CWB May 2000

 

Custom Carver Bruce Alexander's GÇÿCanvas' Is Wood

In his South Dakota studio, Alexander produces carvings to enhance mantles, furniture and cabinets, as well as some stand-alone sculptural pieces.

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

 

At an annual convention of the Safari Club International, to which Alexander belongs, he poses by one of the animals on display.

Custom wood carver Bruce Alexander had another life before taking up carving 15 years ago. He was in the restaurant and nightclub business in New Jersey, but says he yearned for a more laid-back lifestyle for himself, his wife and five children, which eventually brought him to woodworking.

Alexander, who has painted and drawn all his life, says he discovered that his "flat art" talents translated well to the three-dimensional work of wood carving. He began by carving duck decoys, but quickly ruled that out as a career because the field is so crowded.

He settled into an area known as bas relief carving, which he explains "is a technical term for an old form of sculpture done on panels, rather than in the round. The work is three-dimensional, but you see one side instead of the entire view." Roughly 95 percent of what he does falls into this category, he says.

One of his first clients was a woodworking acquaintance who frequently included carving in his work. "I told him that his piece was great, but the carving could be better. He said that if I could do a better job, he would hire me. I have been doing his carvings ever since," Alexander says.

He sold his New Jersey business and moved to Loomis, SD, where he built his prairie studio and began to create works of art in wood.

"My painting background helped me immensely with my carving," Alexander says. "It taught me about light, shadows and composition."

 

For this 10-foot-long Honduran mahogany credenza, which was built to match the owner's mahogany antiques, Alexander carved ornaments that combined beast heads and lion heads that were featured on the originals. The credenza, built by a cabinetmaker in Rapid City, SD, was stained a dark color to match the antiques.

He specializes in realistic wildlife and outdoor scenes. His work is custom and his commissions span a wide range of work. "I'll carve anything," Alexander says cheerfully.

Jobs can vary from remodeling projects to new installations for wholesale and retail customers. His carved work includes architectural elements, furniture panels, headboards, wall decorations and custom door panels. Carved fireplace mantles are especially popular items, as are columns and capitals. Alexander works in all styles from traditional to contemporary, providing the design work or working from existing designs. He is becoming well known for his true-to-life wildlife scenes and is also adept at antique reproduction.

Approximately 75 percent of his work is in collaboration with custom cabinetmakers. Alexander says custom carvings are a great way to personalize a room. His work is frequently displayed in trophy rooms, dens, offices and bedrooms. "Mine is definitely a niche market in woodworking," he says.

Alexander works directly with the clients even when he is doing work for a cabinetmaker's project. "The cabinetmaker has probably shown the client my brochures," he says, "but I call the customer directly and work with him. I don't have an ego. If I am doing the design, I try to draw out the customer, interviewing him or her about interests and lifestyle. I will do a preliminary drawing and encourage the client to make changes.

"Some people are reluctant to make any changes," he adds. "I assure them that they won't hurt my feelings. I work with the client from concept to completion, to give them a one-of-a-kind wood-carved statement. Once we get a working drawing, the cabinetmaker sends me a panel or portion of the piece I will be carving."

Alexander works with any wood the client specifies, and that has led him to work with some very difficult woods, he says. "Working with padauk, I have to wear a mask. Rosewood gives off an irritating dust and has a very strong odor. I especially like hardwoods. They hold detail well when carving and give a beautiful end result. Good quality Honduran mahogany is one of my favorites. It works well, holds detail and is a little softer than some hardwoods.

"I do a lot of work with yachts, ranging from carving the ID sign for the stern to work for the salons, dining rooms, bedrooms and bars," he adds. "Decorative wall hangings with nautical themes are also popular. Just about anything you would find in a home can be found on a yacht. Decorative carved elements are especially common for the nicer yachts. It is a touch that personalizes." Alexander says Honduran mahogany is often used for yacht work.

Probably the majority of his work is carvings for fireplace mantles. "A mantle is often the focal point of a room," he says. "I can do a very individualized custom design that will enhance the overall look of a room."

Nautical themes are popular with clients. Alexander, for example, has carved a 20-inch by 48-inch wall decoration of the clipper ship the Maine Quay (circa 1850) out of Honduras mahogany for one customer. Other commissions include signs, humidors, coats of arms, wood sculptures and art featuring religious motifs.

Those projects are complete pieces that Alexander produces. He also carves smaller pieces which become an element of a larger piece. Such work has included claw feet and legs for a piece of furniture, rosettes for a piece of moulding, intricately carved tops for cabinets and the carved front and sides of a desk.

