In the skillful hands of Tieton woodcarver Norman Brown, a simple block of wood is transformed into a thing of beauty.
In his workshop on the banks of Cowiche Creek, set in the midst of a flourishing fruit and vegetable garden, Brown, 55, creates wondrous things. A chunk of sycamore comes to life as two jumping trout are suspended in mid-flight above a wood base. A large piece of elm becomes a 24-inch bowl in the shape of a scallop shell, its varnished ridges shimmering in the light. A rough block of apple wood morphs into a silky smooth, long-handled spoon, fit for a gourmet kitchen.
After some 27 years in the woodcarving business, Brown really knows wood — its strengths and weaknesses, its grain and its ultimate potential. Perhaps his remarkable eye for detail was honed in his previous career as a laboratory scientist in cities including Silverton, Ore., and Yakima. As a medical scientist he spent countless hours peering through a microscope lens, studying the colors and intricate patterns of samples, in order to identify disease processes. In 2006 he took up woodworking on a full-time basis.
When working with wood, the detail is still important, but the process is much more fun.
Brown’s interest in wood began when he was a child, growing up in Yakima. He helped his dad build everything from horse corrals to nest boxes for the pigeons they raised. As a teenager, he assisted his grandfather with home construction projects. While pursuing his B.S. in biology and B.A. in allied health sciences at Central Washington University, he began working on scale-model buildings, primarily half-timber designs with a French or German flair. He even taught woodworking for a time in Silverton and Salem, Ore.
But his joy of creating with wood really began as a child, when he made toy boats for his two younger brothers to sail in nearby irrigation ditches.
“Some of the boats actually floated,” he recalled with a smile.
Through the years, Brown kept his hand in woodworking, crafting a yard swing or an Adirondack chair here, a table or desk there. Now, he can happily immerse himself in wood shavings from morning till night — and often does. He even mentors a couple of students each year who are interested in everything from decorative wood carving to more general skills.
He teaches them that the art of woodworking begins long before a piece of wood actually lands on a sawhorse or table in his shop. First, he must find the wood.
“Sometimes, I race bulldozers as they pull down pear and apple trees in the fall,” he said. “Or, a tree service may call me. One time, a friend called and said, ‘Get this stuff (wood) out of our garage, so my wife can park her car.’” A single log can weigh thousands of pounds, so “I try to keep it under a ton,” he commented. Elm, walnut, ash, sycamore, fruit wood — it all has potential for a beautiful new life in Brown’s hands.
His analytical eye goes to work when he first spots his raw material.
“You start by ‘reading the bark of a tree,’ the pattern and detail, to determine whether the tree might contain straight pieces that could be made into spoons or lumber for furniture,” he explained. “You’re also looking for the potential of decorative pieces, using the crotch of a tree (with a fan-like pattern) or a burl. When I look at a piece of wood, I see the grain, possible shapes. You have to think, ‘What is the end product?’”
One of his favorite creations is a “fish bowl,” a 29-inch-long piece of English walnut with a shallow indentation in the shape of a fish. The moment he saw the grain of the wood, he knew that this piece was destined to be a fish, he said.
Once the wood is carted back to his shop, there is the aging process to consider. If wood dries too quickly, it may crack. Depending upon the final product he has in mind, and the type of wood, he may need to age the wood as long as one year for every inch of thickness. Black plastic covers and periodic misting with water help keep the wood in optimum condition.
Occasionally, Brown uses a power tool, such as a chain saw. However, the bulk of his work is done with myriad hand tools such as chisels, gouges and hand planes. His shop is a veritable tool store, with meticulously arranged drawers and walls of implements. For example, he has some 75 hand saws.
Creation with wood tends to have a seasonal flow, Brown observed. In the fall, he gathers wood. During the winter, he carves bowls (including apple-shaped bowls made of apple wood), spoons and other items. In spring, he often receives furniture commissions for pieces such as Mission-style chairs and tables. And, both in summer and at Christmas time, Brown and Janet, his wife of 35 years, make the rounds to about 60 craft shows, festivals and fairs to sell his creations and also exhibit the antique tools he collects.
The long-handled spoons, which can be made in a couple of hours each, tend to be the biggest seller, going for about $18 to $20. Some of the more intricate, larger pieces such as shell-shaped bowls (which may be sold on the Internet or in person) take years of ongoing work and sell for as much as several thousand dollars.
It’s fun to watch potential customers at a craft show or fair pick up one of his spoons, Brown said.
“You can tell if someone is a really good cook, because they will close their eyes, hold the spoon and make stirring motions in the air, kind of like air guitar,” he said.
Ken Tolonen, a customer and former coworker, says Norm’s woodwork resonates with the same skill and precision he showed as a scientist. “They’re unique and they’re beautiful,” said Tolonen of Brown’s pieces. “... the grain of the wood, the color of the wood, the workmanship.”
Working with wood does have some minor liabilities: a heavy log injuring a finger, or spending hours on a particular piece only to find that there is a flaw deep inside the wood and the entire project must be scrapped.
However, the joy of creation and other benefits far outweigh the risks, Brown contends.
“This is a stress-reducer and good physical exercise,” he said. “There’s nothing like working with a chunk of wood and an ax to make you feel better. You put in 12-hour days and work until you can’t lift your arms in the air anymore. You almost feel guilty because it feels so good.”
Brown’s creations can be found at etsy.com/shop/normanlbrown.