Out of the wood

WILTON – Woodcarver William Schnute says that a particular piece of wood tells him what it contains, what he can coax out of it. You just have to find it.

“The wood tells me what I need to do as I go along,” he said. You consider the grain of the wood, the texture, the colors. “It also tells me when to quit, when I’ve done enough.”

His current commission, a four-foot by five-foot panel depicting a grape vine from roots to an owl perched on the top, required him to first create the wood to be carved. “You can no longer find one tree that big, and it would take forever to dry properly, if it did.”

So he glued three two-inch-thick planks together to get the required thickness. Now a grape vine is slowly emerging from the slab on his workshop table. An owl he calls ‘Caesar’ is perching on one corner.

The finished panel, which will take Schnute several months to carve, will be installed on a walkway at LaBelle Winery in Amherst. “You can see their beautiful tanks from there,” he said, and he took some inspiration from them.

“They have artificial owls around to scare birds,” he said of Caesar, “and I like to have animals in my work. There will be a chipmunk down by the roots.”

Schnute is the first of what LaBelle call “artists in residents,” he said.”It’s always nice to be first. There is nothing to compare my work to.”

The carved panel will contain several elements to give it authenticity, he said. Slender brass rods were incorporated into the layers of wood to represent the wires the vines grow on. Pieces of the rods show through the carved leaves. “I will find some really nice stones so the roots are growing around them. My theory is, if you can make it different, do so.”

Schnute grew up in the Chicago area where his father was an orthopedic surgeon. “I started carving when I was in the first grade, using one of those little knives from a box of Cracker Jacks. You can learn everything you need to know from that. Then you just need to find the right tools.” And the years of trials and practice.

He attended the University of Iowa, spent 1986 to 1971 in the Army, and in 1974, “I quit everything and went to woodcarving full time” in Carmel, Calif. “That’s not an easy thing to do. We were raising four children.”

“In Carmel we had a wonderful place,” he said, “right on the bay.” But California is a place for the wealthy. “And the kind of people who live there don’t buy carded doors.”

He moved to Wilton 10 years ago. His companion, Robin, was raised in Massachusetts, he said.

“We came here (to visit Frye’s Measure Mill) and saw that this house was available. In the 1850s it was the place they dried lumber and then it was a house.”

They live in the back part and the front room, what was the living room, “makes a wonderful studio. I love old mills and always wanted to live in one. We love it here”

Frye’s Measure Mill is on the tourist circuit, “and they always direct people over here.”

Schnute has done a number of large pieces such as doors for estate houses, mantle pieces and panels for entries. When the economy sank, he said, and people were no longer spending money on carved doors, he turned to smaller pieces “just for fun, the things I wanted to do.”

He displayed a selection of those a year ago at the Wilton Public Library. A favorite of that show was a barn owl flying through the opening through a broken window.

“Everyone with a barn with a broken window has barn owls,” he said.

There is a lady in Wilton, he added. “She had to have a walnut tree taken down and asked me to carve a squirrel from a piece of it. That is a nice thing to do.”

People today have “little comprehension of making something by hand,” he said, the time involved as compared to ordering a door from a company that just makes doors. “They don’t see that it comes out of a pile of wood.” They have no feeling for the time that it takes to create something.

He has been working on the LaBelle panel for about six weeks and it will take at least another two months to complete.

“I use an air gun to do the rough work. It would take forever if I did it all with the gouge.”

A selection of chisels, or gouges, line the work space.

“I haven’t decided on a finish,” he said. “I don’t like colors. I like the wood and the shadows” and the nuances of the natural finish. “(The final result) depends on how it weathers. The first finish will be a thin layer of epoxy. I use a heat gun to soak it in. I don’t like a finish that builds up on the surface. The epoxy seals the wood, and to me it strengthens the wood so I can carve thinner, finer details.”

A glimpse of the finished panel is there on his worktable: the textured grape leaves, the twining stems, the spaces that reach through the panel for more texture. It is a work of art, and love of wood.

William Schnute can be reached at Oak Leaves Woodworking Studio, 654-7543.