idea where to begin, I checked the net again and eventually called a small woodcarving company in Tennessee that had a fine selection of books. The owner was knowledgeable and friendly and only too willing to help out a beginner.

“I see you’ve got a book called ‘Fun Figures,'” I said, “Is that a good choice?”

“Not really,” he said. “It’s not for beginners.”

“Oh,” I said. “How about “Dogs, Dogs, Dogs'”

“Also not for beginners.”

“OK,” I said. “So what do you recommend?”

“The one on wood spirits,” he said.

And that was it. I ordered it and felt like a little kid, waiting for it to arrive. When it did, I studied it for a long time. The book was laid out perfectly for a beginner, showing photos of each step, telling what tool to use on what cut, and what the proportions were.

The carvings themselves are wonderful to look at. They’re faces only, but of charming, other-worldly characters with unconventional but benign features, long hair, and huge flowing beards. In fact, they look a lot like my pal Ronnie Hamann, and who could resist a wood carving of him? For sure, not me.

So I got out the wood, drew a basic sketch on it, and started carving, following each step exactly or what seemed like exactly to me. Sadly, my carving wasn’t exact at all.

A quick note about woodcarving: It’s not like any other art I’d ever done. You can’t erase; you can’t coat or cover it. If you make a mistake, even a little one, it’s hard to correct – if you can correct it at all. Big gashes can’t be un-gashed, and if you slip and take a chunk off a nose, for example, you’ve just trashed the entire face (unless of course mono-nostrilled people are your secret fantasy).

I didn’t take huge chunks out of anything, but I didn’t really do anything well. And remember, I wasn’t trying to carve something like a peace sign – I was trying to carve out a person, and a living person at that. Unfortunately, I fell far short of the mark.

First, the lips didn’t look like lips. The nose didn’t look much like a nose either. The eyes sort of looked like eyes, set not in a face, but in an amorphous blob.

It reminded me of something, but I couldn’t think what.

I stared at it, moved it this way and that, and stared at it some more. Finally, it came to me: It looked like my Pinewood racer. In other words, it looked like a potato! I’d tried to recreate a human face, and ended up with a stripped-down, wooden Mr. Potato Head!

So what to do with it?

Well, I’ve been able to come up with only one idea: I’ll give it to the famous potato farming family of Gabriels, the Tuckers, and tell them I created it especially for them.

After that, I can only hope that none of them read my column.