One of his most unusual requests was for a large panel featuring a representation of a garbage truck. "The client owns one of the world's largest refuse companies in the country," he says.

Alexander designed these entry doors so that when they are closed, the scene carries across from one side to another. He recalls that the owner was very pleased with the design. The doors are padauk.

A recent assignment found him carving a youth bed, commissioned by a woman for her grandchild. "The design was quite involved, with twisted pencil posts adorned with squirrels. The headboard and footboard featured Mother Goose characters," he says. Alexander also carved the child's name and birth date into the wood.

The entire project was made of Honduran mahogany. But when it came time to select a stain, the client couldn't decide on a color and instead had Alexander paint the bed white. "It turned out beautifully, but Honduran mahogany is not a wood you usually see painted," he says.

Alexander's animal carvings have attracted a lot of interest for their authenticity and fine detail. "African elephants, herds of buffalo, tigers and other animals are challenging to do but rewarding," he says. Alexander especially values his art background for these jobs, which often begin with research into various species so that his work is true to life.

"Animals figure prominently in my designs, and many of my clients are big game hunters," he adds. "When you carve animals, it is very important that the work is anatomically accurate. I study wildlife magazines, animal photographs and visit taxidermists and museums. When I have an opportunity, I ask a knowledgeable person to critique my work. I like to get feedback from the experts who know the animals from their experiences in the wild."

Alexander says that he especially appreciates a comment made by a wildlife art dealer from Nairobi, who complimented his work on an African leopard and a springbok. When he is asked to name the most challenging animal to carve, Alexander says that each assignment is equally challenging. "Animals are probably the most exacting work I do."

In terms of the tools of his trade, Alexander says, "I use whatever tools it takes to do the best job. I am not one of the traditionalists who believes in using only chisels and knives. I experiment and I have found that I can do some carving with power tools. The results are more accurate and the work is done faster and easier."

Alexander is self-educated in the art of carving. "I have spent a lot of time researching the process of carving and studying the work and techniques of the Old Masters," he says. "When people question my use of power tools, I tell them that if Michelangelo had the tools we have today, he would have used them. I think of myself as a carver and also a sculptor of wood."

Once a working drawing is approved by the client, Alexander uses carbon paper and transfers the design to wood. He usually makes his first cuts on the piece using a router. "I use a Makita router primarily to get the full depth from the flatness. I will use other smaller routers later when I am doing fine work. After the initial routing, I use a die grinder with a carbide bit to rough out the design further," he says.

He then uses Dremel tools featuring a flexible shaft to further refine the work, which is recognizable at this point, but lacking in all the detail of the finished piece. Next, he uses a micromotor tool by Ultima. This is a refining step, he says.

The tool which gives the final details and finish work is an ultra high-speed, 400,000-rpm pneumatic air tool. "Several tools that I use are from the dental industry. After I left the restaurant business, I worked in a dental lab and I picked up tools and ideas that helped me with carving. They may seem unrelated, but dental work is very intricate and so is carving," he says.

Alexander finishes some of the pieces in his studio. But pieces that are part of a larger job are sent unfinished to be assembled and finished on site.

Because of the custom nature of his work, prices vary from job to job, depending on the wood used. But as a rule, Alexander says he charges $4 to $5 per square inch of carved area.

Alexander has been working as a carver for 15 years, but only started doing it full-time five years ago. He works in his studio six days a week, often working 12-hour days with only an hour break for lunch. "I try to leave the studio by 6 p.m.," he says. "I have to be arbitrary and put down the work. I find you have to get away from it or you risk burnout."

The early years of learning the art of carving were tough, he adds. "My wife, an insurance broker, thought I was nuts at times to attempt this career. But it has worked out well for all of us. We enjoy the pace of life out west. This is a great place to raise a family."

There is a high-tech element in Alexander's work. He uses an IBM computer and scanner, which he says has helped him in several areas. "The computer is a timesaver. I can scan in my drawings and enlarge or reduce them on the computer instead of manually doing things to scale.

"Having e-mail is also a great timesaver," he adds, "since I can send drawings, photos and designs to clients for approval." In addition, Alexander built a Web site for his business two years ago, www.customwoodcarving.com, filled with colorful photos of his work.

When he isn't carving wood, Alexander has a side business which also is unusual - carving wildlife scenes in ostrich eggs, which he finishes or paints. This enterprise also showcases his impressive artistic talents and exacting attention to detail.

 

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