Hilda Bell is not a whittler or a woodworker, she’s a woodcarver, and she’s made that clear over the last 39 years.
Since retiring from nursing in 1980, she’s looked for ways to stay busy. She’s run the gamut of your typical hobbies: painting, knitting and crocheting, but never found much enjoyment in those things. Bell, a Lanier Village Estates resident, decided to pick up woodcarving.
“I picked it up right away, quick and in a hurry,” said Bell, 95, sitting in a recliner in her home, surrounded by wood carvings she’s done over the years. “And the teacher said I was quite fast and quite prolific, too, because I did three times as much in those first three weeks than the other people in the class did.”
She started out the same way as everyone else — with a dog. As soon as she mastered that, along with some other small animals like ducks, she moved on to other classes and began carving larger things. She likes to carve busts now, anything from an American Indian to an explorer or conquistador.
“The first big one I did, he turned out to look like my father-in-law,” Bell said as she pointed to the figure sitting near a plant in her home. “And then … I did another one after that one and it looked like his brother.”
For all of the carvings of animals and other small figures, Bell said she uses basswood, which she said is the softest of the hardwoods. For bigger items, she uses butternut for its “beautiful grain.”
She never uses pine because there’s too much sap in the softwood and she never uses cedar because the texture isn’t consistent throughout, making it difficult to carve.
No matter how hard she tries, she can never make the same carving twice. She said it’s impossible, but she always ends up pleased with how things turn out, though.
“You can carve with anything that works,” Bell said. “And even another piece of wood will smooth another piece of wood like a piece of sandpaper.”
Bell remembers the first first woodcarving show she attended like it was yesterday.
She and her friend had set everything up on a table. She was wasting time, working with a small palm chisel while waiting for the show to open. She said the chisel wasn’t sharp enough — which is when the danger of cutting yourself is elevated — and it slipped, cutting her hand in the process.
A man sitting nearby handed her a handkerchief out of his pocket and helped her to the hospital to get stitches.
“That just goes to prove, it’s blood, sweat and tears that we carve these things with,” Bell said.
She feels like she has to use those manual tools to carve, so she’s OK with the risk. The alternate is using electric tools, but she said “if you use an electric tool, you’re cheating.”
She jokes around with Bill Terry, another Lanier Village resident, who has been carving for about 20 years. His expertise is in animals. He carves ducks, birds and even chipmunks, but he uses an electric tool that spins and shaves away the wood.
“I use a knife every now and then,” Terry, 84, said.
Bell’s carvings usually stay natural, so you can see the grain and the intricate details everywhere, but Terry likes to paint his. He said they come to life that way, especially when he paints the eyes.
“I burn the feathers in with a little burning tool,” Terry said. “And then I paint them white first, and then paint the rest. It takes me as long to paint it as it does to carve it.”
Terry is part of the woodcarving group that meets at Lanier Village. Each person sits around a table, flecks of wood falling to the floor as they carve, helping each other or offering different ideas when needed. Some have been at it for decades, others like Ted Johnson, just six years.
“When I was a kid, I was always carving stuff with a pocket knife,” Johnson, 86, said. “So I had a little interest in it. When I got here, I needed something to do to occupy my time and I saw Bill’s birds and thought that looked like a good waste of time.”
He saw a bronze figurine sitting on a shelf at Lanier Village and took inspiration from that when he was first starting out.
“The guy was leapfrogging, turned the wrong way and I thought to myself you don’t leapfrog that way,” Johnson, said. “So, I carved him and put it like it oughta be.”
Both Terry and Johnson carve smaller figures, but Bell carves larger ones and they take up quite a bit of space, especially as she has moved around since she picked up the hobby. Along the way, she’s made sure to pass down some of the carvings to her four daughters and her grandchildren.
She doesn’t like simply getting rid of them and she would have to charge too much if she sold them, so she makes sure to pass them down and keep them in the family. It takes about 20 hours to do the face of one of her carvings. Once she carves out the rest of the bust, it could be up to 60 hours.
But she likes the flexibility of it and the satisfaction of seeing the final product once she’s done. Even at 95 years old, she’s spends her free time carving and doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon.
“You can forget it for months and then turn around and pick it up again,” Bell said. “And when you think about what you have to start out with and what you end up with, even to the wood carver, is amazing.”