Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer
Frank Whitcomb had his hands on wood all his life. He maintained and renovated structures. But when the 80-year-old retired a few years ago, he decided to transition from practical application to artistry.
A half-a-year seasonal resident, along with his wife, Betty, Whitcomb has a meticulously organized, detached woodworking shop at his home just off Highlands Road. It is there that he made birdhouses for a while, until cedar became too expensive. Currently, his shop is equipped with an inventory of about a dozen different woods from all over the world, including zebra, black walnut, and monkey pod, ordered from a Wisconsin supplier. Whitcomb uses the different hues, densities, and textures to craft painstakingly detailed likenesses of animals and birds.
“I just heard about [wood art] and started experimenting with it,” said Whitcomb. “At first, I had to throw away lots of attempts. I would zig when I should have zagged and zag when I should have zigged,” he quipped.
Whitcomb is talking about the precision saw, called a scroll saw, that he uses to cut through the wood based on an intricate pattern. He either uses already established patterns, such as ones by Tennessee woodworker Judy Gale Roberts, or he makes a pattern – such as that of a beloved pet – out of a photographic likeness. The pattern might include dozens of larger to minute pieces that, when cut, fit together like a puzzle. But after Whitcomb cuts each piece out of selected woods that best convey the image, he has to then carefully sand them to precision in order to create the wood art. Finally, he finishes each piece so that the wood grains and colors shine.
“I spend at least six hours a day out here [in the shop], and it takes me a week or two to complete each piece,” said Whitcomb. “But I enjoy working with wood and it keeps me busy … gives me a sense of accomplishment in my retirement years.”
While he frequented craft shows post-pandemic in order to present and sell his wares, Whitcomb said opportunities have been few this past year. Still, he is able to sell his wood art pieces, which fetch around $50 each, by word of mouth and commissions.
Plus, he gives them away as gifts to family members and friends.
“We have two daughters, five grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren, and they all want pieces,” he said. “The children especially love the animals.”
Whitcomb also displays wood art pieces in his home and shop and garage. And a likeness of him, “my self-portrait,” hangs over the entrance to his woodworking shop.
Last year, during the 2020 quarantine, Whitcomb fashioned whimsical animals into cell phone stands. He admits that the “toughest” wood art subject so far has been a lion.
“Getting all the colors right in the mane and the waves of the mane … that was a challenge.” He added that art focusing on hummingbirds is his best seller.
Whitcomb would like to see more young people interested in wood crafts and art, and he has tried to teach the skills necessary. However, he said woodworking requires “patience and hand/eye coordination. I try to encourage young people, but if it’s not happening on a computer; they lose patience before they learn the skills. It took me a few years to perfect the work. All that time, you’re getting better and better. But they don’t want to stick with it.”
Whitcomb has not met anyone else in the surrounding area who creates art using wood. He plans to continue to create art with wood for as long as possible and – even though he only makes enough money on each piece to cover the cost of the wood – he conveyed that the fact that people own and enjoy his creations is satisfaction enough.