Woodcarving Made Easy!

My father was Norman Peterson, who was a prominent, we might almost say famous, Canadian woodcarver, best known for his signature owls. He carved thousands upon thousands of them.  He started the business in our basement in the mid-sixties, and by 1984 was able to buy a brand new Thunderbird. Cash. At the end of one busy day, he was carrying so much money he joked that he would have to sleep with his overstuffed wallet between his knees to keep it closed. So how can you become a famous, wildly successful woodcarver? He loved to give advice but he’s not around anymore. Here’s what he might have told you, or what he might have said to his younger self:

08-P11982 owls 420160529_0001

A great discovery helps.

Most great discoveries are made by people who are very alert, and ready to be surprised.  Say it’s your wife’s birthday and you decide, admittedly at the last minute, to make her a pair of candlesticks. You take a piece of sumac, which in Southern Ontario grows like a weed and therefore has a very well-defined grain. You cut into the side of the log, making a circular scoop. Suddenly, there is an eye looking out of the log at you, and you don’t know it now, but it’s going to change your life. It’s going to buy you a Thunderbird. Maybe it’s not a candlestick. Maybe it’s an owl.

early edited
Early prototype. You’ll get better at it with practice.

 I’m going to jump in here and explain why the eye came out of the log like that. It will work with any log, but if the log was fast-growing, the growth rings will be farther apart and the lines more distinct. Okay: think of the growth rings of a tree. They’re not rings, they only look like rings on the tree stump. Think of them as TUBES (each tube being one year of growth) that go all the way up the log. Got that? That’s crucial. Now if you cut a circle out of the outermost tube, you will see a circular section of the tube beneath. Cut a slightly smaller circle out of that tube and so on all the way down nearly to the centre. You’ll see concentric circles, then, won’t you? If there is lots of contrasting colour going on between the tubes, lots of light and dark, so much the better. Bingo. Owl’s eye. rough shaped owl

People used to ask him all the time: how do you carve an owl? And he would tell them: get a piece of wood, and then carve away everything that doesn’t look like an owl. I use that advice in many things, including writing, though not as often as I should.


Speaking of sumac…scavenging is savvy!

Use salvaged material and “junk wood” almost exclusively. Go to construction sites and ask to take away the trees they cut down. Sumac (in Southern Ontario) is such a nuisance people will almost pay you to take it away. Go to nearby vineyards and ask if you can cut pieces of the grapevine that’s going to be pruned anyway.  These make nice, gnarly branches for the owls to sit on. Offer to haul away the boards from barns that fell down. Scrounge around on riverbanks for interesting roots. In this way, you need never cut down a living tree and your material costs will be very, very low.

 Be a little like Henry Ford.

 07-P11982 owls 420160529You could be a purist about it and carve everything by hand. Do you know any rich purists? Okay, there have been a couple, but you know from the job you had in marketing that if you make one-of-a-kind pieces, each one will take a long time to make and you will need to charge so much for it that you will have priced yourself out of the market. “Better a nimble sixpence than a slow shilling” as they used to say. The kids are hungry, and you went and quit that marketing job, so hurry up and figure out how to make a lot of carvings fast. Some combination of a small-scale assembly line and hand finishing will do it.


Norm started the business in Niagara Falls, Ontario. He was appalled by the Made-in-Japan souvenirs being sold to tourists and thought how nice it would be if they could buy something hand-crafted and locally made. Trouble was, that Made-in-Japan crap was cheap. By inventing this hybrid of machine work and hand carving, and making them in batches, he could make an owl or a bird or an apple or a letter opener and sell it for five bucks or so. Same price as the Maid of the Mist snow-globe they’re selling in the shops by the Falls. And the owl says “Made in Canada” on the bottom. Joanie 1He called his carvings “affordable collectibles” and after the first few years, he couldn’t keep up with the demand. Turns out people like owls.

 Be Inventive!

Let’s  say you want to create the effect of feathers on the sides of the piece of wood you are turning into an owl. You can’t possibly do that by hand and make more than one of these a week. No power tool exists that will do what you want, therefore you will have to invent a machine. As you expand your line (birds, wooden fruit, plaques, landscapes of barns made out of what? Barnboard of course. The wood is free!), you will invent and adapt many pieces of equipment. There will be something called a flap-wheel that your kids will enjoy making out of sandpaper, there’s a nifty device that cuts thin strips of leather, and an “owl gauge.” Your workshop will look like a medieval torture chamber. Never mind. Turns out the best thing to make the feathering pattern on the owls, and don’t let anybody tell you different, is a circular saw blade on a motor sort of like the motor in your furnace, the whole thing mounted on a big stump.

02-P11982 chattering20160527Thus my father spent a good part of his workday pushing hunks of wood, barehanded, against a circular sawblade that was unguarded in any way. In all those years he suffered only one serious cut. It’s surprising he died with both hands intact, and given the proximity of the blade to his, um, lap…well, he was a very fortunate man.

Hire Your Children!

