Friendswood woodcarver creates lifelike pieces
John Walker’s workshop in his Friendswood garage is loaded with blocks of tupelo wood and specialized power tools.
As a woodcarver, he spends long hours turning out works of art — mainly birds and flowers — that are so precise, people often ask him, “Are those real?”
His “Hibiscus with Hummingbird” won Best of Show 3D in the Galveston Art League’s Spring Juried Show in May. It was the first time in four years that a free-standing, three-dimensional work had been selected as the premier entry in an Art League juried contest.
His two doves in flight, titled “Dancing on Air,” won First Place 3D in the Galveston Art League’s Fall Juried Show in September.
But Walker didn’t come by his talent easily.
Walker, 64, didn’t get interested in carving until he was teaching high school in La Porte about 30 years ago. He met world champion woodcarver Carey Gray, who became his mentor, but the mentorship had its difficulties.
“My first carving of a dove that I showed to Gray was a blow to my ego,” Walker said. “Gray took one look at it and threw it in the trash.”
Gray, who also was a taxidermist, had an extensive knowledge of the anatomy of birds and was extremely meticulous. Although Gray continued to encourage Walker to improve his skills, Walker felt intimidated and shelved the hobby for a while.
It wasn’t until Walker took a job working in medical sales that a light bulb went off, he said.
“I progressed into assisting surgeons who specialized in facial reconstructive surgery,” he said. “I watched the doctors and was amazed at the details and intricacies that went into those surgeries, and thought, that’s the way I should approach wood carving.”
Today, Walker has carved 40 to 50 pieces, and sold about 90 percent of them.
“Time is the key word here, because carving is something that requires a tremendous amount of patience,” he said. “One piece can take several months to complete.”
His finished pieces are amazingly lifelike.
“With birds, I use calipers, measure the length of the wing, the beak; look at the feathers and examine every detail,” he said. “I do a lot of research before I ever begin carving.”
Since retiring in February of this year, Walker has more time to devote to mastering his craft.
“I use a bandsaw, flexible shaft tools for shaping, and high-speed detailing tools for texturing,” he said. “After texturing, I use a burning pen to burn up to 50 lines per inch to create an appearance of softness for the feathers. That’s why people want to touch the carving to see if it’s really wood.”
Walker finishes his carvings with an airbrush, paint brushes and acrylics. It isn’t unusual for him to spend 10 to 12 hours carving just one flower.
There is one piece, however, that Walker will never sell.
“I got engaged to my wife, Nancy, over five years ago,” he said. “It was Christmastime, and when she opened her present, she thought she was just getting a bird and flower carving I had made, but I told her to look closer and she saw an engagement ring inside the stamen of the flower. She was totally surprised.”