Virginia Woodcarver Succeeds by Filling Special Needs

Picking up where mass-production carving machines leave off, Fred Wilbur has fashioned a cozy niche for himself in the business of one-of-a-kind hand-made architectural carvings.

By Jean Headley

Fred Wilbur was quick to admit that many of the machine-carved mouldings and pressed plywood ornaments featured in a variety of specialty catalogs scattered in front of him, were of high quality and available at reasonable prices.

"They do some nice stuff. They're not cheap, but they are a lot cheaper than what I can do, because they are all done by machine," Wilbur said.

Pointing to a shop photo from one of the catalogs, Wilbur said, "This guy is copying a model of a lion's head, and he has 40 other routers making these things at the same time. I can't compete with that, and I don't try to."

Specializing in one-of-a-kind carvings and limited multiples, Wilbur does not consider the "catalog carvings" as competition, because he is serving different needs.

"There is nothing wrong with these, but they are machine-made, and if you're a discerning observer you can tell. Also, you know that there are 10,000 others just like this one, elsewhere," Wilbur said. "If you want something unique -- where this lion is smiling or chewing tobacco -- that's where I come in, because I would make it a totally unique lion."

Pointing to an egg-and-dart moulding in one of the catalogs, Wilbur said, "I have done projects where some of this is used, and I've produced matching sections to go around corners and arches. These companies can make all of the straight pieces, but if you need a curved section, then you need someone like me.

"The other thing about this moulding is that you get it in lengths -- you have to miter it and put it together," he added. "Well, the two eggs may not match up at the miter joint. You may have three-quarters of an egg on one side and one-half of an egg on the other. It looks funny when you're looking right at the miter. Traditionally, carvers put a little leaf in the miter. You can't do that on a machined piece, because the machine won't allow for that leaf. When they ship it out in 10-foot sections, they don't know where the miter will be cut. That's the difference. If you want to do a really nice job, then you get someone to hand-make it and lay it out so that it will be symmetrical."

Wilbur also benefits from many of the production carvers' adherence to standard dimensions and woods. "Many of their products don't come in all of the different woods, like walnut for example. They have their standards -- beeches and pines -- but a wood like oak is hard to machine because it is fairly coarse-grained. I have done carvings in koa, sedua, sassafras and sapele."

The limitations of mass-production carvers have provided Wilbur with an array of carving opportunities since he began his business in 1982 in Lovingston, VA. Working with architects, designers and private clients, Wilbur has been commissioned to provide many styles of architectural ornaments for historic restorations as well as for new construction of residences, churches, and public and commercial spaces.

Recent commissions include pulvinated friezes for the Harry Truman Library in Missouri; carvings for the dining room mantle in Howie Long's residence in Charlottesville, VA; and a lion's head newel post for the Margaret Mitchell house in Atlanta.

Although he bills himself as primarily an architectural carver, Wilbur also specializes in decorative carving for churches, signs and furniture, which make up around 35 percent of his business.

After obtaining a master's degree in English Literature during the 1970s, Wilbur said he fell into construction and maintenance work. Interested in woodworking and carving since childhood, he began carving signs for the Wintergreen Ski Resort in central Virginia. This led to so many side jobs, that Wilbur began purchasing equipment to furnish his shop.

"At the time I had a radial arm saw to cut the lumber to length and a router. The other critical piece of equipment I had was an overhead projector," Wilbur said. "I would get architectural press-on letters and press the sign verbiage on a sheet of acetate and project it onto the wood blank so that I could blow it up and manipulate it around arcs or whatever. Then I would hand-rout the letters."

Wilbur purchased a table saw which allowed him to do a greater variety of things, and in 1982 he started his business.

Today, Wilbur's shop consists of an 8-inch Rockwell joiner, Rockwell Unisaw, Powermatic planer, bandsaw, table saw, radial arm saw, General lathe, a Delta bench grinder, and a large array of carver's gouges.

In order to keep his hand tools sharpened, Wilbur has a grindstone which he uses mostly for his turning tools, and a variety of stones, from coarse to fine.

"There is no real scientific rule of how to angle the bevel (on the tool's cutting edge.) If you are working in something soft, you want a pretty long bevel. If it is something hard, you want a shorter bevel because you want greater strength on the edge. The whole point is to get it as thin as you can, but if it's too thin and you are working on a hard piece of wood, then you are asking for trouble," Wilbur said.

"The primary scenario is that a millwork company will fax something to me and we will discuss it to make sure I understand what they want. Then I will quote them a price and, if everything is OK, they will, more often than not, send me the blanks," he said.

"There's a limit to what I can do. Some jobs will be profitable and some won't," added Wilbur, whose annual sales were $50,000 last year. "That's part of the job. It's a constant adjustment of prices, so I try to keep good records for that reason."

"There were a lot of things to learn about the reality of business," Wilbur said. "I have gotten to the point where I've gotten fairly consistent in my estimations."

Recently, when Wilbur had a lot of signs to turn out, he hired an assistant for a short period of time. "That was fine. But, what I realized was that I needed to hit the streets to find work to keep him busy. That was not the role I wanted to play. I have no dream of having a big shop with dozens of people working for me, because that's not what I like to do," he said.

In producing his carvings, Wilbur said, "The depth of relief is the biggest variable. You can make a pretty shallow design fairly quickly, but it doesn't have the depth and roundness of a deeper relief. You have to establish how bold you want it to be, and part of that depends on where the piece is going to go.

"I did some work for the Library of Congress, and the pieces were right between some reference book shelves -- waist-high -- and people would be up close to them, so they needed to be very detailed. Then there are some things, say up around a cornice, that need to be very bold because they are further up and need to stand out more. Also, a lot depends on the lighting, and whether it will be an exterior or interior piece," he added.

"More often than not I don't apply a finish to what I do because my work is part of bigger projects and the entire project is finished all at once," he said. When he does finish his work, he uses oil finishes, gel stains and sign painter's paint.

For many of his signs and his ecclesiastical works, he applies gold leaf.

"There are two processes for applying gold leaf. One is an oil size, in which you put on a varnish and, once that gets tacky, you stick the gold onto it. The other process is water gilding, in which you put down a substrate of gesso, which is a very fine plaster made from a mixture of whiting and animal skin glue. Then you sand it until it's really fine. Then you put down a red clay which is mixed with rabbit skin glue, so that when you wet it, it will be tacky. The gold sticks to this stuff, and then you go back later and burnish it with an agate burnisher to create the shine."

For outdoor signs, Wilbur said he uses the oil size method, because water gilding does not resist weathering. The advantage of water gilding, according to Wilbur, is that you can burnish it until you have a mirror-like shine that can't be achieved with oil.

"There's a definite technique to it. It takes lots of practice, because you have to know your proportions of rabbit skin glue to the whiting and to the clay bole, as well as various temperatures," Wilbur said.

For his sign work, Wilbur also uses a product called Sign Foam, which is a dense urethane foam that can be sawed, filed, sanded and carved. "It works well for exterior applications. Once you prime it and seal it, it's pretty indestructible," he said.

For exterior signage, Wilbur also prefers to use redwood over all other woods, because of its resistance to rot and its stability as far as expansion and contraction.

"I strive for perfection, but at the same time there is a handmade quality I like to keep. With my designs, my tools and my technique, there are going to be irregularities," said Wilbur. "I don't consider what I make 'rustic,' but there are little irregularities that I consider are part of the charm."

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