Its left talons locked in a dead quail, the Cooper’s hawk glares from its wooded perch at the Old Town home of George and Lucille Snedden.
“He’s full size,” says 85-year-old George Snedden, a Fairhaven, Mass. native who served in the Navy during World War II and moved to Maine in 1954 to sell Narragansett Beer. Snedden, who admires the hawk’s fierce gaze and ruffled-feather stance, knows the raptor quite well.
After all, he carved the hawk and quail in painstaking detail …
… as he did the trout swimming near them, plus so many other birds, fish, and mammals that Snedden has lost count.
Not long after George retired as a Pepsi-Cola sales manager in 1991, the Sneddens visited the Wendell Gilley Museum in Southwest Harbor. Fascinated with the intricate details and realism evident in the museum’s Gilley-carved wildlife exhibit, George Snedden took up a new hobby: carving.
“To take a piece of wood and come out with something like this,” he says, pointing to the life-size Cooper’s hawk and its prey, “it’s an incredible sense of accomplishment.
“I’ve always worked with my hands,” Snedden says. “I made Lucky Scott (named for his sons) fly fishing rods for 42 years as a hobby.”
He describes Gilley as “one of the first national power carvers. He was a plumber” who “used to duck hunt. He carved duck decoys; then he got into [carving] feathers.”
Commuting from home, Snedden attended Saturday classes taught by Steven Valleau, the museum’s resident carver. After “I heard about the Vermont Raptor Academy,” Snedden took classes taught each summer in Vermont by Floyd Scholz.
“He is a world-class carver … the best of the best, believe me,” Snedden says.
Carvers often specialize. Some focus on caricatures, emblems, or gunstocks. Like many other carvers, Snedden specializes in wildlife, particularly birds and fish, and his creations now appear in businesses and homes in Maine and as far afield as Florida, Idaho, and Michigan.
According to Snedden, a carving begins in the carver’s mind. “First you’ve got to decide what you want to do,” he explains. Then he must find wood large enough to provide the dimensions for his intended carving.
“I can look at wood and ‘see’ what’s inside it, what I can carve from it,” Snedden says. He uses patterns to make specific wildlife; depending on a carving’s size, he may take a pattern to Northeast Reprographics in Bangor to be enlarged or shrunk.
For larger carvings that require two pieces of wood, Owen Gray & Son in Brewer can plane the pieces, which Snedden then cements together before he starts carving. “Most ducks are two pieces of wood,” he says.
Carvers prefer different woods. “You need a hardwood; you need the grain,” Snedden says. “I like to carve tupelo, but you can’t cut it with a knife; there’s no grain.” He purchases tupelo harvested in Tupelo.
“For the fine grain, basswood is really the best [wood] we have local,” he says, noting that basswood “comes from a linden tree” that grows in Maine. He recently purchased basswood from a Milo sawmill.
Snedden cures wood to avoid splitting it. Curing might take a year; he recently stacked in his workshop a load of wood that he will not touch until 2013.
He purchases his supplies from MDI Woodcarvers Supply, a mail-order business with a Pittsfield post-office box address. Owner Wayne Edmondson “has everything a carver needs,” Snedden says, leafing through a catalog.
Investing long hours in each carving, a carver works meticulously, gradually removing a bit of wood here and a bit of wood there until the desired carving begins to emerge from the original wood block. Snedden’s largest power tool is a JET band saw; he utilizes many other tools, from knives and “extra sharp” palm chisels to micro molders, which are hand-held power tools that operate drill bits; Snedden estimates that he has more than 200 drill bits “and perhaps 20 knives.”
“I’ve got all my fingers,” he jokes. “I haven’t lost a hand yet.”
Snedden sits at his work bench to demonstrate a RAM micro molder, which turns at 3,500 rpm. Over his head he slides specialized magnifying glasses that help him see the close-up work; afflicted with macular degeneration, Snedden has made adaptations to his workshop so that he can still read the words printed on patterns and also perform the pay-attention-to-detail craftsmanship evident in all his carvings.
Before he starts the micro molder, Snedden turns on his vacuum system, which sucks sawdust through a grate he placed in the center of his work bench. Then he switches on the micro molder and, as the attached drill bit spins, carefully touches up a partially carved black bear head.
While carving a bird, Snedden uses a burner to painstakingly create feathers. “Burning is a big part of doing it right,” he says.
A carver may work with metals, too. Snedden created an exquisite flowering plant from which two hummingbirds are extracting nectar. The plant’s leaves and stems are made from metal, the hummingbirds from wood. Highly detailed right down to their feathers, the hummingbirds pause in mid-flight to sap the nectar.
His eyesight now prevents Snedden from painting his carvings; he outsources that detail to Milford taxidermist Ann Reinzo. Snedden praises her painting skill; “it’s incredible, how she captures the bird or fish,” he says.
Only twice a year does Snedden publicly display his carvings: at the March sportsmen’s show sponsored by the Penobscot County Conservation Association and at the American Folk Festival, held each August in Bangor. Snedden and another carver, Dr. Edward M. Harrow, M.D., set up shop at the AFF; according to Snedden, “Dr. Ed” does “relief carving.”
Both men also belong to a local carver’s group that meets Fridays in Brewer. Participants work on various projects and discuss techniques and other issues related to carving.