They will learn useful skills such as how to peel the bark off green sumac, how to peel the bark off grapevine, how to sweep up sawdust, how to answer the phone and deal with customers. They will learn how to polish wooden apples and sand hundreds of tiny little walnut bird wings just so. Don’t let them do the sawblade part though. That would be dangerous.03-P11982 workbench20160527 They can cut the pieces of birds out on the bandsaw, they can fold boxes, make flapwheels, sweep up the sawdust again, make some more flapwheels, and stamp receipt books. See, if you buy blank receipt books and have a rubber stamp made with your address, it’s so much cheaper than having stationery printed. And the kids WILL NOT MIND. Think how glad they’ll be later in life to have these useful skills! They’re making upwards of fifty cents an hour, and lucky to get it. When you think of all the hard work you did on the farm during the depression, eating nothing but lard sandwiches and dragging the cow to the bull and getting up in the night to check the heater in the greenhouse and…

IMG_2575…and don’t forget to be very very appreciative of your wife. She hates math and numbers with a passion, but she will learn basic book-keeping and do your books for you for thirty years. For free. Sometimes she will mind the shop too, though the first time she was in charge of the place, not only did she not sell anything, she bought a calendar from a veteran and ended the day in the hole. Never mind. She’s a fantastically good sport to go along with this cockamamie scheme at all.

Arbitrary pricing!

Okay, you’ve made a tray of thirty owls. You went out and salvaged the wood, let it dry, cut it into lengths, baked it in the oven (to kill any bugs), carved out the eyes and shaped the body, (using an automotive sanding disc, of course). You paid one of your kids to mind the shop while you worked, and clean up the sawdust. You ruffled the feathers on each owl, which is called “chattering” because that’s what it sounds like when you push a hunk of sumac against an unguarded circular saw blade for hours on end. Then you took the whole tray home, and spent a pleasant evening in your la-z-boy watching the game, drinking a beer or two and hand-carving each pointy beak. Then you mounted each owl on a nice gnarly root or piece of grapevine and signed your name on the bottom along with the word “Canada.”


You tell me: how much should we charge for that? Keep it affordable, yes, and raise your prices ever so gradually as your work becomes more popular. But mostly just make it up as you go along.

11-P11982 owls 420160529_0004Some owls are just nicer than others. The bigger the sumac log, the more likely it is to split, so the big ones are rare. That has to be taken into account. And if there are three matching owls mounted on a single piece of grapevine, it doesn’t seem right to just multiply the price of a similar single owl by three, now does it? A set of three good, matched eyes? Those don’t happen every day.

He had by this time made his famous “owl gauge” which was a stick with lines and numbers on it, intended to measure the height of an owl and price it accordingly. It was useless. I notice now that Norm spelled it “guage.” If you had mentioned this to him, out of an earnest desire to help, of course, he would have told you how he only got to grade ten in a one-room school in Narol, Manitoba, and then had to quit to work on the farm and blah blah blah, so best not mention it.

On one of the rare occasions when my Mother was able to convince my Father to travel, my brother Lloyd and I agreed to mind the shop. We were in our early twenties at the time and more or less capable of managing. A customer came in, looked around for a while and then asked, as had thousands of customers before her, “why is this owl more than this one even though it’s smaller?”

My brother, his mouth full of nails as he sat at the workbench trying vainly to mount an owl on a branch as attractively and effortlessly as Norm could, muttered the only logical reply: “Because my Dad’s NUTS.”  We used to say that a lot.

What Norm used to say a lot was this: “It sure beats working for a living.”

Stay tuned for Part Two: Managing Your Fame.

P.S. Happy  Father’s Day.

©2016 Ellen Peterson.


12 thoughts on “Woodcarving Made Easy!”

  1. I still have my owl bookmark. I believe it was bought for me somewhere in Ontario when I was, hm, under 12? Who knew I would someday meet the fine owl creator? Lovely piece. Photos were a bonus. Such a handsome young artisan…


  2. Tears of laughter and joy running down my face!
    He was nuts (the biggest in a box of Bunch’O Nuts)
    And he was the best!!


  3. Why-Not-A.
    There has to be a follow up on the best of his works.
    I still giggle when I remember the drawings and the resulting carvings.

    Last Tag!


    1. AS far as his works go, there’s lots of material: it’s just so hard to pick! There were those “Wooly Doodlers,” remember those? A piece of styrofoam and you poked wool into it with a stick to make a picture? He was a force of nature all right. Could write a whole piece just on the bad jokes. Tagged YOU last.


  4. While reading this wonderful account of owl carving I took a closer look at the owls sitting on our bookcase and have a new appreciation for the feathering work and pointy beaks. Love the photos – one looks oddly familiar.


  5. Hi Ellen. I bought a carved bird on branches today and it says “Peterson Canada” on it and stumbled upon this site when researching it. I could send a photo is you are interested. Thx Joanna


  6. In the 1970s I lived in Chippewa (NF) Ontario. I know right where Mr Petersen’s shop was on the Square. For a long time I had a beautiful piece of his work, two owls, on a gnarly branch. As I got older I realized it would likely be tossed out by whichever distant relative cleared out my home when I was gone. So two years ago I donated the Petersen owls to a collection in Cork City, Ireland. It makes me happy, as much as I love Ireland as well as those owls, to know they will live on in an Irish collection. It was wonderful to read your blog on the owls, to be reminded. I am so happy to have lived so close, for a time, to that amazing artist.


  7. I found one of your dad’s, bird carving on a piece of bark, the birds are beautiful. My maiden name is Peterson, so when I saw your dad’s signature I had to purchase it. It made me think of my dad. My cousin Pam knows your brother Glenn, she told me your dad has passed, so I know both Peterson dad’s are smiling down on us.


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