Master craftsman, artisan, John Sutton talks wood carving

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[October 22, 2015]   LINCOLN - The Logan County Genealogical and Historical Society welcomed wood carver John Sutton to their October monthly meeting Monday. Sutton is nationally known for his artistry with a knife and a gouge, creating intricate wood carvings that can be whimsical or serious.

Sutton began carving as a Cub Scout where he learned the proper way to use a knife on wood. It was not just creating a sharp point on a stick with a pocket knife, but rather drawing the knife against the wood in order to control how the wood can be shaped. He has been at it since, and his works of art have run the gamut from almost dimensional figures to creation and restoration of carousel horses and cigar store Indians.

His reputation is nationwide as evidenced by a project he did for a wealthy individual in San Antonio who wanted his personal carousel restored to its original glory. He shipped seventeen wooden horses to Sutton for restoration. That project took a year. During the project Sutton determined that a previous restoration attempt had involved filling in damage to the horses with plaster. “I could tell the moment I touched the horses that there was something wrong with them. They had a cold feel to them, not the warm touch of wood. I took a large mallet and smacked a horse and the plaster shattered. I had to replace all of that with wood,” he said. Sutton personally returned the wooden carousel horses to their owner after the project was complete, which involved driving through a blizzard to get the job done.

Sutton discussed the many techniques for taking a simple block of wood and turning it into a work of art. “There are two main ways of carving, the European method and the American way,” he said. European is characterized by very intricate design and attention to the smallest detail, while American is characterized by fast carving that takes much less time. Some of the European works take years to complete, sometimes involving making only one cut a day while the carver considers his next move, sort of a chess game with wood. There are even techniques that are common to one country. Swedish carving involves lots of flat planes on the figures.

Carving is such a personal art that Sutton can tell just from the way an object has been carved who the artist was. This was in evidence from his discussion of carousel horses. There were several companies back in the day whose sole business was creating carousels. When he does restoration work on the horses, he can tell from the anatomy of the horse which company was responsible for its creation.

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The two most important tools that a wood carver can have are a gouge and a very sharp knife. “If a knife is razor sharp, you are almost there,” he said with a laugh. Sharpening a knife is a skill that a wood carver needs to develop. The tools needed for sharpening are not expensive, but technique is everything. Sutton buys old leather shoes and belts to use in the sharpening process. The way the knife is pulled against the leather is an art in itself, called stropping. Sutton grinned when he said, “Cutting yourself while sharpening your carving knife is an everyday occurrence. I have bled a lot over the years.”

When asked how a person can get started in learning to carve wood, Sutton said a sharp knife, a few gouges of different sizes, and an easy wood to carve are important. “Bass wood is the easiest wood to carve because it is soft and the grain is easy to read. Learning how the grain of wood affects the carving process is vital,” he said.

Carving clubs offer classes that can help a novice carver learn the basics. There is a local club that meets in Williamsville. With practice, a carver can see the object that is being created in the wood and remove all of the extraneous material. For some very complex projects, Sutton will create the finished project in clay and then transfer the shape to wood. “You can screw up clay and just add more to change the shape, to fix it. With wood, you are taking away material. You only get one chance to get it right with wood,” he said. “I have created a lot of firewood over the years,” he said with a smile.

[Curt Fox]

The Logan County Genealogical and Historical Society meets monthly on the third Monday at 6:30 p.m. at the research facility at 114 North Chicago Street in Lincoln. They always have a fascinating speaker, and the public is always welcome.

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